Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography (Books That Changed the World)

Alberto Manguel

Language: English

Pages: 304

ISBN: 0802143822

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

While it is unknown if there ever was a man named Homer, there is no doubt that the epic poems assembled under his name form the cornerstone of Western literature, feeding our imagination for over two and a half millennia. The Iliad and The Odyssey, with their tales of the Trojan War, Achilles, Ulysses and Penelope, the Sirens, the Cyclops, Helen of Troy, and the petulant gods, are familiar to most readers because they are so pervasive. From Plato to Virgil, Pope to Joyce, the poems have been told and retold, interpreted and embellished. In this graceful and sweeping book, Alberto Manguel traces the lineage of the poems from their inception and first recording. He considers the original purpose of the poems—either as allegory of philosophical truth or as a record of historical truth—surveys the challenges the pagan Homer presented to the early Christian world, and maps the spread of the works around the world and through the centuries. Manguel follows Homer through the greatest literature ever created and, above all, delights in the poems themselves.

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Who does not know of Hector and Achilles? Not only individual lineages but most nations seek their origins in Homer’s inventions. Mehemet II, Emperor of the Turks, wrote thus to our Pope Pius II: “I am amazed that the Italians should band against me, since we both have a common Trojan origin and, like the Italians, I have an interest in avenging the blood of Hector on the Greeks whom they however favour against me. ” Isn’t all this a noble farce in which Kings, Republics and Emperors, all play their parts over many centuries, and for which this vast universe serves as a stage?

And Agamemnon says: Why such concern for enemies? I suppose you got such tender loving care at home from the Trojans. Ah would to god not one of them could escape his sudden plunging death beneath our hands! No baby boy still in his mother’s belly, not even he escape – all Ilium blotted out, no tears for their lives, no markers for their graves! 14 Goaded by his brother, Menelaus shoves Adrestus with his fist and Agamemnon stabs the fallen man ‘in the flank and back’. Adrestus falls down dead, face up, and Agamemnon ‘dug a heel in his heaving chest/and wrenched the ash spear out’.

9 Derek Walcott, The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory: The Nobel Lecture, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993. 10 Odyssey, XI: 1. 11 Derek Walcott, Omeros, London, Faber and Faber, 1990, I: 1:1. 12 Ezra Pound, The Cantos, revised edition, London, Faber and Faber, 1975, I: 1. 13 Walcott, Omeros, op. cit. , III: 27: 3. 14 Ibid. , III: 27: 3. 15 Ibid. , I: 3: 2. 16 Italo Calvino, Perché leggere i classici, Milan, Arnoldo Mondadori, 1991. 17 C. P. Cavafy, ‘Trojans’ in Collected Poems, bilingual edition, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis, London, The Hogarth Press, 1975.

Book VII Paris and Hector return to the fight. Hector challenges Ajax to a duel, but the outcome isn’t clear. The Trojans propose a truce so that both camps can bury the dead. In the meantime, following old Nestor’s advice, the Greeks fortify the camp. Book VIII Zeus encourages the Trojans, but also forbids the other gods to take part in the fighting. The Greeks withdraw to their camp and the Trojans set themselves up outside their city walls. Book IX Worried about the advance of the Trojans, Nestor suggests that Agamemnon send Ajax, together with Phoenix (the old tutor of Ulysses and Achilles), to convince Achilles to join the troops again.

This then is Plato’s (perhaps reluctant) reading of Homer: that our life must be lived to the best of our ethical abilities. With Aristotle, the figure of the anecdotal man – the old, blind, wandering bard – faded into that of the literate, inspired poet. Homer came to mean his works, whether written by the poet himself or set down for posterity by others. For Aristotle too, Homer was the ultimate poetic reference, and not as an instance of the dangerous dream-life but as a craftsman’s model, the example to be followed by those who aspired to high art, in tragedy as well as comedy.

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