Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.06.14

Ian McAuslan, Peter Walcot, Homer.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1998.  Pp. 210.  ISBN 0-19-920188-9.  $55.00 (hb).  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by William F. Wyatt, Brown University (
Word count: 975 words


R. B. Rutherford, J. T. Hooker, O. T. P. K. Dickinson, G. S. Kirk, M. M. Willcock, Jasper Griffin and Martin Hammond, N. Postlethwaite, Oliver Taplin, John Halverson, Chris Emlyn-Jones, E. K. Borthwick, R. W. Sharples, G. M. Sifakis, A. G. Geddes

The fifteeen essays in this volume were originally published in Greece & Rome between 1973 (Kirk) and 1992 (Sifakis), and the majority "have been updated by their authors" according to the dust jacket. It may seem odd to restrict Homer to a short period and one periodical, a restriction that means that 12 of the authors are from the United Kingdom, and only one American, one Australian, and one Greek find a place here. Only Sifakis is not a native Anglophone. Homer is studied and loved elsewhere, but I gather that this volume, #4 of Greece and Rome Studies, is intended primarily for a British audience.

Because many of the authors and their contributions are probably familiar to most readers, I list the table of contents and merely summarize their content:

R. B. Rutherford, "Introduction"
J. T. Hooker, "Homeric Society: a Shame-Culture?"
O. T. P. K. Dickinson, "Homer, the Poet of the Dark Age"
G. S. Kirk, "The Search for the Real Homer"
M. M. Willcock, "The Search for the Poet Homer"
J. Griffin & M. Hammond, "Critical Appreciation: Homer, Iliad 1.1.-52"
N. Postelthwaite, "Thersites in the Iliad"
O. Taplin, "The Shield of Achilles within the Iliad"
J. Halverson, "The Succession Issue in the Odyssey"
C. Emlyn-Jones, "The Reunion of Penelope and Odysseus," and "True and Lying Tales in the Odyssey"
E. K. Borthwick, "Odysseus and the Return of the Swallow"
R. W. Sharples, "But why has my spirit spoken with me thus?: Homeric Decision-Making"
G. M. Sifakis, "Homeric Survivals in the Medieval and Modern Greek Folksong Tradition?"
A. G. Geddes, "Homer in Translation"

There is a good subject index and an index of passages cited.

RUTHERFORD'S introduction endeavors to provide a unity and rationale for the inclusion of the papers. HOOKER could, of course and unfortunately, not update his article, but the editors have helpfully added a reference to Cairns' discussions in his Aidôs (Oxford, 1993): Hooker contests the notion of "shame-culture" in the Iliad -- surely correctly. DICKINSON'S view that most of the cultural material in the poems dates from the Dark Age is now pretty well accepted and is certainly correct. At least that is current fashion; probably one day scholars will again believe that Homer reflects Mycenaean Realien. KIRK'S (1973) inaugural lecture at Bristol is printed "more or less as delivered," and represents an attempt to identify specifically Homeric additions to or deviations from the oral tradition. The attempt is misconceived, for everything in an oral poem is original and everything is traditional: Homer's is the only Iliad we have, and probably the only one there ever was (though of course there must have been other poems about Troy). WILLCOCK provides an intelligent compromise between a theory of unthinking orality and purposive composition. He shows Homer utilizing oral conventions to poetic purpose. However one might wish to modify details of his argument, he must be right in according the (single) poet control over his material.

The next three essays deal with the Iliad. GRIFFIN and HAMMOND provide separate literary interpretations of the opening of the poem. They are perhaps over-subtle, but the fact that subtlety and literary quality can be attributed to an oral poet is clearly a tribute to that poet's skill. POSTLETHWAITE correctly places Thersites within the poem and ignores questions of his origin or political significance. He holds that Thersites' words reflect the army's morale and present "a value judgement upon ... the quarrel and mênis." This is no doubt the case, but may be overstated: Thersites is the outsider, and outsiders' main function is to be outside (without further specification of function). TAPLIN recognizes that his vigorous essay is dated (p.115), but it is nonetheless a very good treatment of the passage: he holds (correctly) that the Shield is a microcosm of life, and serves to place the poem within a larger context of human life.

HALVERSON depoliticizes the Odyssey, and argues that there was no kingship on Ithaka to be passed on, much less through the person of Penelope. If there is any issue of succession on Ithaka, "it is at a politically primitive level very remote from the monarchic state." EMLYN-JONES has two entries, both on important Odyssean matters. In the first he discusses problems concerning the long-postponed recognition of Penelope and Odysseus, a much-discussed topic. Postponement is explained in terms of folk-tale; and Penelope's reticence by the anomalous and difficult position in which she finds herself. In his second contribution EMLYN-JONES points out that in the Odyssey the truth value of a story is less important than its message and its addressee -- form is more important than content. In a short note BORTHWICK discusses swallow imagery in many languages, and holds that the comparison of the bow-string's sound to that of a swallow (21.411) exploits the swallow as a symbol of return.

SHARPLES interestingly argues that Snell's famous conclusion that Homeric man lacked the concept of "self" and was "an assembly of more or less independent psychic forces" applies better to Plato in Republic 4 than it does to Homer. The Homeric picture comes closer to the Stoic view of conflicting judgments within the soul (rather than different parts of the soul or psyche). SIFAKIS' interesting article does not answer the title's question, but does provide much interesting -- and inconclusive -- material. More in his JHS 117 (1997) 136-153 article. GEDDES does not like Lattimore's translation of the Iliad, and favors more poetic translations that catch Homeric manner and meaning, even at the expense of literal rendition. Cf. now G. Steiner (Ed.) Homer in English (Penguin, 1996) for various samples of translation.

Well-written and authoritative, these essays will nonetheless find little resonance on this side of the Atlantic. They are written within the British humanistic tradition, and exude a pleasantly musty odor, providing literary (over)interpretations of Homer. Though I enjoyed reading it, this volume is rather more a historical document than a guide to research.

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