Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.06.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.13

Elton Barker, Joel Christensen, Homer: A Beginner's Guide. Oneworld beginner's guides.   London:  Oneworld Publications, 2013.  Pp. ix, 233.  ISBN 9781780742298.  $14.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Yukiko Saito, University of Liverpool; Kyoto Seika University (;


Simply, this book is a joy to read. For beginners or academics, it refreshes and enriches our knowledge about Homer in a charming and efficient way. Doubtlessly readers will delight in reading (or rereading) the Homeric epics after reading this book.

The Introduction provides a good starting point. By describing the general framework of the Homeric poems, character, plot, theme, and hexameter, as well as referring to the perennial Homeric questions concerning the poet’s identity and other details, Homer’s ageless relevance, from antiquity to modern times, is illustrated. Readers can smoothly enter the Homeric world, through contemporary films such as Troy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars series, etc., and even rap music (!). The authors outline well Homer’s primary themes of life and death, and the rediscovery of identity. Occasionally technical terms or paintings are presented in boxes as supplemental information to the main text, which is useful as well.

Chapter 1 treats the relationship between mortals and immortals. The Olympian gods are introduced as part of a soap opera (!), and sarcastically likened to omnipresent institutions like modern banks today. Their stories are embarrassing, hence some critics even doubt whether the Greeks really believed in their gods. Homer’s gods care for mortals, but this is because of the tie both to individual identity and their stories. The authors start discussing the Iliad with the marriage between Thetis and Peleus, which is the ultimate cause of the Trojan War, and particularly illuminate Achilles’ distinctive character: he knows he will die if he stays at Troy. Achilles’ decision to remain eventually causes Patroclus’ death and, consequently, his own. The Iliad is about humanity, and its story is about “the recognition and acceptance of mortality”(p. 51). Interestingly, the Iliad depicts the gradual separation of the worlds of men and gods; while immortals directly intervene in human affairs in Iliad 1, they appear indirectly in the background in Iliad 24. In the Odyssey, the gap between men and gods becomes wider and they no longer fraternise, thus men need to define themselves, explaining how they relate to the gods. Also, as survivors of epic, women find a place in the Odyssey and are heard more, playing critical roles. Odysseus, moving from the epic’s fantasy world to the reality of human domestic life, refuses the offer of immortality from Calpyso, which indicates the poem’s human and epic focus and ensures the immortality of his fame. The two epics portray different visions of the world of gods and men, but together provide a foundational story for human nature and men’s responsibility to the gods.

In Chapter 2, the authors interpret the Iliad as a poem of politics. The opening is the anger of Achilles against Agamemnon over honour, fame, shame, and friendship. It is a conflict between individual and group, which makes the story political. Achilles calls upon the assembly to solve the Achaeans’ predicament; his hurling of the sceptre onto the ground (245) symbolically shows that he no longer belongs to proper public society. As a dissenter, Achilles uses words openly. However, as the story develops, we learn that public speech should always be concerned about the public’s profit, not the individual’s. This lesson is demonstrated more effectively in Iliad 9, where the second assembly leads to the embassy to Achilles, which exhibits the game-playing in political discourse. Refusing Agamemnon’s offer, Achilles illustrates the nature of political discourse, saying one thing while meaning another (lying) is the central problem. To Odysseus, Achilles, reacting to Odysseus’ manipulative words, says he will return home. To Phoenix, who appeals for friendship, Achilles’ response is that he will ‘think about’ whether to stay or go. To Ajax, Achilles answers that he will return to battle when Hector approaches his ship. After all, the mission is successful with the possibility that Achilles might return to fight. Throughout the entire process, the foundations for any political society are extrapolated from institutional frameworks to other elements such as language and basic relationships. The Iliad tells us how frank or how diplomatic you should (or can) be in political situations.

Hector is the main focus in Chapter 3. As Achilles’ opposite, Hector, the hope of Troy, is exemplified as a family man. Being brother, son, husband, and father, Hector is going to die and the city will fall. In book 6, Hecuba, Helen, and Andromache, are given some space to speak about the meaning of battle, which is one of the differences from the Achaeans. Hector shows tenderness to his wife, but he must fight for Troy. Unlike Achilles, he does not know he will die. The significance of Hector’s death is noticed as Homer explores the reactions of people who depend upon him. Hector destroys his people by trying to save them. While Achilles and Agamemnon doom their people because of their own self-interested policies or beliefs, Hector’s incapacity to accept reality, his misreading of signs, and his internal struggle about what to do prevents him from surmounting fate. This makes us reflect on ourselves as well. That is why Hector is one of the most complex and sympathetic characters. Audiences can feel more sympathetic toward the Trojans also because of their interaction with women.

Chapter 4 investigates the consequences of anger, the watchword of the Iliad. In Iliad 16, Achilles lets Patroclus fight in his place, which leads to the redirection of his anger away from Agamemnon towards Hector. After Achilles kills Hector, he drags Hector’s body across the Trojan plain. Although Achilles acts as moderator in the funeral games, he continues to drag Hector’s body around Patroclus’ grave, which makes the audience wonder how the epic of wrath will end. Apollo calls an assembly of the gods, condemning Achilles’ behaviour, and stresses the right for Hector’s burial. Zeus then sends Thetis to instruct Achilles to release Hector’s body, and Iris is sent to Priam to encourage him to visit Achilles. Priam’s entreaty is a success; with Hermes’ aid, Priam arrives at Achilles’ tent and asks as a pitiful father for Hector’s body, reminding Achilles of his own father. None of the earlier supplications is successful, except Thetis’ request in book 1. Here, Achilles, being able to look beyond his situation and appreciate another’s circumstances, returns to the human world. The Iliad concludes with Hector’s funeral and the whole city’s mourning after Priam’s return to Troy. The authors’ comment (pages 123-124) on the notion of a ‘hollow grave’ (797) and ‘a mark’ (799) for Hector’s fame is noteworthy. They observe that we are left with a sign of some kind to interpret at the end of the Iliad; use of the word ‘hollow’ in describing the Achaean ships could indicate a vessel capable of retaining and in some way transcending. Furthermore, hollowness could suggest emptiness, marking Hector’s absence and simultaneously his continued presence in men’s minds. Likewise, it could apply to the Iliad as well, as a symbol of transformation and transcendence, pointing out “the transition from the heroic age to the present day”; Homer’s Iliad is the grave marker of an entire tradition of epic poetry.

The authors begin Chapter 5 by saying “the Odyssey is everything that the Iliad is not (p. 125)”, and it seems that the differences between the two poems are radical. The Odyssey’s opening reference to andra (‘man’ and also ‘husband’) alludes to the elusive nature of the story of Odysseus with a slippery hint about its hero being polytropos, which suggests that he wanders much, encounters many men, and suffers many pains, inviting us to reflect on what such a man might represent. Unlike the Iliad, everything in the Odyssey is men’s responsibility; they suffer because of their wrongdoing. As Odysseus has gone AWOL for four whole books (Odyssey 1-4), we wonder where he is. In this way, Homer creates suspense about his return. Meanwhile, Telemachus is introduced. As a host, Telemachus welcomes the suitors, but taking Athena’s advice, he also calls an assembly. In Ithaca, however, the solution for the community’s crisis is not found at the assembly. Instead, Telemachus seeks the solution elsewhere, embarking upon a journey to find his father. We (the audience) are to learn about Odysseus at the same time as Telemachus does. Provided with accounts of Odysseus by Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen in Pylos and Sparta, which outline Odysseus’ distinctive character, Telemachus receives the lesson that he must act like Odysseus, who uses disguise, trickery, endurance, and even storytelling, to win.

Chapter 6 is about Odysseus’ storytelling (Odyssey 5-8). After his arrival on Scheria, Odysseus is still a man with no name. When Alcinous finally asks who he is, Homer extends the answer over the next four books (Odyssey 9-12). Again this is Homer’s strategy: he continuously creates suspense around who the man is and how he returns home. We are left to judge Odysseus’ stories about the fall of Troy, his encounters with the Laestrygonians and the Cyclops. The famous scene where Odysseus employs the word Outis (Nobody), allowing him to escape from Polyphemus, not only tells us how clever his verbal artistry is but also illustrates a crucial change from the Iliad. The hero now has to tell lies to survive, which is precisely what Achilles hates like the gates of Hades (Iliad 9). Odysseus, however, discloses his identity to Polyphemus when he leaves to secure his fame, which is the final act of the Iliadic hero. Odysseus and his men overcome the subsequent dangers, for example, the Siren’s song, by blocking their ears, which is also trickery. During his time in the underworld, Odysseus meets the ghosts of various heroes. One of them is Achilles, who seeks news of his family, apparently no longer desiring the epic fame that his Iliadic counterpart wanted. On the contrary, Odysseus, epic’s survivor, is the one who returns home and rescues his family. Setting the agenda for his successful homecoming, through manipulating his own identity with storytelling, Odysseus reinvents himself as a new model man, using tricks to escape impossible situations, which, as the authors suggest, dramatizes the end of a golden age and the separation of gods from men.

Finally, Chapter 7 handles Odysseus’ return and his overcoming of hardships, which enables him to (re-)settle at home (Odyssey 13-24), with three themes: revenge, deception, and, significantly, recognition. Odysseus is asleep when he arrives on Ithaca, but his meeting with Athena lets him recognise his native island. Afterwards he has various encounters of recognition: with Eumaeus, Telemachus, Penelope, and Eurycleia. During the following bow contest, Telemachus, who becomes much like his father, could have delivered the bow to the suitors, but deliberately does not. Then the bow is passed into Odysseus’ hands. His swift shooting is narrated beautifully like music with harmony. The Iliad’s battle scenes are echoed, but there are differences. For instance, Odysseus spares two suitors, unlike Achilles. Examining the controversy of the Odyssey’s ending, the authors suggest what it may mean. As ‘andra,’ the Odysseus of the Odyssey is both none and all of a philosopher, poet, politician, warrior, trickster, beggar, king, sufferer, executor, and thief. The term ‘unmeasured’ (ametrētos, 23. 249) is noted when Odysseus glosses his future journey. That indicates Odysseus’ wandering will continue without metre, which heralds the end of the hexameter epic. In short, the Odyssey, a never-ending story, embarks upon a journey to other literary forms.

In the Epilogue, the authors conclude what Homer is all about, referring to both later classical works and modern pieces of art. For Pericles, it is important to cite Homer. In Alexandria, where Homer is the cultural marker par excellence, Homer’s poems are edited and reworked by scholars and poets such as Aristarchus and Zenodotus. Theocritus invents the Bucolic genre, which has its roots in Homer’s Odyssey. The Aeneid by Virgil, who heavily draws on Homer, was widely read throughout the Mediterranean World. Mentioning other genres and authors such as tragedy, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato and Socrates, the differences between Homer and later scholars, poets, and critics are described. Accordingly, Homer’s epics are not only the end of the heroic oral tradition but also a cultural and political stimulus for a whole new world of literature. Then the authors switch to examine Homer’s influence in the modern era, in films such as Batman Begins, Spiderman, Star Trek, and so on. This last section is particularly well-written to demonstrate how Homeric stories have travelled through time and space.

Suggestions for further reading (pp. 219-223) are useful for beginners. For established scholars, those references are probably familiar.

This handsome guidebook is every bit as inspiring, witty, informative and cunning as the Homeric Odysseus himself.

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