The Original Homer
You are familiar, perhaps, with those literary questions that are now ubiquitous on social media: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre? Bret Easton Ellis or Jonathan Franzen? The Iliad or the Odyssey? My answers, until recently, were: Both, Jane Eyre (I am a bit of a contrarian), Ellis, and the Odyssey. After finishing Robin Lane Fox’s magisterial Homer and His Iliad, I have come to see the error of my ways. The answer to that last question must be the Iliad.
So writes Micah Mattix in The Washington Examiner.
Homer and His Iliad; By Robin Lane Fox; Basic Books; 464 pp., $32.50.
Lane Fox spends the first half of the book making the case that Homer was indeed a real person (a few critics have questioned this) and the sole author (more than a few have questioned this) of the Iliad. He is not the first critic to attribute the entirety of the poem to a single person and admits that any argument about the Iliad’s authorship is speculative given the scant historical record.
Most of the Iliad is composed in two dialects of Greek, Ionic and Aeolic, and this mixture, Lane Fox writes, “is compatible with a Homer who composed and performed in western Asia,” a comparably affluent part of the Mediterranean at the time. Given what we know about the origins of a Greek script, which was devised around 790 B.C. or 780 B.C., it is entirely plausible that a poet dictated the entire poem to scribes (Lane Fox holds that Homer himself was illiterate) sometime around 750 B.C. References in the Iliad to dress, the organization of cities, and the uses of sanctuaries, as well as practices like gift-friendship and funeral rites all square with dating the poem to the eighth century B.C. That it is possible for a single poet to compose and memorize a poem of nearly 16,000 lines has been clear for some time. We have examples of early 20th-century oral poets from Bosnia composing and performing long poems from memory.
What sets Lane Fox’s argument regarding authorship apart is not the originality of his thesis but his comprehensive summary of the historical record and a careful analysis of the structure of the poem itself. This makes Homer and His Iliad one of the best and most accessible treatments of the question of authorship to date.
Unlike the episodic Odyssey, which at times seems stitched together, the Iliad is tightly plotted. Lane Fox argues that the “mixture of compression and fullness with a strictly controlled use of past and present is not easy to reconcile with theories of the poem as patchwork.” Homer connects the battle scenes with the drama behind the lines and makes extended use of dramatic irony. “Repeatedly,” Lane Fox writes, Homer contrasts the inescapable ruthlessness of life — we all suffer and die — with “the life of ease” of the gods and the desires of the characters to somehow escape this fate. The consistent subtlety of Homer’s lines and lack of melodramatic indulgence point to a single mind and sensibility behind the poem.
Where Lane Fox shines, however, is in his evaluation of the poem’s literary power. In the second part of the book, he looks at the heroes of the poem and the world they inhabit and finds that our lives are not so different from theirs without diminishing any of the poem’s foreignness.
Much of today’s criticism suffers from the belief that for a work of literature to be “relevant,” it must address niche contemporary political concerns in contemporary terms. Not Lane Fox. There is no mention of “toxic masculinity” and no attempt to make the women of the poem proto-feminists. The characters of the Iliad live in a hierarchical world where women are treated as property and men are preoccupied with honor. It is in some ways a brutal world where violence is inescapable and vengeance must be meted out for wrongs, real or imagined.
Yet, for all that, the dilemmas of the world of the Iliad remain our dilemmas. “Despite its many scenes of killing,” Lane Fox writes, “notions of going too far … underlie the plot.” Hector, for example, goes too far in battle. He yields to “nobody in his might” and overextends his forces, leading to a rout as Achilles rejoins the battle. Because of this, Hector remains outside the city walls, where he will die, because he is too ashamed to face the reproaches of his people, particularly people lower than himself. Achilles struggles to control the excesses of his bitter anger toward Agamemnon for slighting him. Patroclus, in the lust of battle, goes too close to Troy’s walls, despite Achilles’s warnings, and dies.
While Achilles is sometimes presented as little more than an “angry killer,” Lane Fox highlights his humanity. “He first appears,” Lane Fox writes, “in a thoughtful role as the summoner of an assembly to find why plague is afflicting the army. … He also shows touches of chivalry. Repeatedly he gives a good welcome to others, even those whose business is not to his liking. … He is a generous host … Homer even presents him, once, as an oral poet.” He shows kindness to Hector’s father who asks for his son’s body. Yet, despite his nobility and strength, he too will die, as it has been fated, leaving his best years unlived and a father to mourn him alone.
Lane Fox’s treatment of the women of the Iliad is particularly sensitive. While noting that their function in the poem is to highlight the brutality of war and the suffering that the heroes must endure, Homer nevertheless gives voice to their predicament in strikingly concise lines. Hector’s wife, Andromache, pleads with Hector, who has become, she says, her father and brother (because both are dead) in addition to her husband, to stay within the walls to protect her and their son. He refuses and tells her to return to her work since no man can escape his destiny. She does. When Hector is killed, she is preparing his bath, even though she knows his return is unlikely. Her sense of helplessness and terror at what will follow when Troy falls — she will become a slave in another man’s house and her son will be killed — is captured perfectly.
Helen, more than just a woman who loves men’s lusting, is a woman whose life is one of unhappiness and regret. “She is totally unlike Auerbach’s Homeric heroes,” Lane Fox writes, “who, he considered, ‘wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives.’ Repeatedly, she wishes it was her last day and dwells on the past.” This doesn’t excuse her fickleness. She hates Paris, for example, but cannot bring herself to “reject the man with whom she ran away.”
In these and many other glosses, Lane Fox brings out how Homer creates powerful scenes through restraint and juxtaposition. It’s a masterly work of criticism that is all the more welcome today for possessing what so few studies lack: intelligence, curiosity, and a keen awareness of the historical situation of the text.
If you are going to buy one book about the Iliad, make it Homer and His Iliad.