Here is a book on Homer that has been reviewed in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Slate, and the Guardian, among others, but not, as far as I know, in any classical journal. Yet it is an important book for classical scholars to read—not because it offers anything both new and true about Homer, but because it shows an educated, widely experienced person creating deeply felt meaning out of Homer and some strands of Homeric scholarship. Nicolson belongs in the tradition of great amateurs of Homer: Keats, Gladstone, Matthew Arnold, or T. E. Lawrence. His book shows what Homer can do.
Nicolson’s Homer is not an Iron Age bard making poems about the Mycenaean Late Bronze Age, but a Late Helladic Homer composing an Iliad based on an even earlier age of chaos: “about 1800 BC recollected in the tranquility of 1300 BC, preserved through the Greek Dark Ages and written down (if not in a final form) in about 700 BC” (4). Nicolson nods politely (51) to the idea that multiple Homers became something like our Homer only in Hellenistic Alexandria, and he knows about boars’ tusk helmets, figure-of-eight shields, and other Mycenaean artifacts in the poem (103), but he wants us to believe that at the heart of the Iliad lies a time before the Hellenes were in Greece, remembered in the generations immediately after their arrival: “Homer is the only place you can hear the Bronze Age Warriors of the northern grasslands speak and dream and weep” (119).
His arguments for the existence of this proto- Iliad of the steppes come to this: digamma, found in Homer, “had mostly disappeared by the time of the Linear B tablets” (108); Tiresias’ prophecy in Hades that Odysseus will journey to a place where men have never seen the sea ( Odyssey 11.119–125) implies knowledge of the northern grasslands (145–47); Achilles’ northern origins, wilderness education, and emotional disconnection from other characters in the Iliad suggest that he “carries a presouthern, preurban, precomplicated world of purity and integrity within him” (149); horses and their importance to the heroes before Troy point to life on the steppes, where “inflation, scale, ambition” came with the domestication of horses (168); concepts like kleos aphthiton found in Homer and other traditions of heroic song point to origins in the Indo-European homeland (169–177). Finally, Homer—the creator of the monumental Iliad, that is—might not have been a chain of poets deploying a treasury of oral formulas to compose anew at each performance, adapting and transforming the past as they did so. Homer might instead have been a poet working “with a curatorial exactness, resisting the changes imposed by the passing of time, preserving antiquity in detail” (97). For this idea Nicolson depends on reports of Gaelic storytellers and their prodigious, exact memories (96–99), which Douglas Young brought to the attention of classicists almost fifty years ago ( Arion 6 : 279-324).
Some of this is wrong—the phoneme represented by digamma is well documented in Linear B—and not much of it is persuasive. Greeks of the Bronze or any age could know about the northern grasslands without having seen them; the fact that Homer’s world includes elements of original Indo-European culture does not mean that it began there, and “could have” does not equal “must have been.” Predation, disorder, offended honor, and mounted warbands encamped before urban centers are commonalities of Mediterranean life. There is no necessary line from Homer to the Indo-European grasslands.
Why, then, pay attention to this book? Because it demonstrates the power of a great text to stabilize and order a life. In mid-life Nicolson began to use Homer, and especially the Iliad, to make meaning out of his experiences. He was lucky. He had read Homer in Greek at school (8), but that teaching—“we ferreted out the sense line by line, picking bones from fish”—had to lie fallow until he rediscovered the Odyssey and Iliad, this time in translation. From that point he began to see Homer as “a guide to life, even as a kind of scripture.” School Greek left him with enough philology to discuss Greek words (see 48, 54, less plausibly on 174, and the even sketchier etymology on 181), but Robert Fagles showed him what Homer was.
Nicolson has lived the kind of life that makes understanding Homer, and being understood by Homer, easier. He knows hunting and the pleasure of holding a beautiful, well-made tool for killing (121). He has sailed a small boat in rough seas and felt the sea as a malevolent being, out to destroy you (8). He is attuned to the combination of magnanimity and brutality in the speech of warriors, whether in the twenty-first century AD or the Bronze Age (50).
Dead center in this book (122–25) Nicolson puts his experience of violence. He was twenty-five. In the Syrian desert near Palmyra, he asked an Arab for directions. The man began to walk along with him, friendly and talkative, in the way that American and Northern European travelers in eastern lands sometimes find hard to read. Are they too friendly? Is there some danger in their smile, their closeness? This time there was. The man suddenly grabbed Nicolson; they struggled; then he took out a knife and raped Nicolson at knifepoint. Back at the Hotel Zenobia, Nicolson stood in the shower for longer than he knew, washing the man off him.
This horrific assault radiates into the rest of the book. As he lay under the man, Nicolson “moved through the full spectrum of Homeric reactions, from the childlike stupidity of acceptance of violence to the manlike recognition” that he should kill his assailant (124). After the cleansing shower in the Hotel Zenobia, his appreciation of baths in Homer’s world (211–13) appears in a new light; so does his suggestion that the siege of Troy is less like a war than like “a gang from the ghetto confronting the urban rich” (185). Just one page before his account of the assault, in which the word “knife” appears eight times, Nicolson describes Bronze Age blades, “horrifying and beautiful, repulsive and attractive in the way the Iliad can be” (121). A preoccupation with masculinity, violation of the body, and restoration of its wholeness lie at the heart of his reading of Homer, as Charlotte Higgins noticed in her Guardian review.1
This is, then, not only a book about Homer, but also a study of Homeric reception and a complex act of receiving Homer. It can remind those entrusted with teaching the Iliad and Odyssey that they hold in their hands texts that are powerful, “horrifying and beautiful, repulsive and attractive.” Nicolson’s book may confront some classicists with an alien sensibility, so that reading it requires constant translation and negotiation. In an age of academic trigger warnings, though, it is worth trying to understand that to a person whose life has been threatened at knifepoint, discovering a book like the Iliad may be better than avoiding all mention of knives.