On Homer (Part 1): What Makes Homer Special?

On Homer (Part 1): What Makes Homer Special?

After reading Homer extensively over the past six years, in multiple translations and with the addition of a number of commentaries and analyses, I think it is time to begin writing my own thoughts on these books, if only to elucidate and crystallize what those thoughts may be. This will probably come in multiple parts — how many, I am not sure yet.

And perhaps the most fitting first subject to discuss about Homer’s works is what is it — exactly — that makes them so special?

An author has to walk a very fine line in making their characters both relatable and interesting. Too relatable, and the character is generic and bland, to the point of non-existence. The protagonist in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight seems to be a presently popular example. Too interesting and distinctive, and they become completely foreign and unrelatable. I had this feeling about Toru Okada in Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. But hit that sweet-spot as an author, between relatable and unique, and you have a character primed to draw in the audience.

What drives Homer’s stories are its characters, who are extremely foreign to the modern reader because of their context. The Bronze-Age warriors of the Iliad speak to each other with an almost child-like pomposity and in-the-moment narration that seems like it should defy our comprehension. The crazy stories of Odysseus seem absurd. Many readers no doubt feel very similarly when reading the razor wit of Shakespeare: ‘nobody speaks that way.’

Consider, by way of example, the way in which Achilles responds to Odysseus when the latter comes to try and reconcile the hero with the king Agamemnon. The style is verbose and self-centered in a classically Indo-European fashion, but there is also something familiar:

Heaven-sprung son of Laertes, Odysseus of many wiles, in openness must I now declare unto you my saying, even as I am minded and as the fulfilment thereof shall be, that ye may not sit before me and coax this way and that. For hateful to me even as the gates of hell is he that hideth one thing in his heart and uttereth another: but I will speak what meseemeth best. Not me, I ween, shall Agamemnon son of Atreus persuade, nor the other Danaans, seeing we were to have no thank for battling with the foemen ever without respite. He that abideth at home hath equal share with him that fighteth his best, and in like honour are held both the coward and the brave; death cometh alike to the untoiling and to him that hath toiled long. Neither have I any profit for that I endured tribulation of soul, ever staking my life in fight. Even as a hen bringeth her unfledged chickens each morsel as she winneth it, and with herself it goeth hard, even so I was wont to watch out many a sleepless night and pass through many bloody days of battle, warring with folk for their womel’s sake. Twelve cities of men have I laid waste from ship-board, and from land eleven, throughout deep-soiled Troy-land; out of all these took I many goodly treasures and would bring and give them all to Agamemnon son of Atreus, and he staying behind amid the fleet ships would take them and portion out some few but keep the most. Now some he gave to be meeds of honour to the princes and the kings, and theirs are left untouched; only from me of all the Achaians took he my darling lady and keepeth her. But why must the Argives make war on the Trojans? why hath Atreides gathered his host and led them hither? is it not for lovely-haired Helel’s sake? Do then the sons of Atreus alone of mortal men love their wives?

Iliad, Book 9

Maybe it’s just me, but his argument — the way he thinks, if not necessarily the way he speaks — is eminently understandable, almost even familiar.

In moments of more thorough immersion in the style, I have almost caught myself thinking “this could have been written recently.” Of course, I am subsequently brought back to the style and setting and the thought seems ridiculous. But for that one moment, those characters and I were in the same world…

There are layers and layers of depth to Homer’s stories. I would like to argue that in combination, the Iliad and the Odyssey are every bit as deep and powerful as the Bible. But like the Bible, what makes the works of Homer so compelling on the first read-through isn’t the depth. By way of analogy, I have yet to meet anyone who, after reading through the Bible for the first time, were initially most struck with the theological mystery of Jesus’ simultaneous manhood and godhood. That sort of thing comes later, if ever.

Rather, what draws us into stories like those of Homer or the Bible is the vivid intensity of the tales; that strange combination of foreignness and familiarity, mixed together in a way which is internally consistent. It feels strange, yet speaks to us, and something in this combination seems to whisper that the book knows something about us of which we ourselves are ignorant.

It is in the depths that Homer and the Bible part ways. But I think that in the powerful imagery and the mixture of the alien past with the psychologically-universal present, we can understand why the Bible has captivated people for two millennia… and, for Homer, three.

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