An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
The principal literary quality of this, perhaps the most shadowy of all the figures on the CLT Author Bank, is a little ironic.
❧ Full name and titles: Homer [hōm-ŕ; see our pronunciation guide for details]; “the bard” (though this more often means Shakespeare) or “the blind bard”
❧ Dates: floreat 8th c. BC?
❧ Areas active: not definitely known; almost certainly the Ægean basin, traditionally assigned to Ionia (the territory of Greek settlements on the western coast of Asia Minor, modern Türkiye)
❧ Original languages of writing: Ancient Greek (a blend of pre-classical, a.k.a. Homeric, dialects)
❧ Exemplary or important works: The Iliad; The Odyssey
The tradition of scholarship on Homer is now nearly as old as the Homeric literature itself. That scholarship has been far from unanimous on practically all points except the greatness of the Iliad and the Odyssey: debate has attached itself to his time period, his place of origin, his views and artistic intent in his two epics—and for that matter, whether there was just one “he,”and whether he were perhaps a she.* A flippant person, reading a summary of the evolving consensus about the poet over the last several centuries, might declare that we have at last seized upon the truth that Homer was not written by Homer but by another man of that name. It is always tempting to repeat a contemptuous joke as if it were straightforwardly true—obviously, we have not quite resisted the temptation here and now! But let us sweep away a little of the dust and chaff that have settled upon the (putative) father of our literary tradition, and see what we can see.
To begin with, there is real doubt about whether Homer was a single, historical person of that name. Some of this is perhaps thanks to mere contrariness of the part of scholars (one sometimes gets the impression that, when manuscript critics learn a book is traditionally attributed to so-and-so, they form an unshakeable conviction that so-and-so must on no account be permitted to have written the work in question). However, there are other confounding factors: if there was a historical Homer, he lived during the Greek Dark Ages**; ancient traditions about him are not consistent; the Homeric epics were certainly passed down orally even after the Greek alphabet had been invented, e.g. by the professional rhapsodes; and there may have been a certain amount of confusion between the poet and his characters in the minds of the audience (for instance, while there is an ancient tradition that Homer was blind, some academics today believe that this was a misunderstanding or guess, based on the character of Demodocus in the Odyssey).
The linguistic aspect of the Homeric epics typifies how knotty an issue these things can get to be. For example, you have heard that it was said, Homeric Greek, an earlier stage of the language than Classical Greek—but I say unto you that this is dead wrong. Homeric Greek does exist as a literary language: it was essentially a blend of all the major Greek dialects according to what suited the line the poet was writing down; but there was never an age when the current spoken form of Greek was “Homeric Greek.” This means the Iliad and the Odyssey must have been composed after all those dialects had developed (meaning a late date in the eighth or even the seventh century BC), right? Not necessarily: it means the version of the text as we possess it must be that late. Earlier forms might have been differently worded, and we would have little means of knowing, especially if changes were made during the purely oral period.
Or, turning instead to content, some of the details about Mycenæan† warfare in the Iliad appear to be wrong. Take the use of chariots to “taxi” to the battlefield, and then getting out of them to do the actual fighting on foot—a ridiculous idea. Clearly what happened is, Homer knew that the Greeks’ Bronze Age forefathers had used chariots, but not how, so he just took the then-current fighting technique and added in chariots as mood-setting flourish (“you know, make it old-timey, give the people what they want”). This too would presumably imply a later date. Except this version of Mycenæan chariotry and Homeric inaccuracy has also been challenged. This thesis, presented a little time ago at Florida State, argues that the very construction of the Mycenæan chariot would have made it impractical for anything but “taxi” duty. This might suggest an earlier date, especially since the Greeks did live within shouting range of people like the Hittites, who were great enthusiasts for chariot warfare (and one would expect any confusion about the use of chariots to drift toward thinking of how most societies used them, rather than preserving a local Greek peculiarity).
But all this—while genuinely interesting, and tying into certain archæological finds that cast a fascinating light on the Greek myths about the “Age of Heroes,” and which are about to hit a hundred years old—is also, in one sense, self-evidently irrelevant. We can discuss possible answers interminably, without coming anywhere near the most universally, perennially relevant question about either the Iliad or the Odyssey:
“Is it good?”
It is, of course, the height of foolishness to ask such a question: the word “good” is simply begging to be defined, and a definition can be defined as “that which invites argument in the instant of its expression.” Having thus opened Pandora’s clutch (one assumes she must have stuffed the definitions in there, after she ran out of room for more evils in the jar), we now enchant it shut again, by uttering the name of the mystery that frustrateth the tokens of the liars and maketh diviners mad—
For our purposes, we may define a good book as one that has at least one of the following traits: a) being fun to read, and b) being informative or edifying in some way.‡ Note that these criteria should not be interpreted too narrowly. Some of the great books of the Western world have to be explained quite a lot before one can have their intended fun by reading them; it is partly for this reason that we study things like Homeric Greek, Late Antique Latin, Middle English, and modern Russian. Many books are highly edifying, but not very pleasant to read; this does not disqualify them from discussion, but it does justify ranking these “books that only build character” beneath “books that both please and edify.” And it goes without saying that “being fun” is a multivalent idea, and not everyone who likes fun will find the same things entertaining. Nevertheless, no matter the cost, even if it means agreeing with the most common opinion of Homer throughout the realms and ages of our civilization: we hereby acknowledge that the Iliad and the Odyssey are, in fact, pretty good.
One hardly needs even to argue the case for the Odyssey. Shockingly, the archetypal episodic adventure story is a page-turner! The Iliad may be a tougher sell; siege warfare is not widely considered The Place To Be, and was not at the time, either. But the case for all of Homer being a pleasure is easier to make than one might think. Homer offers the reader something almost no other writer offers, or even attempts—a quality that might be summarized in a phrase like “heartless splendor.” C. S. Lewis explains it brilliantly in his Preface to “Paradise Lost”:
The actual operation of the Homeric diction is remarkable. The unchanging recurrence of his wine-dark sea, his rosy-fingered dawn, his ships launched into the holy brine, his Poseidon, shaker of earth … express a feeling very profound and very frequent in real life, but elsewhere ill-represented in literature. … The permanence, the indifference, the heartrending or consoling fact that whether we laugh or weep the world is what it is, always enters into our experience … Homeric pathos strikes hard precisely because it seems unintended and inevitable like the pathos of real life. … “Thus Helen spoke about her brothers, thinking them alive, but in fact the life-giving earth already covered them, in Lacedæmon, their dear fatherland.” Ruskin’s comment cannot be improved upon: “Note here the high poetical truth carried to the extreme. The poet has to speak of the earth in sadness, but he will not let that sadness affect or change his thoughts of it. No; though Castor and Pollux be dead, yet the earth is our mother still, fruitful, life-giving.” (Preface, pp. 21-24)
It might sound hyperbolic to say that the Iliad, even if it had nothing to offer us but this, would qualify as a thing of beauty for this trait alone; it might sound flippant to say that, given the pace of change and the nigh-inescapable noise of our lives today, this quality alone would make the Iliad edifying by sheer contrast. But these statements are neither flippancy nor hyperbole.
So, as we said in the beginning, there is irony in Homer, of all authors, being shown at his most brilliant in conveying a bare, direct realism. Not the Socratic irony of a rhetorical question, nor the dramatic irony of a self-wrought doom; the irony here is something finer and more remote. And this is good, because that provides a much better contrasting backdrop against which to point out that a plot summary of the Iliad sounds kind of like an unusually soap-operatic episode of “Cops.”
*Some readers scoff at this type of speculation, and it is admittedly speculative. However, some aspects of the Homeric treatment of gender are intriguing. That women and goddesses are among the powerful movers of the plot in both epics (e.g. Aphrodite, Thetis, Athene, and Circe) is notable, albeit not unusual. More striking is the explicit attention paid to the social plight of women, who were especially vulnerable under wartime conditions, whether at home or on campaign (exemplified in characters like Briseis, Cassandra, and Penelope).
**The Greek Dark Ages took place between the decline of the Late Bronze Age, dated around 1100 BC, and the beginning of the Archaic period, typically set at the institution of the Olympic Games in 776 BC; during this era, the Mycenæan† script was lost, and Greek became an unwritten language again for centuries. This does not leave scholars helpless to deduce anything about the period—oral literature and archæological remains are plentiful enough, as Schliemann proved. The problem is simply that literary and archæological evidence can be quite difficult to interpret.
†The city of Mycenæ was one of the most prominent in Bronze Age Greece, and in fact has given the name Mycenæan to that period of Greek history and language. It is treated poetically as being in some way synonymous with the nearby city of Argos, e.g. in the Oresteia, which depicts Agamemnon as a sort of high king of the Hellenes reigning from Mycenæ.
‡Here, and throughout, the reader may find C. S. Lewis’s slender little volume An Experiment in Criticism useful; we have a brief synopsis and review of it right here.
Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle to seven nephews, and holds a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park. He has worked for CLT since 2019, and lives in Baltimore, MD.
Thank you for visiting us today. If you enjoyed this piece, and would like to read about some more of our authors, you might begin with Josephus, Héloïse du Paraclet, John Donne, James Madison, or Zora Neale Hurston. You might enjoy the Journal’s series on the great ideas as well (for which a complete index can be found here).
Published on 18th December, 2023. Page image of the remains of the Lion Gate, formerly an entrance to the citadel of Mycenæ (source).