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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

"Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey: A biography" by Alberto Manguel

I look for two things in a non-fiction book. First, that I should learn something from it. This shouldn't be a high hurdle since I tend to read to expand my knowledge. However, I learn more from some books that others. My second criterion is that it should be readable by which I mean that I should keep wanting to turn the pages,

This book passed both these tests although perhaps not quite as spectacularly on either criterion as The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson which I found both addictive and fascinating.

Most of the book is not about Homer's Iliad and Odyssey but about the effect of these works on subsequent centuries. Thus Manguel discusses Virgil, Dante, Alexander Pope (who despite not knowing Greek produced a best-selling translation by reading other translations; Gibbon said his version had ‘every merit except that of likeness to the original'; C12), Joyce, and folklore:

  • “Virgil ‘did not understand the fundamental principle in Homer’s world, that poetry belongs to the defeated and the dead.” (C4)
  • “The model for Dante’s Commedia is a composite of many sources, from Homer ( via Virtgil) to Arabic accounts of Muhammad's journey to the other world, the Mi’raj; one version of the latter was translated into Castilian by order of Alfonso X, and then into Latin, French and Italian, the last of which Dante probably read.” (C8)
  • Icelandic saga “Story of Egill One-Hand” influenced by Ulysses and Polyphemus and later became Jack and the Beanstalk. (C7)
He also recounts how a village in war-torn Colombia wanted to retain their library copy of the Iliad. “They explained that Homer’s story reflected their own: it told of a war-torn country in which mad gods mix with men and women who never know exactly what the fighting is about, or when they will be happy, or why they will be killed.” (Introduction)

But he also spends some time talking about the originals. He supports the idea that Homer may have come from Chios: “The language of the poems is mainly Ionic, spoken by the early Greeks who settled on the west coast of Asia Minor and the adjacent islands, including Chios; although it may have been the conventional language of epic poetry.” (C2) But he also supports the idea that the Odyssey may have had a Semitic origin: “Homer calls Circe’s island both Nesos Kirkes and Aiaia. Aiaia means nothing in Greek but in Hebrew it means ‘Island of the She-Hawk’, which in Greek translates as Nesos Kirkes.” (C19) He also tells us that there were once believed to be six other epic poems written about the Trojan war from which only a few quotations now survive: Cypria: prequel: Judgement of Paris; Aithopis: death of Hector to death of Achilles; Little Iliad: from here to up to the Wooden Horse; Ilion Persis: the sack of Troy; Nostoi: the Returns of Menelaus, Agamemnon, Ajax and Neoptolemos; Telegony: the further adventures of Odysseus (C6). Furthermore there were two (forged) eyewitness accounts, one from the Greek side by Dictys of Crete of which a fragment was “discovered in 1899 on at the back of an income tax return for the year 206 AD.” (C6) and another by the Trojan Dares the Phrygian which, after extensive rewriting by Benoit de Saint-Maure in 1165 led to the tale of Troilus and Cressida covered by Chaucer, Caxton and Shakespeare (C6).

Manguel in particular focuses on the Homeric account of the Underworld. His suggestion that it was a sort of retirement home was shockingly brilliant:


  • “Homer had described a place without graded categories, an Underworld in which souls wonder about, incorporeal and listless, like the inmates of a retirement home, some still suffering from regret for what they have done or left undone on earth ... Homer’s dead are never pleased to be where they are. ‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!’ says the ghost of Achilles when he sees him. ‘By God, I’d rather slave on earth for another man ... than rule down here over all the breathless dead’.”
  • “Homer’s ghastly picture of the dead as a confused mingling of sexes and ages, occupations and social classes, extends across many hundreds of future years and will eventually take on its most recognizable shape towards the middle of the fourteenth century in the danse macabre.”
Other insights in this fascinating book:


  • “Two of our oldest metaphors tell us that all life is a battle and that all life is a journey” (Introduction)
  • “The invention of lower case cursive allowed scribes to produce more copies at a lower cost, since fewer pages were needed to hold a given text.” (C6)
  • “Translation of foreign literature into Arabic can be said to have begun in the mid-eighth century during the rule of the celebrated Abbasid caliph al-Mansur.” (C7)
  • “Several of Ulysses’ adventures surface in the stories of Sindbad the Sailor.” (C7)
  • “Petrarch kept, with devotional care, a Greek manuscript of Homer which he didn't know how to read.” (C8)
  • “To the opposition's argument that God had punished humankind with a plurality of tongues after Babel ... Schade answered with the notion that God is a polyglot ... and the angels and saints, being our intercessors, are also polyglots by necessity.” (C10)
  • In Spain ignorance of Greek meant that Spaniards had to learn Homer through Latin translations: “When Miguel de Unamuno was given the chair of Greek at the University of Salamanca in 1891, it was pointed out that the celebrated intellectual had no Greek. Juan Valera, chairman of the committee that selected him, explained: ‘’None of the other candidates knows Greek, so we selected the one most like to know it’.” (C10)
  • “It was Aristotle, according to Plutarch, prepared the edition of the Iliad that Alexander [the Great] kept ‘with his dagger under his pillow’.” (C12)
  • “Many poets work in this way: constructing a poem from prose jottings of ideas and observations.” (C12)
  • “Pope is not aiming for verisimilitude; rather a natural artificiality punctuated by cadenced rhymes, composing verses with a repetitive beat not unlike today's rap.” (C12)
  • “‘The concept of a definitive text,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges in 1932, ‘belongs either to religion or weariness’.” (C12)
  • “Unlike an ordinary metaphor that catches qualities in one object which it ascribes to another, thereby creating a new literary space in which what is said and what is implied intermingle and increase, the epic simile places side by side two different actions that don't blend but remain visually separate, one colouring or qualifying the other.” (C13)
  • “Philosophers in Vico’s age offered two conflicting theories of knowledge: the first was based on evidence and argument ... while the second centred on introspection and thought ... Vico offered a third possibility: the imagination, and independent power of the mind that he called fantasia.” (C 14)
  • In Book 2 Iliad Homer “stops his narrative and invokes the Muses. Partly this is a literary device that became codified in the Middle Ages as excusatio propter infirmitatem (‘an apology for one's own shortcomings’); partly, it is a way of lending verisimilitude to the telling by shifting responsibility: ‘It is not I who says this, but something greater than I, and therefore it must be true’.” (C14)
  • “In the Iliad, Achilles defines the battle as ‘fighting other soldiers to win their wives as prizes’.” (C15)
  • “At the core of ancient Greek culture, is a living tension between, on the one hand, a tendency towards order and individual fulfilment (which Nietzsche called ‘ Apollonian’) and, on the other, violence and destructive rapture (‘Dionysian’).” (C16)
  • “In the Underworld, the soothsayer Tiresias announces not what will be but what may be: the possibilities of the foreseeable future are always more than one and the outcome depends on the hero's choice.” (C19)
  • “We see ourselves as better than our ancestors, savages of the Bronze Age who, though they wrought fine cups and bangles and sang beautiful songs, massacred each other in horrible wars, possessed slaves and raped women, ate without forks and conceived gods who threw thunderbolts.” (C22)

So Manguel definitely passed the first test: I learned loads. I reasd it in two days flat which means he passed the second test as well.

March 2019; 237 pages

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