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Thread: The Mighty Dead: Why Homer matters, by Adam Nicolson.

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    Registered User prendrelemick's Avatar
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    The Mighty Dead: Why Homer matters, by Adam Nicolson.

    The Mighty Dead: Why Homer matters, by Adam Nicolson

    Nicolson was sailing round Southern Ireland when a storm struck and the book he happened to have with him (the Odyssey) leapt into life. The waves crashed over his little boat threatening to destroy him utterly, the words which he had been forced to study at school as though they were mathematical formulae, became real and relevant and unflinchingly immediate. By the time he had sailed up the west coast and through the Scottish isles, like Keats'“stout Cortez”, he'd discovered a vast new ocean to explore.

    He tracks the written poem, back through The Renaissance through Ptolemaic Egypt past Aristotle and Plato, and arrives at a joke scratched on a broken cup, the earliest reference ever found. Then he follows the roots of its oldest words Northwards out onto the Eurasian Steppe, a thousand years before written Greek, into the realms of the early Indo-europeans, where deep in their kurgans (burial mounds) warrior heroes lie with the same artifacts and weapons Homer describes. This (he says) is the world of Achilles, a land of swift horses and grassy plains where a man's worth is measured in his flocks and herds and his strength to defend them.

    The way stories are orally passed down the generations occupies much of the middle of the book. Are the songs composed anew at each telling ? (with the same story, the same stock phrases and the same rhythm),or are they memorised word for word ? No one knows for sure. Then came the day when a travelling scribe – perhaps a collector of songs, heard of an exceptional bard (possibly called Homer), went to visit him, and wrote down an outstanding version of the already famous story of Troy. Its a compelling theory, modern Academics are still collecting stories in the same way.

    To get a flavour of the book, here is a excerpt from this section where, to demonstrate how Homer may have worked, he re-composes off the cuff in the hexameters of the epic, his children's favourite bedtime story about a trip they had on the night train to Scotland, -

    -“Dark was the train and wonderfully shiny
    The lights from the station shining on its flanks
    And the lights from its cabins glowing inside
    And there as the children stood in the station
    Watching the train that was dark in the night
    They said to each other can we climb aboard?
    Can we find our way to the beds in the train?
    And their father said no to them, no not yet
    Wait till the guard opens the doors.
    So they stood in the cold and longed for the warmth
    of the long night train as it made its way North.”-

    I usually fell asleep before they did, lulled by its own pump engine rhythm, but this is homeric in its parataxis, its telling of the story with no subordinate clauses, accumulating one detail after another, its rapidity, its formulaic phrases taking up reliable positions in the pattern of the lines, its cherishing of memories, its heroising of the ordinary, its love of the shared experience between speaker and listener, its cavalier way with facts.”

    As you see this is not some dry academic study, (although he does offer a thesis on the age of the stories in Homer), it is a personal narrative of his relationship with the poems.

    Alongside the history, etymology and archeology is a critique, examining the poem as a work of art, its sounds, its structure its woven tapestry of themes and subtleties, its unflinching directness, its relevance.

    So to finish. This is a well researched book, but “research” sounds too much like work when in fact every page is imbued with the delight and pleasure Adam Nicolson has found in exploring his subject. As a fellow fan I loved it. Here you can plunge into Homer, roll around in it, indulge yourself, snuffle out the tastiest morsels, become engulfed, - like a pig, who, returning to his favourite haunt in the shady wallow, sinks happily into the delightful mud.

    A very rare 9/10 I think.
    Last edited by prendrelemick; 09-24-2015 at 04:00 AM.
    ay up

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    Feb 2010
    Nice review. I've had my eye on this book and you've convinced me to read it.

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