The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson – a review

by michaelharvey in Mythology

Homer the storyteller

The Mighty Dead. Homer the storyteller

The Mighty Dead book cover

Homer the storyteller has taken on many forms. He was the name of the poet who wrote two long narrative poems in Ancient Greece. One is the Iliad, which is about the siege Troy. The other is the Odyssey which tells the story of the adventures of Odysseus on his way back home. These are foundation myths of Western Europe and to find out why mythology is still important read this.

Most of Adam Nicolson’s book focuses on the Iliad. He does a great job of bringing these stories right into focus by giving us some deep background. These are not the civilised Greeks of Philosphy and Rhetoric. The Classical ideal of moderation in all things has no place in this Homeric world. It’s place of extreme and uncompromising action and intense emotion. Just as well because ‘moderation in all things’ would not give us the thrill of a gripping story.

Did the poet Homer exist? A very good question and Adam Nicolson has a very interesting answer. To begin with it was believed that Homer was an actual real-life poet. Then people thought that what we called ‘Homer’ was a collection of poems by different authors.

Making it up as you go along

Homer the Storyteller

Homer (Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery, Glasgow)

In the 1930’s Albert Loyd and Millman Parry, two American classicists, went to Yugoslavia to research oral poetry. At the time there were local performance poets who would tell old epic stories for hours. The performers did not memorise word for word but improvised using set patterns. The basic plot was always the same but the storyteller would draw out different scenes depending on how the audience was reacting. The two Americans came home declaring that “Homer is the people”.

Adam Nicolson goes one step further. He opens up the meaning of the word ‘Homer’ to include the uncompromising and unflinching world-view of the stories. A specific way of seeing rather than a poet or a people. The point of view of Homer the Storyteller.

Extreme Storytelling

More stories from Homer the Storyteller

Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Forum, Rome

These poems are about extremes. The passions of gods and men, kings heroes and lads far too young and inexperienced to be on a battlefield. In the Iliad everyone who walks into the frame of the story is treated as worthy of attention. There is no need to comment or judge. It doesn’t matter who they are, they are all given the same dispassionate treatment. This distance lets the actions of those involved speak loud and clear. In that way the beauty, horror and glory of their actions are more clearly delineated.

Yes, there is heroism and bravery but there is also a lot of crying, running away and a fair bit of begging for mercy. That and the unvarnished truth of the horror and brutality of combat. There is no pretending that their cause is noble in itself. They are following through on an obligation they all have to the king and the honour lies in fulfilling that obligation, come what may.

I was fascinated to learn that we have been saying Homer’s name completely wrong. In ancient Greek they would have called him ‘Homeeros’. The letter ‘o’ pronounced short as in ‘odd’. Try it – it sounds utterly different to the standard English pronunciation and has the air of summoning about it.

Ancient Stories from the North

Homer the Storyteller in Turkey

Classical statue in Istanbul museum.

Adam Nicolson turns the traditional east/west tension in the story into a north/south one. The stories came from nomadic Bronze Age tribes from the north who swept down into the civilised Fertile Crescent in the Middle East wreaking havoc wherever they went. The descendants of these people settled down and eventually became civilised themselves but their ancestral stories remained those of raiders and pirates. If you look at the action of both the Iliad and the Odyssey there is a large amount of raiding and piracy.

The world of Homer the storyteller is profoundly fatalistic. Your life really is in the hands of the gods and they can reward you, punish you or ignore you on a whim. It has nothing to do with being good and hoping for a reward. In a random and unjust world where the afterlife is a mere shadow of this one the only reasonable course of action is to be glorious and heroic so that stories can be told about you afterwards.

This may just sound as if the ultimate good is to be the best at killing and maiming other people so you can control them. In fact, the opposite is true. Throughout this book it is clear that Adam Nicolson is a profoundly civilised person and, although we experience the action of the old poems vicariously, we are not actually there on the battle field. The Homeric distance in the Iliad and the large cast of characters does not enlist us on to anybody’s side (the precise opposite of most contemporary Holywood) but just shows us what happened unflinchingly.

Seeing Clearly through the Horror

Ancient Roman sculpture from the Forum Museum Rome. Homer the Storyteller

Classical statues from Rome

Homer the storyteller shows us leaders and soldiers caught up in a war that nobody wants. The attackers quarrel amongst themselves but finally defeat the Trojans and utterly destroy their city. Homer (whover he/she/they/we are) in that most awful moment is able to bring the great hero Achilles and Priam, King of Troy, together so that Priam can properly bury the mangled body of his son that Achilles has just killed. Corpse, victor and grieving, defeated father are in the same tent. Even in the aftermath of all the horror of war the two men are able to meet eye to eye. They finally see each other clearly and Priam gets to bury his son.

I’ll leave the last word to Adam Nicolson.
“What is valuable and essential is…to regard all aspects of life with clarity, equanimity and sympathy, with a loving heart and an unclouded eye. Homer knows more than the people in the poems can ever know.”

click on the book jacket to go to amazon.

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