The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters

by Adam Nicolson

Hardcover, 2014



Call number



William Collins (2014)


"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"--… (more)

Media reviews

Here is a book on Homer that has been reviewed in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Slate, and the Guardian, among others, but not, as far as I know, in any classical journal. Yet it is an important book for classical scholars to read—not because it offers anything both
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new and true about Homer, but because it shows an educated, widely experienced person creating deeply felt meaning out of Homer and some strands of Homeric scholarship. Nicolson belongs in the tradition of great amateurs of Homer: Keats, Gladstone, Matthew Arnold, or T. E. Lawrence. His book shows what Homer can do.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member meandmybooks
Wonderful. Made me eager to order a couple of the newer translations Nicholson quoted from and read the Iliad and the Odyssey again. In Why Homer Matters, Adam Nicholson explores the reasons why Homer, well over two thousand years after his poems were composed, still offers unique and precious
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gifts to modern readers, and also, on a personal level, he describes how reading Homer has enriched his own life.

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.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Like many students in Western schools, I read The Odyssey in high school. I regularly run across references to The Iliad and The Odyssey in books and essays. Maybe that's why the lessons have stayed with me for so long. What is it about Homer's works that gives them such a lasting influence?

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Adam Nicolson looks at Homer's influence through the ages, traces the earliest remaining fragments of his works, closely examines internal evidence for the origin of the works, and describes the remnants of Homer's world that are still visible in modern landscapes. Nicolson makes a convincing case for a much earlier date for Homer's works than is generally believed.

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.
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LibraryThing member Opinionated
So hands up everyone who thought that the story of the Trojan Horse was in the Iliad? Its years since I read the Iliad, admittedly, but I could have sworn....
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,
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where it comes from, and why it matters. He spends less time on the Odyssey.

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
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LibraryThing member greggchadwick
Adam Nicolson reaches across centuries and knits past and present together in his richly written book "Why Homer Matters." For Nicolson, Homer's epic poetry may enshrine the past, but the 'Iliad" and the "Odyssey" also live in a radiant present. Nicolson writes that the air Homer breathes "is the
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complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy...of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you." Nicolson guides us through our own journey of discovery as he helps us look beneath the stones of memory for a living Homer. Who was Homer? Was there one Homer or a series of writers over the centuries? Was Homer's poetry primarily a written art or was it based on oral tradition? What can Homer say to us about violence and bloodlust? Nicolson examines all of these questions in detail and allows us to weigh the evidence. The book carries us into the world of Homer through Nicolson's travels across the Mediterranean world. Nicolson's language is sensual, visceral, and at times extremely hard hitting - an idea of Homer not for the faint of heart. With Nicolson, we sail across Homer's "unharvestable sea" - in Greek pontos atrygetos - and finds clues to the painful and revelatory condition of life on earth. Reading "Why Homer Matters" has spurred me to pull the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" off the shelf and reread them once again, but this time with Nicolson as a personal guide. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Urquhart
A heartfelt panegyric or paean that does become wearisome.
LibraryThing member dhelmen
I was pleased to receive this as part of the Early Reviewers program and was not disappointed when I read it. I had read excerpts of the Odyssey and the Iliad in school, but have not looked either since, and I am now eager to revisit Homer. Nicolson’s writing is powerful and a pleasure to read
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and he inspired a new interest in me for the Epics of Homer. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the history from the Bronze Age and explorations of the origins of epic poetry and the Greeks.
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LibraryThing member Avogt221
I received this as part of LibraryThing's early review program. I admit that when I selected it had not been the book that I had wanted to receive but having now received it I am glad that I did. The book itself is written in accessible, occasionally almost poetic, language. It conveys the author's
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feelings for Homer very clearly. It also made me want to read some of Homer's classics which is an area of literature that I have not yet had the chance to delve into yet but after reading this book it moved Homer to the top of my list.
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LibraryThing member quicksiva
The classics as gangster rap. Nicolson reads Homer to show that the 'barbarians at the gates' were the Greeks.
LibraryThing member revliz
Pulled me right in. Now I'm searching for my college copy of Homer
LibraryThing member revliz
Pulled me right in. Now I'm searching for my college copy of Homer
LibraryThing member Hebephrene
This was delightful. It' s like being in the company of someone very smart, knowledgeable and generous. Nicolson can write beautifully too and this was a terrific companion to the Iliad which I was reading. He added depth to the experience. Did he answer the question - most certainly. I think there
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were two aspects in particular which I appreciated. His placement of Homer as representing an earlier age, far earlier than Greek culture. He places the sack of Troy as occurring when the raiding Greeks came up against Eastern palace culture. He also does a beautiful job of embracing the full breadth of Homer's vision of man as bloody and violent and explaining that in a historical context. He has read and traveled widely and we are the better for it. I am going to look for his other books as he is a boon companion.
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LibraryThing member markm2315
A fine and deep investigation of Homer himself, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Included are discussions of the poems' meanings to the Comte de Saint-Victor, Goethe, Pope, Plato and Keats; the history of our understanding of who or what Homer was; a visit to Chios; Milman Parry and the use of formulaic
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phrases in epic poetry; the nature of the people who spoke the language that is the source of all of the Indo-European languages and their relationship to the source of the Iliad; relevant archaeological findings including those of Schliemann; a history of the bronze age; how the Greeks of the Iliad are sociologically like modern day teenage gangs;what the Egyptians and the Hittites thought of the bronze-age Greeks from their own writings...and all with many selections from the Iliad and Odyssey with the author's explanation of the original Greek and various published translations. Throughout this tour de force, the author tells us the importance of the poems to him personally and his opinion of their importance to all of us.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Well-written explication of Homer the poet and his relevance to today. Covering the ancient world and more the book provides food for thought for those of us who love reading and rereading the epics of Homer.
LibraryThing member john257hopper
This book is an exploration of the themes in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and how they may relate to later human history and the world today. His central thesis is that Homer's epics probably originate about a millennium earlier than the 8th century BC period to which most historians assign it, and
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the Trojan War earlier than the 13th century BC period. This is based on comparing events and background details in the epics with archaeological evidence of the arrival of the ancestors of the Greek people in their current homeland, leading to the clash of two very different peoples, the nomadic proto-Greeks and the city-based Trojans ("The idea I have pursued is that the Homeric poems are legends shaped around the arrival of a people – the people who through this very process would grow to be the Greeks – in what became their Mediterranean homeland"). He pursues some interesting evidence about words existing or not in the Proto Indo European (PIE) language, to draw conclusions about the probable place of origin of these proto-Greeks, for example in small, inland communities, given that there are no PIE words for city or sea.

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.
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Physical description

9.45 inches


0007335520 / 9780007335527
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