BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
HOMER'S THE ILIAD AND THE ODYSSEY: A Biography, by Alberto Manguel
, August 2, 2008
Imperishable classicsHOMER'S THE ILIAD AND THE ODYSSEY: A Biography
Books That Shook the World
by Alberto Manguel
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 300 pages
Rec. price: AUD$24.95Two of the earliest and most seminal texts in Western literature are The Iliad and The Odyssey, poetic epics written in ancient Greek. Such is their importance that most people have heard of them and know that they are somehow associated with the Trojan Wars.
More specifically, The Iliad
focuses on the wrath of the Greek warrior Achilles, and climaxes with his killing of the Trojan prince, Hector. The Odyssey
tells the story of the wanderings of the warrior Odysseus after the fall of Troy and his battles with the suitors, who are trying to win the hand of his wife Penelope, upon his return to Ithaca.
After providing a summary of each work, Alberto Manguel discusses the formulation of the texts and the issue of authorship. In line with contemporary scholarship, the texts of The Iliad
and The Odyssey
were originally oral texts composed and crafted by illiterate bards over centuries before finally being committed to writing. Furthermore, some doubt whether Homer actually existed.
Most of Manguel's work explores the influence of these writings on Western thought and literature from the classical period to the present.
For example, the Roman writer Virgil makes extensive references to events in these Greek epics in his seminal work The Aeneid
, written in the first century BC.
The Christian fathers, such as Jerome and Augustine, who had been educated in the classics, attempted to reconcile elements from these great pieces of literature with Christian thought. Thus emerged the idea that the great works of pagan literature were a cultural grounding/preparation for the reception of the Gospel in the pagan world.
This positive endorsement of such works of literature was crucial in their survival.
Manguel also explores the impact of Homer on Islamic thought and the revival of the study of Greek in the West in the 15th century when Greek scholars fled Constantinople after its fall in 1453.
He makes the interesting observation that, after the Reformation, the study of Greek tended to be confined to Protestant countries, whereas Catholic countries tended to focus on the study of Latin.
While Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey
contains some interesting insights into the impact of these seminal works of literature, this volume presumes some knowledge of Western thought and literature, and at times the analysis can become somewhat tedious.
What is fascinating is the way in which virtually every generation in its literature has responded to and incorporated stories and themes from these great epics.