The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?

Why Homer Doesn’t Matter

Now that’s a heading that nobody should have been expecting from me, given how I go on and on about Homer whenever I have nothing better to do. But I have finished reading The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, and put it down with the feeling that sadly, it failed in what it set out to do: namely to convince skeptics that Homer mattered, that Homer should still be read, perhaps even studied, because he’s relevant to our lives.

Nicolson is clearly a great fan of Homer, especially, by the look of it, The Odessey. (Myself, I prefer The Iliad, but each to his own.) He wrote an engaging and interesting book but without actually managing to convince me that Homer matters. It’s lucky I started out being already convinced of this fact before I picked up the book.

Sailing Through the Fears and Desires of Life

But I’m not being entirely fair to Nicolson here. The first chapter sees him and a friend sailing through a storm from Falmouth to Baltimore (in Ireland, not America); on cue you’re introduced to Homer and The Odyssey. It’s a strong start with a vivid description of the storm and the case for The Odyssey in the hands of the storm-tossed sailor is quite convincing: a book of comfort in his affliction, a book of spiritual guidance for life… everything he could wish for bar a sailing manual.

“I suddenly saw that this [The Odyssey] was not a poem about then and there, but now and here. The poem describes the inner geography of those who hear it. Every aspect of it is grand metaphor. Odysseus is not sailing on the Mediterranean but through the fears and desires of life.”

Yes, take The Odyssey as a metaphor for life – not at all that difficult – and you’re off: Homer’s relevance is proven. But to me this was as close as Nicolson came to convincing me of the importance of Homer. Much later in the book, he dwells long on how brutally and graphically The Iliad depicts war. Again, very true. I would advise any would-be soldier to read the gory details of limbs being hacked off, spears going through livers, white bones splintering… it’s always good to know what you’re signing up for.

It’s difficult to see, however, how this book would bring new readers to Homer. But perhaps this was not what Nicolson was really trying to do. Perhaps he was just telling us why Homer matters to him, in which case he did an excellent job.

A Book for Readers of Homer

So The Mighty Dead is for existing readers of The Iliad and The Odyssey, for Nicolson’s soulmates, not for people who never picked up either yet. If you’re already a fan of Homer, Nicolson offers some interesting thoughts to mull over in your free time. I’m not a Homeric scholar so I’m not sure how many of these ideas are genuinely his own. He depicts the Greeks as the barbarians, a brutal gang versus the civilised city-dwellers of Troy. He puts the origins of the Greeks onto the steppe, among the nomadic horsemen… He talks about how Keats got interested in Homer, writes about scholars who dedicated their life to researching Homer. He tells you about his travels around the Mediterranean, about visiting Homeric sites and about what Homer means to him. And while writing about all this, he roams freely among the disciplines from archaeology to linguistics and unless you’re some well-versed scholar, you’re bound to learn something new. Some of his ideas are perhaps a bit far-fetched but there’s scope for that in a book like this one.

I’ve got one huge complaint against the book: the two maps it starts with. There’s such a concept as the historical map, and the historical map isn’t meant to be an anachronistic map. Anybody likely to be reading this book is more than capable of coping with proper historical maps. But here we have a map titled “The World of the Ancient Greeks” with Troy in Turkey. Excuse me?! While indeed the ruins of Troy are located in today’s Turkey, please don’t call a map with Turkey on it “The World of the Ancient Greeks”. Call it “Location of Homeric Sites” or whatever you will, as long as it’s appropriate; there was no country called Turkey in the time of Homer. Marking a 21st century map with Ancient Greek locations doesn’t make the map historical, it makes it incorrect. Ditto the “The Bronze Age World” which among other things got Hungary on it. Let me tell you, and you can safely take it from me since I’m Hungarian, that the Hungarians were nowhere near the Carpathian Basin in the Bronze Age.  Call me a purist but don’t patronise me: give me proper maps.

“The walls of Hades seeping with grief”

By and large, Nicolson’s ideas are not my ideas although some of them I quite liked: putting the entrance to Hades into a Bronze Age copper mine near the Rio Tinto in Spain?

Rio Tinto, Spain. Source: Wikipedia
Rio Tinto, Spain. Source: Wikipedia

“The rivers themselves are deeply and naturally poisoned. This is the earth polluting itself… a place in which almost nothing can live, in which fruit would drop before it was ripe… Where in the back-eddy, the current slows, a crusted porridge of the bloody slurry gathers in the pools, and no fish rise.”

Twenty miles onward from the Rio Tinto, Nicolson climbs down into an ancient copper mine. In the cold semi-darkness, the walls of the mine are wet and mossy, “the walls of Hades seeping with grief”. Indeed. The book certainly doesn’t leave you short of evocative descriptions; it’s not a dry academic treatise. In places I found the writing hugely enjoyable.

Why Homer Matters (Regardless of The Mighty Dead)

Ultimately, I think few people would argue that any great work of literature is relevant to our lives (that all great art is relevant to our lives). Remember the Ancient Greek concept of catharsis? Well, Homer is great literature, ergo… but trying to prove his relevance by archaeological facts is missing the point altogether. You can safely disregard everything that’s written in The Mighty Dead as background information that you don’t need to know. Homer matters because he writes about concepts that we still relate to: love, hatred, grief, desire, compassion… and because he writes about them very well.

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