The Mighty Dead

Navigating the Long Reach of Antiquity

Adam Nicholson's book about Homer, The Mighty Dead, is like a telescope trained on the very distant past. Using clues from ancient languages, from burial mounds, from unearthed treasure and other evidence, he dates Homer's epics, The Iliad and The Oddyssey from 2000 BC, or thereabouts, give or take a few centuries. Most scholars have assumed the epic poems were created in about 1200 BC, but Nicholson has had a passionate time of discovering evidence for why Homer -- who might have been might have been the blind poet of legend, but was more probably the name for what has been handed down over the centuries--is older.

"First, abandon any idea of the classic poet. The poems are not objects conceived by a single, gifted person, but profoundly inherited, shaped and reshaped by a preceding culture, stretching far back in time, something as much formed by tradition as the making of pots or the decorations of their surfaces....Homer is the world of tradition-shaped poetry.... and the governing fact in that epic world is the music of the poetry."

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters is a very good book. I read a few chapters, in ebook form, immediately knew it was a book I wanted to hold and refer back to, so bought a second, paper, copy now personalized with many underlined sentences and exclamation marks alongside paragraphs that seemed particularly apt and well written. Nicholson is a relentless researcher. To imagine the days when the epics were recited or sung, he visits the rocky island of Chios, where he finds "a rare and extraordinary ghost of the Homeric world" in the limestone landscape and the building ruins of Emporio. He travels to a river in southern Spain that fits Homer's vision of Hades. He studies bards from other cultures- Gaelic, Serbian- to get an idea of how the poems could have survived for so long, that their essence and even most of the words hardly changed.

"Grief and triumph; a sense of irony and even tragedy; an overwhelming and dominant masculinity, thick with competitive violence; a small but hierarchical society, strung between a semi-nomadic way of life and one that was settled in small wooden houses... in love with horses; no understanding of the city or any relationship to the sea: all of that is very like the background to the world of the Greeks in their camp on the Trojan shore."

Research feeds his imagination as he tries to picture the world from which the epics sprang. Having just gone through a similar exercise with my first historical novel--which concerns a much more recent point in history, only 100 years ago-- I appreciate the exuberance of his efforts to identify with the characters.

"'For seventeen days..sleep never fell on his (Odysseus's) eyelids as he watched the stars above him'....You have only to steer once by the stars for that connection to remain with you for the rest of your life...This exposure of Odysseus to the stars is the closest I ever feel to him... for the sky arrayed above you and the sea and its dark threats half hidden is materially the same for me as it was for him."

If Nicholson's suppositions are correct and the poems have been around for more than four thousand years, it means they have endured through 800 generations (assuming five generations per hundred years.) Even serious genealogists would be hard pressed to successfully trace someone's roots back that far. What's wonderful is that knowledge abides, is gained, lost, added to, reconsidered, expanded on the basis of new discoveries. Certain artists and writers are able to advance it, as Nicholson does, while seining the past-- as when a steady swell rises in the wake of a ship and churns the layers of wine-dark sea beneath, sweeping into sunlight all the ocean holds, that might have been forgotten.

In from the cold there was language

Sunday evening, twilight. Feet tramped on the wooden stairs that lead up to the wooden porch where a fibre map prevented slipping. Smiles spread rosy cheeks that carried the cold inside. Kiss the right cheek first, then the left. That's how it is done in Quebec. Brrr. The warmth began with the greetings while the guests removed gloves, coats, extra sweaters, scarves, fur hats, toques, and the host found room for it all in the armoire. Boots lined up on rubber trays covered with newspaper to absorb the melting snow. The smell of chicken baking with olives and prunes drifted out from the kitchen. Light from a lamp hanging over the table twinkled on the wine glasses.
Comme toujours in Quebec, maybe everywhere in Canada, we were a mixed group, with two native Quebecois, three long term residents, one visitor and one part time resident. One born in Chicago, one in British Columbia, one in Nova Scotia, one in Michoacan, one in Ontario, one in Havana and two right here in la belle ville de Quebéc. Most were at least bilingue, a few spoke three languages fluently, and - as earlier in the day when I visited with a Lebanese friend who is now studying German, having already become fluent in French, English and Italian - more than one language was the means and the subject of the conversation. It flowed in French, for the most part, but also in English, and most charmingly in my view, sometimes a mixture in the same sentence, i.e. "Yo pienso que l'hiver est the worst season to visit Quebec." The natives and long term residents, and this enthusiastic visitor disagreed. Winter is an endangered season and here people know how to appreciate its beauty. The blue shadows on the snow, the frozen waves on le fleuve St. Laurent. A family Penthalon that took place on a minus twenty degree (celsius) Sunday.

With the exception of a doctor and the metallurgist from Mexico, we were language-focussed people: a writer, four English- or French- as a second language professors and a linguist who has spent his life studying why English functions the way that it does; why, for example, one says "it is snowing" instead of "it snows". Simple, progressive. En français, the verb works both ways. To say, "Je cherche" means I am looking for as well as I look for. Context reveals whether the looking is general or is happening right now. This group appreciates (in general) the nuances of such questions.

At one end of the table,  people discussed the translation of the phrase, "manger de la vache enragée, literally to eat mad cow, but meaning poor or fallen on hard times. Such an image-rich language. At the other end of the table the talk was of the cinema, a universal topic, and one of the speakers used the French verb "pirater," to describe how his son showed him how to download films.

In The Mighty Dead, his wonderful book about Homer, Adam Nicholson writes: "Of about three thousand languages spoken today, seventy-eight have a written literature. The rest exist in the mind and the mouth. Language - man - is essentially oral."

We ate, we talked. The coldest February since at least 1889 was almost over.