A review of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey: A Biography, by Alberto Manguel

It is said that the young Alcibiades, visiting a grammar school around 430 B.C., asked the teacher for a volume of Homer and, hearing there was none, struck the hapless teacher and left. Ancient geographers like Strabo thought to learn their art from the blind bard; Stoics studied what they considered Homer's didactic allegories. Military commanders pored over his lays so as to avoid Agamemnon's errors and mimic Odysseus's guile. Socrates called Homer the "best and most divine" of poets, and Plato's dialogues, for all their censure, refer to him, by one estimate, 331 times. Plutarch claims that Aristotle himself prepared an edition of the Iliad for his pupil Alexander, who kept the book "with his dagger under his pillow, declaring that he esteemed it a perfect portable treasure of all military virtue and knowledge." A 2nd-century B.C. marble relief depicts Homer as Father of Humankind, crowned by Time and Space themselves.

Alberto Manguel's slim "biography" is a literary history of Homer's epics, half criticism, half Britannicaentry. In each of 22 short chapters, averaging ten pages apiece, he examines an angle of the Homeric phenomenon: the question of his existence; his reception by Greek philosophers; his heirs Virgil and Dante; the agonies of St. Jerome and Augustine of Hippo in reconciling him with Scripture; the excavation of Troy; his role in French debates between anciens and modernes; and his lessons on war and peace. Manguel flits about in time, but the progression is roughly chronological, from Homer's heroic age to our insistently anti-heroic one. The epics, thought to have been composed in the 8th century, have had few rivals in the inspiration of pedantry: an ancient scholar named Demetrius of Scepsis amplified 62 lines from the Iliad's Catalogue of Ships into 30 volumes. But Manguel, a critic, novelist, and translator born in Argentina and now living in France, writes with intelligence and curiosity. For a man of letters who has edited 23 anthologies and is reputed to possess a library of 30,000 volumes, he mostly avoids ostentation.

Manguel's intent is to show that, for over 2,500 years, countless members of the species have found "in these stories of war in time and travel in space…the experience of every human struggle and every human displacement." The Iliad andOdyssey, which can be thought to represent the two great metaphors of life, a battle and a journey, are the "books which, more than any others, have fed the imagination of the Western world." In the 8th century A.D., Byzantine schoolchildren were still expected to have much of the Iliad by heart. Six hundred years later, during the Renaissance, Homer remained the cornerstone of every ambitious library. A friend sent Petrarch a Greek manuscript of Homer, which the father of humanism treasured despite ignorance of the language. "Your Homer lies mute by my side," Petrarch wrote his friend, "while I am deaf by his, and often I have kissed him saying: ‘Great man, how I wish I could hear your words!'" In 1580, Montaigne declared Homer one of the three "most excellent of men," alongside Alexander and the Theban general Epaminondas. Dr. Johnson observed in 1765 that "nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new-name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments." Even today, it is possible that Homer the poet is better known than Homer the cartoon character.

Votaries of the "man of a thousand faces," in Manguel's play on Christopher Marlowe's phrase, constitute a gallery of literature's great and lesser figures, from Herodotus to Racine to Tennyson to Derek Walcott. Manguel discusses works that but for Homer wouldn't exist, from the plays of Aeschylus (who claimed his labors were mere "slices from the great banquets of Homer") to the Arabic Sinbad tales, from Milton's Paradise Lost to Joyce's Ulysses; he assigns equal space to obscurities like Jean Giraudoux's La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu (1935) and Timothy Findley's Famous Last Words(1981). But even immortal Homer has critics. Diderot's Encyclopédie sniffed at him as a relic of barbaric antiquity. Speaking for roughly 75 generations of schoolchildren, Churchill observed in My Early Life (1930), "Mr. Gladstone read Homer for fun, which I thought served him right."

* * *

Homer is Greek to me, as to most, which can make the selection of a translation nearly as important as the decision to read him in the first place. Manguel nominates two English versions for acclaim: Alexander Pope's (Iliad, 1715-1720;Odyssey, 1725-26) and the late Robert Fagles's (Iliad, 1990; Odyssey, 1996), using the latter for his citations. As Manguel says, Fagles is rightly "praised for his accuracy and modern ring"; others (like me) prefer Pope's music and nobility. Fagles himself served as associate editor in preparing the definitive Twickenham Edition of Pope's Homer, masterpieces he declared "impossible to equal." Compare the rough-hewn Fagles, then the stately Pope, rendering the passage in Iliad, Book XVI, that depicts Achilles and his tribesmen, whose withdrawal from the fighting had been disastrous to the Greeks, girding themselves at long last to rejoin the war:

Prince Achilles, ranging his ranks of Myrmidons,
arrayed them along the shelters, all in armor.
Hungry as wolves that rend and bolt raw flesh,
hearts filled with battle-frenzy that never dies—
off of the cliffs, ripping apart some big antlered stag
they gorge on the kill till all their jaws drip red with blood,
then down in a pack they lope to a pooling, dark spring,
their lean sharp tongues lapping the water's surface,
belching bloody meat, but the fury, never shaken,
builds inside their chests though their glutted bellies burst—
so wild the Myrmidon captains, Myrmidon field commanders
swarming round Achilles' dauntless friend-in-arms

Achilles speeds from tent to tent, and warms
His hardy Myrmidons to blood and arms.
All breathing death, around their chief they stand,
A grim, terrific, formidable band:
Grim as voracious wolves that seek the springs
When scalding thirst their burning bowels wrings
(When some tall stag, fresh-slaughtered in the wood,
Has drenched their wide, insatiate throats with blood)
To the black fount they rush, a hideous throng,
With paunch distended, and with lolling tongue,
Fire fills their eye, their black jaws belch the gore,
And gorged with slaughter, still they thirst for more.
Like furious rushed the Myrmidonian crew,
Such their dread strength, and such their deathful view.

* * *

In recounting disputes over Homer's existence, the nature of his instruction, or his compatibility with monotheism, Manguel maintains an amused neutrality. But on occasion he asserts himself. When Émile Zola calls Homer's heroes "nothing but gang bosses," for example, Manguel labors to show the complexity of Homer's portrait of humanity and the sorrows of war. Homer can bathe his warriors in gore and fury, but they also appear in the most touching domestic poses. Here from Iliad, Book VI, is the scene in which Hector bids farewell to his infant son, as his wife Andromache looks on, before he returns to the great fray outside Troy's walls (again, Fagles, then Pope). In all poetry, writes Pope, there "never was a finer piece of painting than this":

In the same breath, shining Hector reached down
for his son—but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse's full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror—
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms,
lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods:
"Zeus, all you immortals! Grant this boy, my son,
may be like me, first in glory among the Trojans,
strong and brave like me, and rule all Troy in power
and one day let them say, ‘He is a better man than his father!'—
…So Hector prayed
and placed his son in the arms of his loving wife.
Andromache pressed the child to her scented breast,
smiling through her tears.

Thus having spoke, th' illustrious chief of Troy
Stretched his fond arms to clasp the lovely boy.
The babe clung crying to his nurse's breast,
Scared at the dazzling helm, the nodding crest.
With secret pleasure each fond parent smiled,
And Hector hasted to relieve his child,
The glitt'ring terrors from his brow unbound,
And placed the beaming helmet on the ground.
Then kissed the child, and lifting high in air,
Thus to the Gods preferred a father's prayer.
"O thou! whose glory fills th' etherial throne,
And all ye deathless pow'rs! protect my son!
Grant him, like me, to purchase just renown,
To guard the Trojans, to defend the crown,
Against his country's foes the war to wage,
And rise the Hector of the future age!
So when triumphant from successful toils,
Of heroes slain he bears the reeking spoils,
While host may hail him with deserved acclaim,
And say, ‘This chief transcends his father's fame':
…He spoke, and fondly gazing on her charms,
Restored the pleasing burden to her arms
Soft on her fragrant breast the babe she laid,
Hushed to repose, and with a smile surveyed.
The trouble pleasure soon chastised by Fear,
She mingled with the smile a tender tear.

Homer famously suffered the occasional nod, but Manguel, apparently wide awake, threatens in some chapters to put his readers fast asleep. When his march through literature arrives at Goethe, Schiller, and the German Romantics, things begin to get heady. Then Nietzsche swaggers onstage, mind-boggling as ever. He is followed by Freud, who psychoanalyzes Achilles' subconscious and deciphers Homeric symbolism. Enter Carl Jung to obscure things further by clarifying Freud. By this point Manguel is producing sentences like the following:

For Jung, this meant that Homer unconsciously identified with Nature, creating by analogy an association between the subject poet and his thematic object, lending it his creative power and representing it in a certain way because that is the way it shapes itself with him.

The reader yearns for the clarity of the non-Teutonic chapters and recalls, with improved understanding, the epigraph gracing one of them, from Swift: "As learned commentators view / In Homer more than Homer knew." But taken all in all, the book shows why Homer will continue to mesmerize. By the end, the reader understands Manguel's awe: 

How astonishing that, in a language we no longer know precisely how to pronounce, a poet or various poets whose faces and characters we cannot conceive, who lived in a society of whose customs and beliefs we have but a very vague idea, described for us our own lives today, with every secret happiness and every hidden sin.