Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey

A Biography

by Alberto Manguel

Atlantic Monthly, 288 pp., $19.95

How to take account of Homer's influence in the world? To count them all, demands a thousand tongues / A throat of brass, and adamantine lungs, wrote the poet himself about naming all the troops who fought at Troy. The sentiment applies equally to Alberto Manguel's task here.

A full account would produce a small library, since Homer was the Primum Mobile of Greco-Roman culture. The Greeks' desire to preserve Homeric poetry might have been what drove them to adopt their alphabet; once preserved, he turns up everywhere. Tragedians plundered him for plots, historians mined him for data, and artists put Homeric images on all kinds of public and domestic art. Even the philosophers quote him constantly, especially Plato, whose famously conflicted relationship with Homer made him propose that poets be lavishly honored, then kicked out of his Republic.

Plato was afraid that Homer's "bewitching" power would corrupt the citizens, and he was probably arguing from personal experience. Rhapsodes, the professional singers of Homer's poems, got rich and famous performing them, some achieving near-rock-star status. Imagine a world in which people believed you could heal the sick or curse your enemies by chanting Homeric verses and you get some sense of his cultural preeminence.

Later, when the conquering Romans were conquered by Greek culture, Homer led the charge. The first work of Roman poetry was Livius Andronicus's Latin translation of the Odyssey, and Latin epics in the Homeric mode remained a dominating force in Roman culture throughout its history.

Even though the rise of Christian Latin culture attenuated Homer's influence in the West, literate Christians had a hard time letting go, and Homer continued to have at least iconic force for writers and artists in the European Middle Ages, even though knowledge of Greek had all but disappeared. Thus, Dante places Homer among the blessed pagan poets in the Inferno (though he had not read him) and Homeric tales made their way circuitously into medieval romances, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. Post-Renaissance, Homer's fortunes waxed again and have never completely waned.

From this mass of material Alberto Manguel has made almost always interesting selections, giving us a brief and densely allusive character sketch rather than a full "biography" of the poems. The breadth of his readings in English, German, French, and Italian is immense, and as a famous reader--he is the author of A History of Reading and A Reading Diary--Manguel is suited to his task. He traces Homeric influence into unexpected places, such as in English folktales, or Racine's Jansenism, or garbled Arabic retellings of the Trojan War. He sketches a quick outline of the birth of Homeric scholarship as an academic discipline, touches on the archaeology of Troy, and even dips lightly into recent technical work on methods of oral composition that built up the Homeric poetic tradition.

Manguel's most abiding interest is Homer's reception and influence among other poets and writers, from Tyrtaeus of Sparta to Derek Walcott. And it is in recording the reactions to Homer in writers as diverse as Horace, Augustine, Vico, Goethe, Freud, and scores of others that Manguel does his greatest service, because he allows us to listen in as some of our acutest minds converse about our greatest poet.

But if Manguel's brief survey is broad, it should come as no surprise that it is not deep. We get only a taste of most reactions to Homer, and Manguel's own assessments are only glancing. Chapters often slide in puzzling directions: Why, for example, discuss Homeric epithets and similes in the chapter devoted to Homer's reception among the English Romantics? Manguel is also occasionally wrong or misleading, for example quoting A.E. Houseman as saying that a literary critic should have "a head, and not a pumpkin" on his shoulders. Good advice. But Houseman actually wrote that about textual criticism, the arcane art of sifting a reliable classical text out of medieval manuscripts.

Sometimes Manguel misreads Homer himself, as when he asserts that the seer Tiresias predicts that Odysseus will die on one last journey. But Tiresias actually predicts that Odysseus will die "far from the sea, in a sleek old age, with his people dwelling about him."

These, however, are minor matters: On the whole, Manguel's volume is a delicious smorgasbord of Homerica that only occasionally needs a grain of salt.

He shows us that Homer has an illustrious past, but does he have a future? After all, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath famously declared him dead in Who Killed Homer? and blamed pedantic and politically correct classics scholars for killing him. But the Iliad and the Odyssey are constantly taught in high schools and colleges. And even when the poems are taught by pedants or theory-besotted graduate students, the poems themselves are so good that they often overcome their worst teachers. (Most students don't pay much attention to their teachers' pet ideas, but they are often enchanted by the drama and adventure of Homer. I recently asked 150 undergraduates who had just read the Odyssey to give me, anonymously, their candid opinions about it. All but one liked it, for a very wide variety of reasons. The one who didn't said that it "lacked an epic feel." Hmmm.)

The fact that Wolfgang Petersen's unintentionally campy movie Troy grossed nearly half-a-billion dollars worldwide in 2004 shows that Homer still has legs: He was not quite as popular that year as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, but he beat out Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11. And Achilles' Facebook groups--one is called "Achilles Could Definitely Take Chuck Norris"--show that Homer continues to have at least lowbrow appeal, as he always has (remember those rhapsodes).

It shouldn't be surprising that -Homer's poems are so durable, if you consider the way they were produced. We don't know who Homer was, or even whether there ever was a single poet by that name; but we do know that the epics ascribed to him were the product of a half-millennium of continuous oral composition and refinement by singers in Greece and Ionia. That means that the poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey had been more focus-grouped than any body of poetic art, even before they achieved written form.

The stories that survived that winnowing of necessity have broad appeal. Children are enthralled by Odysseus's adventures with bizarre monsters; warriors are drawn to the violence of the Trojan battlefield; sentimentalists like the affair of Helen and Paris, or the tragic marital love of Hector and Andromache. Feminists, ancient and modern, are attracted to the clever ways that Penelope exercises sexual power over the suitors, and to the whiffs of a prehistoric matriarchy in the poems. (Why, after all, do the suitors think they have to marry Penelope in order to become king?) And entrepreneurial types like Odysseus's indomitable spirit and problem-solving techniques. I'm frankly surprised that someone hasn't yet written Journey to Success: Solving Business Problems the Odysseus Way.

But the appeal of the poems has always been more than simply popular. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey pose stark existential questions and explore them with an unflinching gaze. Achilles's withdrawal from battle in the Iliad precipitates a frank search for the meaning of his life, and he pitilessly questions the values of the honor/shame culture that drives him and his companions. We last see him as an embittered ghost, telling Odysseus it's better to be a living ploughman than a glorious but dead king.

The Odyssey, too, asserts the deep value of living a human life. Odysseus, offered the possibility of blissful immortality with the goddess Calypso, is inexorably drawn to return to his home, his son, and his wife. Homer presents us with no transcendent values, but he does celebrate this-world, human ones: the value of achieving excellence, and the value of love--of husband and wife, of father and son, and of one friend for another. Achilles, like most soldiers before and since Troy, finally faced battle not for some glorious, abstract cause, but out of intense devotion to a brother in arms.

At a time when the value of living an earthly life is under attack by violent, death-loving and suicidal religious totalitarians, when a twisted honor/shame culture drives fathers and brothers to murder their daughters and sisters because of perceived violations of family honor, we could do worse than to contemplate with Achilles and Odysseus--the founders of our own culture--what makes this life worth living.

David Wharton is associate professor in the department of classics, and director of the linguistics program, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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