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Adam Nicolson, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (London: William Collins, 2015)
Homer will enlarge your life. Homer is on a scale that stretches across human time and the full width of the human heart. Homer is alive in anyone who is prepared to attend. Homerity is humanity …
Why another book about Homer? Why go for a walk? Why set sail? Why dance? Why exist? (26)
The degree to which this is a passionate personal engagement with Homer is revealed in the opening chapter titles: Meeting Homer, Grasping Homer, Loving Homer, Seeking Homer and Finding Homer. Nicolson introduces us to ‘my Homer’: not the Homer of ‘current orthodoxy’ but one who is both much older (a thousand years or so) and much closer. By the time Nicolson has taken us on his discovery of this other, older poet, he becomes ‘our’ Homer.
This is a Homer who, with wisdom and compassion, tackles a clash of civilizations, a kind of ‘big bang’ exploding the Greek apogee into existence before then expanding to create European culture. Nicolson traces a cultural, linguistic and material legacy the early Greeks inherited from the semi-nomadic warriors who swept down from the Eurasian steppes, encountering the existing and more sophisticated city and palace civilization of the eastern Mediterranean. In this reading, Troy is the city, the Establishment – order, sophistication, and elegance – while the Greeks on the beach are the barbarians at the gate, the gang.
That is the essential picture of the Iliad, a great history cloth, a tapestry of sorrow, in which the non-city is set against the city, where the marginal and contingent confronts the settled and the secure. (110)
Nicolson shows the Greeks waxing and waning between raw-boned northern roots and the civilized impulses of a relatively new homeland. Odysseus, that quintessential Greek hero, can come across as a rough upstart, not quite making it into the premier league of kings and princes. His flashes of violence-relishing murderousness fly in the face of the smooth-talking fixer-diplomat, let alone the genuinely loving son, father and husband.
The idea I have pursued is that the Homeric poems are legends shaped around the arrival of a people – the people that through this very process would grow to be the Greeks – in what became their Mediterranean homeland. The poems are the myths of the original Greek consciousness, not as a perfect but as a complex, uneasy thing. (xviii)
Nicolson also explores the nature of epic poetry with piercing sensitivity; how it works, and why it (still) matters.
This is also a book about epic poetry, and the value of epic in our lives. Epic is not an act of memory, not merely the account of what people are able to recall, since human memory only lasts three generations: we know something of our grandparents, but almost nothing, emotionally, viscerally, of what happened in the generations before them …
Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present with the past: it is the attempt to extend the quality of memory over the reach of time embraced by history. Epic’s purpose is to make the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now. (xix)
The scale of The Mighty Dead is captured in the preface: ‘Homer tells us how we became who we are’ (xvii). The book is brimming with fresh, profound and beautifully articulated historical and literary insights; read it before reading, or re-reading, Homer.
These epics are a description, through a particular set of lenses, of what it is like to be alive on earth, its griefs, triumphs, sufferings and glories. (xxi)
Do we surrender to authority? Do we abase ourselves? Do we indulge the self? Do we nurture civility? Do we nourish violence? Do we love? Homer says nothing in reply to those questions; he merely dramatizes their reality. The air he breathes is the complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy, as he repeatedly says, of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you. (251)
See also our quote-woven celebration of another book by Adam Nicolson, his magnificent Sea Room.
The Sirens are wise to that: they know the longing in his heart. The prospect of clear-cut heroism summons him and he struggles to escape his bindings. But his men, like the poem itself, know better, and they tie him tighter to his ship. They won’t be wrecked on the illusions of nostalgia, on the longing for that heroised, antique world, because, as the Odyssey knows, to live well in the world, nostalgia must be resisted: you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for a wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life. (6)
Thank you, dear reader, for bearing with me. As you see, I hauled a net full of fine triologisms from Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead. I hope you are buzzing with their vibrant images.