"In this passionate, deeply personal book, Adam Nicolson explains why Homer matters-- to him, to you, to the world--in a text full of twists, turns and surprises. In a spectacular journey through mythical and modern landscapes, Adam Nicholson explores the places forever haunted by their Homeric heroes. From Sicily, awash with wildflowers shadowed by Italy's largest oil refinery, to Ithaca, southern Spain, and the mountains on the edges of Andalusia and Extremadura, to the deserted, irradiated steppes of Chernobyl, where Homeric warriors still lie under the tumuli, unexcavated. This is a world of springs and drought, seas and cities, with not a tourist in sight. And all sewn together by the poems themselves and their great metaphors of life and suffering. Showing us the real roots of Homeric consciousness, the physical environment that fills the gaps between the words of the poems themselves, Nicholson's is itself a Homeric journey. A wandering meditation on lost worlds, our interconnectedness with our ancestors, and the surroundings we share. This is the original meeting of place and mind, our empathy with the past, our landscape as our drama. Following the acclaimed Gentry, which established him as one of the great landscape writers working today, Nicholson takes Homer's poems back to their source: beneath the distant, god-inhabited mountains, on the Trojan plains above the graves of the heroic dead, we find afresh the foundation level of human experience on Earth"--
Nicholson moves between sections describing his experiences with Homer – times and places where the some part of the poems has seemed to capture some essential truth – and sections describing the history of the poems, the peoples involved, and Homeric scholarship. He describes major shifts in how the poems have been believed to be composed, particularly in the early 20th century, largely through the work of Milman Parry. He then traces the work that led from Parry's insights about “composition in performance,” relying heavily on formulas, derived from his research among Slavic traditional singers, to more recent understandings, derived from work with Celtic and other storytellers, which have shown the ability of traditional storytellers to accurately retell stories, essentially without change, over centuries.
Nicholson believes that the poems' origins extend farther back than is typically proposed. He does a wonderful job describing the clues from the poems which might date elements of the stories to a period before 1400 BC. He even presents an interesting argument for the idea that the warriors Heinrich Schliemann found in Mycenaean shaft graves were, in fact, as he claimed, Homer's Greek kings. Having traced Homeric elements back to 16th century Mycenae, Nicholson then follows the story even farther back, going north and west, into Europe and Asia, and south and east, towards Egypt and Mesopotamia. Plenty of what he suggests is speculative, sometimes highly so, but he is quite up front about this, and the evidence he presents is intriguing (for example, the importance of horses in Homer as evidence of a background Indo-European steppe heritage).
Nicholson is a good writer, and he explores a subject where non-scholarly readers might easily get bogged down (he does a lovely job explaining Homeric hexameters, and also uses the example of the bedtime story-poems he composed for his children to illustrate the idea of formulaic composition). in a very readable, entertaining style. While recognizing that in many ways Homer's stories are utterly foreign and impossibly distant from us, Nicolson shows how, more essentially, the poems remain relevant and true to life, offering insights and clarity to readers today.
Nicolson also reflects on Homeric parallels in his own life, particularly through his sailing experience. It is evident that Homer matters very much to Nicolson, and he writes so lovingly and persuasively that most readers will agree with him.
One short section of the book seemed discordant to me, and it affected my overall perception of the book. Nicolson surprises readers with a description of his experience as a victim of a sexual assault on his travels in Syria as a young adult. At that point the focus shifted from Homer to the author in a way that detracted from the book's theme, and it made me very uncomfortable as a reader.
This review is based on an advanced reading copy provided by the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.
But its not. Its in the Odyssey. However Adam Nicolson spends a lot of time telling us, very engagingly and poetically, what is in the Iliad,
Was there a Homer? If there was did he create a standardised version of an existing oral epic? Or was this very much Homer's work based on existing sources? The truth is that we don't know but Nicolson provides evidence for both possibilities, analysing the work of Macedonian bards (every version of a story is different - it can be thought of as composition in performance) and Scottish storytellers (every time a story is told its pretty nearly identical) . So we don't know.
What Nicolson does know, or thinks he knows, is that the origins of the Iliad go back a lot earlier than are popularly supposed. Perhaps the roots of the tale go back to 1800 BC rather than 700 BC, and tell the tale of a nomadic warrior people from the steppe arriving in the Aegean. With their individualist, warrior culture - Nicolson very insightfully identifies Achilles as the first pure individualist in the written canons - the "Greeks" arriving at the walls of the much more prosperous and civilised (at that moment in history) Troy, were very much the Barbarians at the Gate, bent on conquest, destruction, and spoil according to their ancestral practice as demonstrated by some of the shockingly graphic violence of the poem (and indeed in the Odyssey - see the way Odysseus dispatches the "suitors" and those of his female servants he deems faithless). In this view of the Iliad it represents the last gasps of a horse borne, steppe based, warrior culture as they slowly become civilised. In that sense, Troy may have lost the battle, but civilisation wins the war. Nicolson brings this theory vividly to life, and, empirically true or not, I think I buy it.
An engaging and erudite book
This is fascinating stuff, but I was not really convinced that this shows the epics were penned as early as he says, given that it is generally accepted anyway that Homer was recording, in the then very new medium of writing, epics passed down in oral form from generation to generation for centuries beforehand. Other scholars have pointed out that, given the similarity of style, the two epics were probably written down by the same person consecutively, as the Odyssey is aware of the existence of the Iliad, but not vice versa - "The Odyssey, with extraordinary care, is shaped around the pre-existence of the Iliad. It fills in details that are absent from the earlier poem – the Trojan Horse, the death of Achilles – but never mentions anything that is described there".
Despite this very interesting exploration of historical, archaeological, cultural and linguistic issues, I had a problem with aspects of his writing style and choice of material. The language is often rather elaborate and I found some of the description overblown and too "stream of consciousness" for my liking. I didn't see the point of including some of his personal material, in particular the inclusion of an incident from his youth when he was raped by a stranger of his own age, which seemed entirely gratuitous to me. So I was left with rather mixed feelings about this book.