My teenage daughter borrowed my copy of The Old Man and the Sea and read it one afternoon. I had been about the same age when I first read it, thirty years ago. “You’ll either love it or it will bore you to tears,” I warned. “It’s that kind of book.”
“I’ve finished it,” she said later at dinner, looking a bit sheepish.
“You didn’t like it.” It wasn’t hard to divine. She knows that it’s one of my favourite books. “You didn’t click.”
“No,” she said. “It’s just about an old man who went fishing. It’s boring.”
In 2015 it took me an entire year to work my way through The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia, a book I had been very keen to get my hands on. And it is a substantial book but that was not the reason it took me so long; after all, I only recently read The Bible in Spain, all 550 pages of it, in less than a week. So what held me up?
About a year ago I started to write a post comparing two books that I had happened to be reading simultaneously, one of which was boring me to tears. I was not going to waste my breath on it too much – I was going to point out how good the other book was in comparison. As luck would have it, both were on the subject of history, so I started the post with an introductory paragraph about having read some good history books in my time… Unfortunately, the introductory paragraph ended up running to several paragraphs, neatly hijacking the entire post. The chief hijacker was Pepys – whom I found myself quite unable to dismiss in one summary sentence.
I feel Pepys deserves a post to himself, so here I proudly present you with:
In 1358 the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, better known in English as Petrarch, was invited by his friend Giovanni Mandelli to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. From this invitation a book was born: Petrarch’s Guide to the Holy Land (Itinerary to the Sepulchre of Our Lord Jesus Christ).
Or What Do Half-Drunk Hungarian Peasants and French Day-Trippers Share with Homer?
A few years ago we went on a week’s holiday in Dinan in Brittany where one day we took a short boat trip on the River Rance. The trip itself was quite unremarkable, but at some point our jolly skipper decided to lead us all in a song. Within seconds, to the utter delight of my children and myself, two dozen French tourists were heartily bellowing out Santy Anno, a song from the 2008 Jefferson Starship album Tree of Liberty. To our skipper and fellow tourists, however, this was not a song from an American record but a traditional French song, liked by and known to all.
I’m not particularly into music history but I believe volumes have been written about the spread of folk songs, sailors’ shanties, etc. across the Atlantic and there is in fact nothing remarkable about the song being known both to the French and the Americans. Witnessing evidence for this first hand though was another thing altogether; especially because the kids experienced folk music – the way it’s meant to be – for the first time.
About Folk Music and Music Education
When I was a kid, I was taught folk music in school. In Hungary folk music is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega of music education; in the land of Kodály and Bartók folk music is a sacred cow and the only way to teach music is by drawing from a “clean source” (ie. folk music).
In Hungary toddlers are taught rhythm by clapping and tune by hand-signs, and every child, even if tone-deaf like myself, leaves primary school with the ability to sing on sight from a sheet. I acknowledge my debt to the Kodály method but I do remember how dreary we used to think folk music, degraded to a compulsory school subject. (On the other hand, in England music education consists of teaching children snatches of West End musicals, often singing lyrics that are highly inappropriate in mouths of under-10s. But perhaps it’s just me who cringes as 7-year-olds render songs from Jesus Christ Superstar at an infant school’s Nativity play.)
I’ve heard some great traditional songs on recordings. I’ve been to some great concerts listening to folk musicians who really knew what they were about. But I always came away with a feeling of having been somehow robbed: a crucial ingredient always gets lost. It’s music played by trained musicians and (barring its origins) it’s got nothing to do with us ‘folks’. Not like French holiday makers singing together on a boat just for the fun of it. Not like that evening in my aunt’s overcrowded kitchen, when I was about 8 or 9 and the family, three generations, gathered together for some forgotten occasion, and with the red wine and the talk flowing freely somebody started to sing. One by one the adults joined in, and my uncle brought out his zither. That was folk music: untrained voices, joining together, sharing something. Red faces, bright eyes, laughter, much banging on the table and half-sentences shouted over the twang of the zither, while the music and the singing got progressively worse as the evening wore on and the effects of the wine began to tell.
Homer and the Oral Tradition
I was thinking about this, about folk music, and about what a difference it makes to take part in it as opposed to merely studying it because of what I’ve been reading in The Mighty Dead – the book I’m about halfway through – about the oral tradition and how this may give us an insight into Homer.
This is about Milman Parry, that careless packer, the brilliant American scholar who went to Yugoslavia between the two world wars in search of the Homeric process. Parry saw Homer as a man embedded in a long standing tradition of singers retelling the same story, and with an assistant and a translator set out for the remote mountain villages to listen to the guslaris, singers of epic poems accompanying themselves on a gusle, a single-stringed violin. Parry and his companions collected 13 thousand songs and were astonished to find singers who could remember over ten thousand lines. Others followed in Parry’s footsteps: in the aftermath of World War II, a Connecticut professor by the name of James Notopoulos travelled to Crete and collected songs in the mountains of Sfakia. On the request of Notopoulos, one of the singers improvised a song on the spot about the famous kidnapping of General Kreipe, the German commander of Crete, in 1944 by the British. Almost nothing in the song as heard by Notopoulos corresponded to the actual facts; the singer utilised ancient formulas to improvise a story to his own liking.
Homer vs Academia
People try to read the Iliad today, or the Odyssey, and as often as not are confronted with convoluted language, forced into dactylic hexameters. In lauded scholarly editions the introduction is often longer than the epic itself and the mountain of notes at the back of the book is enough to scare away even the most eager readers. The famous Homeric epithets bore today’s readers to death, because after all how many times do you really need to hear that Achilles is swift-footed and does Apollo really need to be constantly called “god of the silver bow”, nice as the phrase might be?! But these phrases are aide-mémoires, ready-made building blocks to fit the dactylic hexameter. The Iliad and Odyssey were not meant to be read in solitary comfort on a sofa.
There was a time in history, the time of Homer, presumably, as well as the centuries that went before and after, when the Iliad or the Odyssey were not merely an academic exercise. Unlike today, they were not just the territory of university professors indulging in self-serving discussions on the merits of each line or bickering over whether Homer was one man or more, killing the epic story in dry scholarly analyses. There was a time when the themes on which the Iliad and the Odyssey are developed were shared by ordinary people, when everybody knew the fundamentals of the stories. In the fifth and fourth century B.C., travelling storytellers, rhapsodes, performing the Iliad and the Odyssey were part of life in Greece. And so these stories were told and retold, sang by the rhapsodes, changed and shaped slightly differently in each telling. Not everyone can (re)tell a story well, much less make one up on the spot no matter how familiar with its elements, but everybody can listen, and a travelling storyteller can and will, if he wants to make a good living, adapt his story to his audience’s perceived likes and needs. And much like the interaction between the actors and the groundlings in Shakespeare’s Globe makes a play more alive, more memorable and wholly unique and unrepeatable, so this manner of performing made the Iliad and the Odyssey alive, memorable and unique.
Step back from the book and see in your mind the rhapsode in his travelling cloak, with his staff in hand, singing out to a crowd of random listeners in the bustling agora to earn his dinner. Imagine watching several of them perform in competitions, one after another, each desperately trying to trump the previous singer.
Homer, admirable in all respects…
I don’t really care if Homer was one man or more. I don’t really care if there never was a man called Homer. What I do care about is the stories. The way they are taught in schools (when they’re taught at all) they seem dead and boring – nothing to do with us today. But these stories didn’t survive thousands of years by being bad. I happen to like the way the Iliad has been told by Homer, epithets and all. Not everybody does. But you don’t have to read Homer to enjoy the story of the Trojan War or the wanderings of Odysseus. They’ve been told and retold time and again, sometimes focusing on this episode, sometimes on that. Take the story and turn it into your own. Like with folk music, it’s all about being immersed in it. And then someday you might want to come to Homer for his take on the story.
Maybe that’s how we should introduce children to Homer: tell them the stories, give them a list of epithets and let them retell their favourite bits, making it up as they go along. Like that Budapest folk musician did above when he put the bow in the children’s hands. It’s all part of the folk process, after all.
When I was ten, I read Swallows and Amazons and in the course of that, Arthur Ransome introduced me to English poetry. One of the characters, Titty (I still wonder what sort of a name is that for a girl), was much given to recalling random lines of poetry that they had taught her at school.
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
These lines spoke about adventure and unknown worlds in pulsating rhyme. I’m not surprised that they stuck in Titty’s head; they certainly stuck in mine. Ransome – and not my literature teachers – made me read Keats; and Keats made me pick up Homer again, many years after I left school.
Searching for Homer
Homer is difficult to get into nowadays; he was difficult to get into two hundred years ago too. Keats wrote:
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
One October night in 1816, when he was twenty-one years old, Keats had read the translation of the Odyssey by George Chapman at a friend’s house – and that very same night, he wrote the sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. The power of his images haunts me still.
I always enjoyed Greek mythology and especially the story of the Trojan War, but when I read excerpts of the Iliad and the Odyssey in school, they bored me. Homer wrote nearly three thousand years ago and reading him is not easy, especially in a verse form: I gave up on the Iliad at the seemingly endless description of Achilles’s shield. Yet with Keats I could stand on a peak on Darien and see the uncharted sea through the eyes of Cortez (in point of fact, it was Vasco Núñez de Balboa but I suppose that wouldn’t have scanned); with Keats I could be Galilei discovering the moons of Jupiter. Keats had seen what I failed to: he had stood on the walls of Troy and had seen the black ships appear on the horizon, he had seen Achilles fight under the walls, he had seen Odysseus tossed in the stormy seas. Keats made me believe in Homer. I went and read Pope’s translation of the Iliad but if the Hungarian verse had been boring, Pope was contrived; and they both lacked punch.
Figuratively – and literally – speaking, I was still to come across Chapman’s Homer.
In the end, for me, a 19th century prose translation from the Gutenberg Project did it. Since then, I consider the Iliad (as opposed to the Greek myths relating to the Trojan War) as one of my favourite books; I’m still reading versions of it. Someday I’ll learn Ancient Greek, and take the poetry in the original (it seems Ransome has much to answer for).
All this, by the way, occasioned by the line of Chapman’s Homer that had – supposedly – inspired Keats to write his sonnet: