Homer and His Iliad

  • By Robin Lane Fox
  • Basic Books
  • 464 pp.

Did the blind poet really pen the ancient epic by himself?

Homer and His Iliad

A thousand ships are grounded on a remote shore, where an army of Achaean warriors has fought for 10 years to recover a beautiful, absconding queen from a bride-stealing Trojan prince. Homer’s epic narrative of this struggle — among the most influential works in Western culture — has inspired acolytes and re-tellers for nearly 3,000 years.

Scholars have trotted out scads of grandly intellectual questions about Homer’s Iliad. Among them: Did this clash of arms really happen as its creator or creators describe it? Was the doomed city we now call Troy a real place? Could a lone — and purportedly blind — poet have composed this 15,000-verse masterpiece from scratch, and in his head? Other commentators skirt the controversies, maintaining that the Iliad is so brilliant an artistic achievement that the underlying facts of its creation are less important than its sheer power and narrative unity.

Oxford classicist Robin Lane Fox, in Homer and His Iliad, gracefully straddles the critical divide. For him, the Iliad’s historicity and provenance are matters of high concern, as is the actuality of an oft-visualized, single Homer. At the same time, Lane Fox passionately declares, the poem is a superbly constructed, profoundly moving work of art.

With septuagenarian erudition and insight, Lane Fox weighs in elegantly on both streams of Homeric commentary, the academic and the aesthetic, drawing on his decades of scholarly familiarity and classroom experience with the poem.

But first, a refresher, story-wise: The Achaeans have been skirmishing before the walls of Troy for a decade when their leader, Agamemnon, thuggishly appropriates the captured mistress of the peerless Achaean warrior Achilles. (Trigger warning: the whole sexual-slavery convention is a hatefully reprehensible notion, but still, it’s the inciting incident in the Iliad’s plot.) This insult to Achilles’ pride causes the outraged soldier to sit out the hostilities for a time, which in turn shifts the balance in the struggle and brings on its climactic events.

Along the way, Homer gives us bloody one-on-one engagements galore, behind-the-scenes domestic episodes on the Trojan side, a slew of extended similes comparing battle tactics to scenes from nature, and an ensemble of loquacious deities taking sides in the fighting. Inspired complexities, all.

Lane Fox addresses the tangled challenges of the poem’s origins at the outset, covering when and where the war might really have happened, and if the poet we’ve come to know as Homer truly walked the earth. He weighs in with well-argued (and thoroughly cited) assurance, delivering a crash course in the geography of coastal Asia Minor and the pioneering investigations of 19th-century German amateur Hans Schliemann in locating the likely site of the city. As for Homer himself, Lane Fox mounts a speculative discussion of the poet’s apparent familiarity with the area’s topography that seems to clinch the case.

But is Lane Fox’s Homer the primary creative genius behind the Iliad? Which is to say, is the epic an artfully crafted narrative helmed by a single creator rather than a far-flung cohort of oral performers? He writes:

“Some [analysts] regard the Iliad as a patchwork stitched together from separate short songs of which only some were by Homer. Others regard it as a rolling snowball, whose nucleus was composed by Homer, but which grew when others added bits to it over time.”

Lane Fox leans hard into the snowball school’s position, citing the footprints of genius and conscious aesthetic design in story structure and characterization:

“Achilles is a constant, brooding presence in the poem, even in physical absence…The Iliad’s plot is so pervasively signposted that a single author is evidently guiding its course. This author is certainly an individual ‘he,’ not a long impersonal tradition.”

The epic poetry of pre-classical Greece may hold little interest for most modern — and time-pressed — readers, but Robin Lane Fox has produced in Homer and His Iliad a commentary on its shining star that urges, at the least, a passing (re)read by the intrigued.

Bob Duffy, a once-upon-a-time academic, reviews frequently for the Independent.

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