“Homer has become a kind of scripture for me, an ancient book, full of urgent imperatives and ancient meanings, most of them half discerned, to be puzzled over. It is a source of wisdom.” So begins the third chapter of Adam Nicolson’s highly accessible new book, “Why Homer Matters,” in which he compares his relationship with epic poetry to a form of possession, a “colonization of the mind by an imaginative presence from the past.” The world needs more Adam Nicolsons, unabashedly passionate evangelists for the power of ancient poetry to connect us with our collective past, illuminate our personal struggles and interrogate our understanding of human history.
For centuries, the study of Greek literature has been seen as the province of career academics. But Nicolson’s amateurism (in the best, etymological, sense of the word: from the Latin amare, “to love”) and globe-trotting passion for his subject is contagious, intimating that it is impossible to comprehend Homer’s poems from an armchair or behind a desk. If you’ve never read the “Iliad” or the “Odyssey,” or your copies have been collecting dust since college, Nicolson’s book is likely to inspire you to visit or revisit their pages.
According to Nicolson, a British baron who has written books on subjects that span the making of the King James Bible, the challenges and joys of farming, nautical voyages, and long walks through France, “you don’t acquire Homer; Homer acquires you.” Nicolson describes how he set out on a personal odyssey from the coast of Scotland to the gates of Hades in search of the origins of Greek poetry and Western consciousness. In all of this, he is most at home as a writer when describing landscapes, as in his depiction of Homeric Hades by way of the estuary at Huelva in southwestern Spain: “Flakes of white quartzite shine through the water between ribs of rock that veer from red to tangerine to ocher and rust to flame-colored, flesh-colored, sick and livid.”
As Nicolson relates, Homer, the blind bard of Chios who supposedly composed the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” may never have existed. Or, if he did, he most likely wasn’t the sole author of the epic poems for which he became famous. Instead, he may have culled, arranged and interpolated these foundational myths from within a living, oral tradition reaching back — through the Greek Dark Ages — to a primitive, preliterate era of Bronze Age wars and warriors sprawled across the Eurasian plains. “The poems,” Nicolson writes, “were composed by a man standing at the top of a human pyramid. He could not have stood there without the pyramid beneath him, and the pyramid consisted not only of the earlier poets in the tradition but of their audiences too.”
This is the central idea behind Nicolson’s book, which traces the origins of the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath — by way of the Minoan ruins of Knossos, the great library of Alexandria, and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens — to a period 1,000 or more years earlier than the one suggested by what he defines as the reigning orthodoxy. Nicolson contends that the epic poems reflect “the violence and sense of strangeness of about 1800 B.C. recollected in the tranquillity of about 1300 B.C.,” though not captured in writing until roughly 700 B.C. And so he believes that whoever wrote the poems down belonged to “a culture emerging from a dark age, looking to a future but also looking back to a past, filled with nostalgia for the years of integrity, simplicity, nobility and straightforwardness.”
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It is difficult to assess Nicolson’s theory, which is based on a conjecture that the “Iliad” describes a pre-palatial warrior culture that seems to align well with the “world of the gold-encrusted kings buried in the shaft graves at Mycenae,” now dated to the 17th and 16th centuries B.C. But as a thought exercise, it is often gripping and, at times, electrifying.
According to Nicolson, “Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: It is the attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time.” The purpose of epic “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.”
The Romanian scholar of comparative religion Mircea Eliade called this basic human impulse — to connect our quotidian existence, through ritual and myth, with the lives and struggles of the great heroes of the past — the “eternal return.” In the telling and retelling of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” we imbue our insignificant lives with meaning, transporting ourselves to a mythical time, while bringing the heroic age into our own. Throughout the book, Nicolson describes moments when his own life has been elevated or illuminated by the epics — such as his sailing across the Celtic Sea with the “Odyssey” fastened to his compass binnacle, tied open to the story of the sirens — but also moments when harrowing experiences, including being raped at knife point in the Syrian desert, have revealed to him something powerful within the poems.
The Homeric epics are long, contradictory, repetitive, composite works, riddled with anachronisms, archaic vocabulary, metric filler and exceedingly graphic brutality. Over the millenniums, Nicolson asserts, they have been cleaned, scrubbed and sanitized by generations of translators, editors, librarians and scholars, in order to protect readers from the dangers of the atavistic world lurking just below the surface of the words. He writes that everyone from the editors at the Ptolemaic library in Alexandria to the great 18th-century poet Alexander Pope wished to civilize or tame the poems, “wanted to make Homer proper, to pasteurize him and transform him into something acceptable for a well-governed city.” Part of Nicolson’s objective is to follow the poems back to the vengeful, frighteningly violent time and culture from which they came, and to restore some of their rawness.
For Nicolson, the commonly held belief that the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” were products of the late eighth century B.C., a period of Greek resurgence and prosperity, cannot account for the heterogeneity of the poems and all they contain. He prefers the view that, instead of being the creation of a single man, let alone of a single time, “Homer reeks of long use.” Try thinking of Homer as a “plural noun,” he suggests, made up of “the frozen and preserved words of an entire culture.” Seen through this lens, the ancient poems appear as a bridge between the present and an otherwise inaccessible past, a rare window into a moment of cultural convergence around 2000 B.C., when East met West, North met South, and Greek consciousness was forged in the crucible of conflict between a savage warrior culture from the flat grasslands of Eurasia and the wealthy, sophisticated residents of cities in the eastern Mediterranean.
“Homer,” Nicolson writes, “in a miracle of transmission from one end of human civilization to the other, continues to be as alive as anything that has ever lived.” Reading “Why Homer Matters” makes one yearn for a time, almost lost to us now, when many others shared Nicolson’s enthusiasm.
WHY HOMER MATTERS
by Adam Nicolson
Illustrated. 297 pp. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company. $30.
Bryan Doerries is a stage director and a translator. His first book, “The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today,” will be published next fall.
A version of this review appears in print on December 28, 2014, on page BR17 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Songs of the Sirens.
Reposted from The New York Times Sunday Book Review