Adam Nicolson’s marvelous new book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (Collins, 2014), was stripped of its title for publication in the United States and released with only its comparatively bald and puny subtitle instead. Normally, I wouldn’t quibble with such an editorial decision, but in this case it feels like something important was lost. Not only are the Homeric poems, especially the Iliad, which dominates much of Nicolson’s speculation, encrusted with the blood and brains of so many heroes, but the epics themselves are the product of centuries of poetic achievement; the mighty dead stand themselves like a line of kings behind the man we call Homer: the forebears of Homer, the tradition that lives on in the banquet that we call the birth of Western literature.
Nicolson himself is an heir to that great tradition as it survives in England. The grandson of Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, Nicolson studied Greek—without much enthusiasm, he admits—as a schoolboy, and has written widely on topics as diverse as the Battle of Trafalgar, the pleasures of walking the French countryside, and the cultural and linguistic background that informed the creation of the King James Bible. Seemingly peripatetic by nature, Nicolson has traveled as widely as Odysseus; indeed the Greek hero stands as an inspiration and guide in life, and never more so than in the peregrinations that animate The Mighty Dead.
Nicolson blends scholarship and appreciation (in the best sense of the word) into a compelling narrative, beautifully written, about one man’s engagement with Homeric poetry that is at the same time an argument for the continuing relevance of the epics to modern life. Indeed, the fact that such a wide-ranging investigation into the sources of Homer and the themes that are contained in the poems can be sparked by an encounter with a new translation (Robert Fagles’, of the Odyssey) almost proves the subtitle’s point in itself. By the time that I came to end of the book, where Nicolson artfully returns for a moment to the raw sea voyage along a storm-battered Irish coast with which he opens hist story, I was convinced that The Mighty Dead is the finest introduction to Homer that one could ask for. But more than that, it is a superb companion to the epics, a compendium of scholarship on them, and a deep look into why Homer matters to one deeply thoughtful reader—as he should to all of us.
After the opening chapter in which Nicolson recounts his stormy epiphany, sailing with Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey lashed to the compass binnacle, he retreats into a consideration of how Homer has been greeted and judged by literary figures of the recent past. Here are the Goncourt brothers arguing the bard’s merits over dinner in Paris and Alexander Pope passing judgement in the preface to his translation. Most vividly recreated is the scene of Keats first looking into Chapman’s Homer: it takes guts to render in prose this episode that Keats himself captured in one of the great sonnets of the English language.
In another chapter Nicolson presents a history of the written text of the poems that spans the ages from the Alexandrian Library and its editors through modern printings and the arguments that they have spawned. Hellenistic fragments from the papyri used to wrap mummies jostle with Roman and Byzantine texts; Babylonian tablets provide context for the writing of epic poetry, and a fragment, two lines, from an 8th-century Greek pottery shard stands at the earliest terminus for a written record of the poems themselves. Whether discussing archaeology or touring the islands that may have been the home of bards who carried the epic tradition onwards, Nicolson never strays far from the poems themselves, enlivening our appreciation of their language, their metaphor, and their content.
A long chapter called “Homer the Strange” provides a superb summary of the researches of Milman Parry and Alfred Lord, whose work with singers of tales in the early 20th-century Balkans did much to revolutionize our understanding of how oral poetry is composed and transmitted. If thoughts of metrical analysis and the study of prosody ordinarily conjure visions of dust motes settling soporifically in darkened study halls, be prepared to be jolted instead to the edge of your seat. Nicolson creates a riveting account of the work of bards across Europe and if your eyes sting it will be not from sleepiness but from the evocation of peat-smoky Hebridean halls where oral poetry lives on.
Shifting focus slightly away from Homer to the Greeks, Nicolson proposes a theory about the origins of the cultures portrayed in the Iliad and the Odyssey. He looks at archaeology again to suggest how nomadic tribesmen from the steppes migrated south to Greece, carrying with them the culture of horsemanship as they reached the strange shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Although some earlier reviewers of The Mighty Dead have found these speculations a stretch, I was fascinated less by their plausibility that by the way that Nicolson takes the opportunity to once again delve into the language of the poems. His discussion, for example, of the ways in which ships and the sea are characterized in the language of horses and grasslands provided new insights into the poems’ construction and imagery that are worth whatever imaginative leaps his theories required.
But once Nicolson has constructed his world of brutal invading tribesmen, he uses it to great advantage. His investigations of pre-Bronze Age European warrior culture are marvelous in themselves, as his lengthy divagation on Spanish Extramadura, its copper mines, and their resonances with Odysseus’s descent into Hades demonstrate. His evocation of contemporary gang warfare in urban America seems oddly out of place at first, but as a means of making the strutting pride of the Greek heroes—and emphasizing their contrast to the palatial culture of Troy—it once again brings aspects of the poem alive with startling force.
In one of his final chapters, Nicolson returns to the Odyssey and offers a startling (to me) reading. When I think of the poem, I remember all the fantastic encounters and near escapes from death: the Lotus-Eaters, the Lestrygonians, Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, Aeolus and his bag of winds, even captivating Calypso. And yet all this drama and adventure comprises less than half the length of the epic. There are the introductory books during which Telemachos goes in search of news of his father. But more to the point, Odysseus returns to Ithaka at the midpoint of the twenty-four books of the Odyssey. The remainder of the story is given over to the story of the depredations of the suitors, and to the resolution of their threat to the hero’s home.
When the terrifying reprise of the Iliad erupts into the poem, it brings with it an almost orgasmic release of destructive energy, a balloon of mesmeric violence in which Odysseus slaughters all 108 of the young men. It is a frenzy of killing, an orgy of revenge that leaves the floors of the palace swimming in blood. The most horrible moment of the Iliad, when Odysseus and Diomedes kill Dolōn even as he is begging for his life, and his head is still speaking as it lands in the dust— those same actions and words are repeated here with one of the more pathetic of the victims. Odysseus ends slobbered with their guts, his thighs shiny with their blood, filthy with it, “like a lion that comes from feeding on an ox at the farmstead, and all his chest and cheeks on either side are stained with blood and he is terrible to look at; even so was Odysseus dirty with their blood and filth, his feet red, his hands and arms red with it.”
From my own earliest, fascinated encounters with Homer (in a “children’s edition” at the age of about seven) I was aware of a tension between on the one hand the apparent sense that these are stories of Greek heroism and might and on the other my sympathetic identification with the doomed nobility of the Trojans and especially of their prince Hector. In my childish reading and longing, I wanted the Trojans to win, wanted to see virtuous Hector triumph over the sulky, spoiled Achilles and the brutal Agamemnon. And I’m sure that my Golden Book version of the “fabulous adventures of Odysseus” did indeed give over far more space to the wiles that permitted his swashbuckling triumphs than to the nostos and its gore. But an essential, if brutal, truth about the epics got lost along the way, and that misapprehension has stayed with me all my life.
Nicolson’s head-on confrontation with this violence not only awakened me to the poems anew, it also made obvious to me why the reconciliation of Achilles and Priam over the corpse of Hector is the appropriate culmination of the Iliad. I’d never understood why the poem ended with what seemed like a diversion from the business of warfare and the ultimate, if unfortunate, destruction of Troy. But as Nicolson writes of the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, “Understanding comes from seeing things from the other side. … These are the words of antiquity, a frame of inherited sobriety and seriousness for the emotion that can scarcely be contained within them.”
Or, as Nicolson puts it in his ultimate chapter, “Homer matters because Homer, in a godlike way, understands what mortals do not. He even understands more than the gods…. Homer’s embrace of wrongness, his depiction of a world that stands at a certain angle to virtue, is the heart of why we love him.”
To those who love and defend literature, this conclusion may seem as old as Homer himself. But I don’t think that undermines its importance. And it certainly doesn’t undermine the value of The Mighty Dead. Nicolson has written a truly remarkable book, full of honesty and candor, immersed in the language of the epics and the culture they depict. It is replete with scholarship, full to overflowing with language that is a delight in its own right, evocative of landscapes across space and time. And it will make once again taking up and reading the Homeric poems themselves inevitable, which is perhaps its greatest accomplishment.