Like a Meteorite

James Davidson

  • Homer in English edited by George Steiner
    Penguin, 355 pp, £9.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 14 044621 4
  • Homer’s ‘Iliad’ translated by Stanley Lombardo
    Hackett, 584 pp, £6.95, May 1997, ISBN 0 87220 352 2
  • Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ translated by Robert Fagles
    Viking, 541 pp, £25.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 670 82162 4

Two thousand seven hundred and thirty years ago, somewhere on the west coast of Turkey, not far perhaps from Izmir, you are attending a feast. Although some of your neighbours are still noisily tucking in, the entertainment is due to begin. You have been looking forward to this. Your host claims to have secured the talents of the best singer in the world. Your cousin heard him in Chios three years ago and has been talking of nothing else ever since. The word is that for tonight, and the next few nights, he will be telling the tale of Troy. To fill so many evenings he will have to start right at the beginning, with another banquet, the nuptial feast of Peleus and Thetis. He will give lavish descriptions of all the wedding presents sent by the gods, a flattering or ironic commentary on the current festivities, but at some point in his song, a golden apple will appear on one of the tables, delivered by an uninvited guest. Athena will fight for it with Hera and Aphrodite, and before too long Paris, their adjudicator, will be seducing Helen and Agamemnon will be sacrificing his daughter to secure a favourable wind for Troy. There will follow long accounts of battles and heroic deeds, perhaps something on the untimely death of Thetis’ son, Achilles, Odysseus’ victory in the dispute over his arms, and the madness and suicide of Telamonian Ajax, the embittered loser. The bard will doubtless finish in the middle of next week, with the Wooden Horse and graphic descriptions of pillage and mayhem when the proud city falls. You are especially looking forward to the bit where Cassandra gets raped by the lesser Ajax at the altar of Athena and the other bit where Pyrrhus, son of Thetis’ son, flings little Astyanax, scion of Hector’s house, like a gammadion from the top of the city walls.

When the poet begins, however, the action is already in full swing. It seems we are only to be given a short episode. His sole subject, he says, will be the wrath of Achilles, and he starts on about some priest of Apollo you have never heard of and some squalid dispute over rights to a female prisoner-of-war. At this rate you will be down at the beach tomorrow morning looking for a boat home. You catch the eye of your host; he is looking rather anxious. There must have been some argument over Homer’s fees.

Reading Homer for the first time is like watching Athena crack out of Zeus’ skull fully armed or like opening the caves at Lascaux and discovering the Sistine Chapel ceiling inside. He arrives on the field of literature like a meteorite out of a cloudless sky, our very own qibla, our inscrutable Black Stone. That the first surviving Western poetry, born within a generation or two of the alphabet, should also be so well-achieved is astonishing. There is nothing tentative about the opening books of the Iliad or the Odyssey, no indication that these are literature’s first faltering steps; and there is no sense as we travel through the length of his narrative that there is anything more for poetry to achieve. When we have stopped marvelling, however, we are left with an aporia. If it is the ordinary function of a classic to obliterate local frames of reference and smoothe away points of critical purchase, how much more difficult is it to place Homer, the first classic, who materialises out of nowhere, without juvenilia or antecedents, or any kind of poetic hinterland to help comprehend his project. Later traditions about Homer are quite unreliable. What we definitely know about him amounts to nothing at all. He might belong to the mainland or to Italy, to Cyprus or Syria even, rather than Anatolia. He might have lived two hundred years later than we imagine, or five hundred years before. We don’t even know if he is a him, and not a she or a they.

It is true that we have many material artefacts from his approximate time, but the funeral art of the well-named Geometric period, with its matchstick mourners and its matchstick horses and hearses, is the very opposite of forthcoming and might prepare us, if we didn’t know better, for a literature similarly abstract and monochrome, some kind of epic Beckett or a haiku, perhaps, rather than anything so vivid and humane. The severity of eighth-century painting, such a contrast to Homer’s description of Achilles’ lifelike shield, has been enough in itself for some to down-date the epics, securing a more figurative environment for them seventy years later. Indeed, when the classical Greeks discovered Geometric graves and tombs they not only failed to connect them with their greatest poet, but denied they were Greek at all. The more we find out about Homer’s period, the more his poetry comes as a surprise.

With so little information coming from elsewhere, our only certain recourse is to the poems themselves, and for well over two thousand years critics and academics have focused minutely on the texts in an attempt to read past them into the origins of epic and to flesh out Homer’s world. Plato noticed that the heroes of the Iliad did not eat fish, although they were encamped by the Hellespont. Others working at the great library of Alexandria noticed that fish were eaten in the Odyssey and concluded that the two epics must have had different authors. This started a long tradition of multiplying Homers. Running a close eye over the fabric for signs of patches, mismatches and seams, scholars discovered numerous episodes and whole books which seemed to be later interpolations. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the age of Ossian and the Kalevala, Homer was claimed for folk literature and German scholars managed to separate the poems into discrete, manageable mini-ballads, stitched together only at a later date by mere editors, ancient equivalents of Lönnrot or the Brothers Grimm. The bards glimpsed performing in the Odyssey for entertainment at feasts provided a useful model for their own composer. Other scholars, delving deeper into the origins of the epics, thought they could detect earlier, more primitive stories woven clumsily and incompletely into the final version, even supplying their own more coherent and logical versions of the prototype fairy tales.

Much of the impetus for dividing Homer came from the realisation that he was an ‘oral poet’, a conclusion derived both from his apparently idiosyncratic style and from the lack of any evidence for writing at the presumed date of composition. It was the first-century Jewish writer Josephus, taking a pot-shot at Greek self-esteem, who first suggested Homer had been illiterate, but it was not until the Twenties that the Californian Milman Parry set out to prove Josephus right. He dressed up in traditional Serbian costume and went looking for Homer in the highlands of Yugoslavia. There he found a number of bards still working and was impressed by how much they could produce. The quality was not great, but they used formulas and repetitions which seemed to cast light on Homer’s own mode of composition. The crucial point was that the poets did not need to memorise their poems, they could improvise them around a well-practised scheme. What this meant was that there was no longer any need to divide the poems into more manageable parts. Thanks to the formulas, which some of Parry’s over-zealous followers calculated to be as much as 90 per cent of the work, each epic could easily have been composed by one man, but really it was, as Vico had suggested, the work of a whole people, who had been rehearsing it for generations, with hundreds of years to get it right. The Black Stone had not come from nowhere. Homer was a mere pinnacle projecting above the surface, part of the long and ancient chain of the oral tradition. If this meant that his reputation as a creative poet was diminished somewhat, he could be revered instead as a hexametrical technician, a masterful choreographer of the material he had inherited.

In Oxford in the Eighties, the technicalities of oral composition still loomed large in Homer classes, and critical studies full of word-counts, Serbians and statistics dominated student bibliographies; but in the lecture-halls there were signs of a reaction. Jasper Griffin and Oliver Taplin in particular drew attention to the imaginative world of the poet, emphasising unity, humanity and narrative complexity. This seemed a much more rewarding approach to those for whom the most remarkable feature of the epics had always been not repetition but variety, a particularly noticeable achievement of the Iliad, where so much of the material is the same: fighting, killing and maiming. Meanwhile, the evidence for writing kept getting earlier and earlier, reaching back well before the presumed date of composition. There was now a possibility that the epics were not the improvisations of some jazz poet, but careful written compositions, perhaps never even performed in Homer’s lifetime, but stored in a late Geometric garret and discovered after his death, like Webern’s late cantatas or Bach’s Art of Fugue. Curiously, although T.E. Lawrence had found Homer ‘bookish’ and ‘house-bred’, this line of thinking was never explored, but the question of orality began to focus more on performance and narrative technique than on the difficulties of composition.

One of the most tantalising aspects of these new approaches has been a revived interest in Homer’s relationship to the rest of the epic tradition. It had always seemed quite improbable that he had made the whole thing up from scratch, inventing Achilles, Odysseus and Troy out of his own imagination. From an early date, images appeared of scenes which belonged outside the Iliad. One of the earliest is a bizarre storage jar from the island of Mykonos showing the Wooden Horse. One of the most poignant shows Ajax preparing to fall on his sword. Another popular subject shows heroes playing board-games to while away the vast stretches of empty time. Moreover, by the fourth century at the latest, the Iliad and the Odyssey had been slotted into a great cycle, which told the complete story of the Trojan heroes, from the wedding of Peleus and Thetis to the later adventures of Odysseus: Telegonus, his son by Circe, comes to Ithaca and accidentally kills him with an arrow made from the sting of a sting-ray, Penelope marries Telegonus, Telemachus marries Circe and they all live happily ever after. These poems seem to have been composed later, in response to the success of the Homeric epics, to fill in the gaps that Homer had left, and some of it – the Telegonia seems an obvious candidate – is probably itself pure invention, based on no long-standing tradition, an inferior sequel, perhaps, Odyssey II. Much of the rest, however, seems to derive from a whole collection of myths about the Trojan heroes that must have provided the background to Homer’s own enterprise and present us with the possibility of illuminating the audience’s expectations, even throwing light on the poet’s originality.

The starting-point, again, needs to be Homer himself and, as it happens, both epics are dotted with occasional references to events of the Trojan War that the Iliad does not cover. Some of these are straightforward. The marriage feast that started it all is remembered in the magical talking horses lent in vain to Patroclus, one of the wedding gifts presented to Achilles’ father by the gods. The Judgment of Paris is never mentioned, but it seems always to be assumed, with Hera and Athena the most zealous partisans of the Greek side and Aphrodite, revealing a kind of complicity with Helen, trying ineffectually to help the other side. There are several occasions when the death of Achilles or the fall of Troy are foreshadowed, and Telamonian Ajax won’t talk to Odysseus when they meet again in Hades, still resentful about the dispute over dead Achilles’ arms. Again, it is just possible that these allusions have been placed there by the author as a kind of trompe l’oeil, to create the illusion of a world outside his narrative or to tantalise the audience with the promise of future instalments or regret for past appearances they had missed; but here we begin to sound like creationists arguing that fossils were planted by God.

Other references are more oblique and therefore more controversial. Why does Athena hate the lesser Ajax unless she is thinking of the future rape of Cassandra in front of her image? How much more poignant is the famous scene on the battlements between Hector, Andromache and their son, if we know that it is from here that the child will be thrown when Troy meets its fate? How much more futile does all the fighting seem, if we are mindful that the city will finally succumb only to a ruse? The extent of Homer’s subtlety in the Iliad will always be debated, but it seems certain that he assumed his audience already knew the tale of Troy and that he plays against this background, using their assumptions to create effects of irony, suspense, pathos and surprise. What he did was not so different, after all, from what the great tragedians did, or what Ovid did, or Apollonius of Rhodes, putting a new spin on ancient tales.

Building on this assumption, we can begin to approach the question of Homer’s originality. From what we know of the other epics, they covered much longer periods and many more fantastic events in many fewer lines. The bards who entertain the court in the palace of the Phaeacians and the suitors of Penelope in Odysseus’ home also manage to get more action into a shorter space of time. Almost the whole of the immense Iliad, by contrast, covers only a few days in the ten-year saga of the Trojan War and it tells of only one episode out of many, the wrath of Achilles. It is a small detail from the big picture, blown up to monumental size. It should have been a short interlude, perhaps, a little entertainment between courses. The surprise that greets modern readers, therefore, when they discover that the Iliad does not in fact begin at the beginning and contains no mention of the Judgment of Paris or the fatal Horse, may well have been the reaction of Homer’s original audience. Instead of adding on other episodes, Homer brings a magnifying glass to the tale and fills the time by deepening his characters, by realising more fully their imagined world, by broadening the narrative, rather than simply extending it. The other storytellers in the epics are not models for Homer’s project, but designed to point up a contrast with his own more detailed, more lifelike work. He thus sets himself off against the balladeers, self-consciously highlighting his own originality.

The Odyssey seems to take innovation even further. Odysseus is a prominent figure in the Iliad and features in several Trojan tales that lie outside it. One story tells how he tried to avoid serving on the expedition by feigning madness and ploughing a field, until someone places baby Telemachus in his path, arresting his lunatic progress and exposing his folly as a sham. There is little sign, however, of a non-Homeric tradition of his return. Troy is a famous story and its fame resonates throughout the Odyssey. But when Homer begins the tale of Odysseus’ return he seems to have little idea of where the story is going, as if his audience have never heard it before. The earliest painted scenes, moreover, look like precise illustrations of Homer’s text, leaving the impression that he has a monopoly on the subject. Even the fabulous Phaeacians seem to crop up nowhere else. There must, therefore, be a distinct possibility that the story of the Odyssey is largely Homer’s own. With all their twists and turns and feints and illusions, both the plot and the voyage look like projections of the hero’s multivalent Iliadic personality (or inventions of his subtle imagination), his homecoming an extrapolation from his reluctance to leave his wife and son. There were traditions, to be sure, about other voyages. Homer already knows of the Argo, and both Hercules and Perseus were sent to the ends of the earth in search of exotic quarry. The Odyssey seems to have used some of this material. The witch Circe, in particular, looks like she is in the wrong saga. She really belongs to Aia (Colchis) rather than the island of Aiaia, being Aeëtes’ sister and Medea’s maiden aunt. Read against these other myths, the Odyssey looks not like another version but an inversion of the fantastic voyage. Odysseus’ journey is always being deconstructed. A favourable wind from Aeolus takes him in sight of Ithaca, but then he gets blown back off course. He visits and revisits Aeolus, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis and ends up on Calypso’s aimlessly floating isle. His journey keeps unravelling itself teasingly like Penelope’s famous loom. His odyssey is not a linear journey to more and more peculiar realms; it is a quest without a quarry that spirals dispiritingly into time. Far from searching for a Golden Fleece or the Head of Medusa or the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Odysseus turns down the prize offered him of immortality. He just wants to go home.

The voyage itself, moreover, is related not by the poet’s voice but out of Odysseus’ own mouth as a guest of the Phaeacians, as if Homer was marking his distance from the more fantastic elements of his tale from the mythodes, from oral history. It has to be like this, of course, because Odysseus alone survives. No one else knows what he has been up to these past ten years. His cannot be a famous story because he has disappeared from the heroic tradition, out of sight of men and the earshot of bards. He has disappeared from fame. When we see him clinging to the pieces of his broken craft, close to extinction, the fate of the poem itself is in the balance. He alone carries with him the account of his exiguous history. Without Odysseus, the Odyssey is sunk. The contrast with the Iliad and the Argonautica could not be more profound. The Odyssey is presented as a new and terrifying venture in literature, a story that has never been told. If the Iliad is the first example of great literature built up out of old stories, the Odyssey, perhaps, inaugurates the bizarre tradition of making things up.

The cloud of unknowing that has always made it difficult for Homer’s readers to put him in perspective presents particular problems for translators. Here we come up against another facet of the miracle of Homer beyond his excellence and his primacy: his enduring popularity. E.V. Rieu’s translation of the Odyssey for Penguin Classics has been one of that publisher’s most successful products and there seems an insatiable market for new versions, especially in English. According to George Steiner, in his Introduction to Homer in English, this particular ‘translation act ... surpasses in frequency that of any other act of transfer into any other Western tongue and literature’, including versions of the Bible. But how do you begin to put Homer into another language when you have little way of knowing at any particular point if his language is high-falutin’ or contemporary, low-key, bathetic or grand? Is Homer’s readability an illusion created by two and a half millennia of scholarly exegesis or was he equally limpid when he was first performed? Did his audience greet each other with long-winded epithets like MPs or flatterers at the court of Zaire, or did they consider such addresses a touch of archaic colouring now thankfully obsolete? And what was the significance of composing in hexameters when there was no possibility of a literature in prose?

As Steiner’s selection shows, translators have offered very different solutions to these questions. There have been lots of grand Homers, lots of Biblical Homers, but also plenty of plain-speaking Homers. There have been primitive, blood-thirsty Homers in the style of Conan the Barbarian, and also elegant Augustan dandies. There have been in-yer-face performative translations and withdrawn scholarly Homers sheltering behind pages of notes. Above all, there has been a running debate over whether he fits better into poetry or prose. The only Homer who is not well represented in this vast array is the difficult, obscure and artificial Homer, although there is some evidence that this in fact is how he must have been received.

Along with the difficulties of gauging the tone, translators have been harried by vigilante groups of scholarly theorists trying to pass on their own obsessions. Matthew Arnold set the agenda for modern versions when he insisted Homer should be pacy, noble and plain. Since then, the Oralists have insisted the text should also somehow reflect the ‘orality’ of the poems, which often comes down to a more urgent encouragement of the same thing. The last two of Arnold’s requirements have often proved the most difficult to resolve, representing the Scylla and Charybdis of the translator’s journey, threatened with bathos and pedestrianism on the one side and bombast on the other. Stanley Lombardo’s new Iliad has a photograph of a D-Day landing on the cover and makes a reckless dash for the idiomatic. It is generally a fine and enjoyable version, but its colloquialism sometimes lapses jarringly, occasionally amusingly, into cliché. Robert Fagles’s new version of the Odyssey, on the other hand, is a classic modern Homer: elegant, natural and smooth. His solutions to the difficulties of rendition are always so neat that it is easy to forget there has been any effort made. Such easiness is a great achievement and he manages to avoid any hint of bathos, but he is so keen on plain-speaking that the whole effect is sometimes rather bald, even colourless, especially in comparison with Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version, which is itself hardly extravagant in its language. Both Lombardo and Fagles have produced translations to be read aloud, and Fagles’s Odyssey is issued with 18 hours of cassettes, performed at a brisk pace by Ian McKellen, but I can’t help thinking that the academic insistence on the ‘orality’ of the text – a rather oxymoronic idea, which should give Derrida something to chew over – has become a distraction. Most ancient literature was oral inasmuch as it was performed, but it could also be difficult, like Aeschylus, and complex, like Gorgias. Greek, in particular, is also very rich in dialects – Homer uses both Ionic and Aeolic – registers and tones. English is one of the very few languages that can match it for vocabulary and range. It seems a shame if English translators, working under the dogma of accessibility, do not make some effort to use that opportunity. Passed through the sausage-machine of modern English, writers as different as Homer, Euripides and Theocritus emerge sounding much the same. Everything begins to seem as if it had been rewritten by Lucian: simple, transparent and plain.

Perhaps it is inevitable that translators from Greek, so anxious to open doors, will always over-translate, modernising old-fashioned vocabulary, shortening sentences, homogenising dialects and unravelling difficult knots, but Homer’s English readers need not despair. Homer’s achievement may or may not have depended on six hundred years of oral tradition, but we have four centuries of English versions with which to pin him down. To get the gist of it you could read Fagles or Rieu. For some idea of how he must have sounded to his audiences or to the classical Greeks, we have our own archaic Chapman. To get a taste of his originality, try James Joyce, or Derek Walcott. For drama and pathos try Christopher Logue, and for sheer poetic artistry try Fitzgerald or Alexander Pope. And if, after this, you feel in need of some orality, have some friends round for dinner, put on some music and read it aloud.