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Book Review

The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson

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Publisher: William Collins, hardback

1 of 1 Nicolson's journey around the Homeric world: Ulysses and Achilles, and the stories of their exploits assembled in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Nicolson's journey around the Homeric world: Ulysses and Achilles, and the stories of their exploits assembled in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Homer’s  epic poems, The Iliad and the Odyssey, are the oldest stories that mankind has for reading and their background and complex origins are explored in this fascinating book, whose full title is The Mighty Dead - Why Homer Matters.  The author has presented various TV programmes and won numerous awards for his scholarly but passionately expressed works on history and landscape.

The current orthodoxy is that The Iliad and The Odyssey are the product of the eighth century BC, in other words Early Iron Age Greece. After due consideration, Nicolson argues that the poems became part of the oral tradition much earlier in fact, around 2000 BC.

Written versions duly followed after the slow passage of centuries, you wouldn't call it a quick turnaround. The Iliad was rediscovered written on 654 large goatskin vellum pages in 1788 in a library in Venice, described as an 'extraordinary beautiful' manuscript by the author. It had been written in Constantinople in the middle of the tenth century AD. 

100 years later, the first two books of The Iliad, written on papyrus, were discovered under the head of an unnamed woman in her coffin in the Egyptian Sahara on the morning of February 21, 1888. That-so-called 'papyr' now resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Nicolson writes beautifully of his visit to the Greek island of Chios, close to the Turkish coast. Chios was once the home of poetry-reciters - known as the Homeridae  - who claimed to be descendants of Homer. The language that was once spoken on this largely desolate island was Ionic, the main constituent language of The Iliad and The Odyssey. 

Chios is about the most relatively unchanged Homeric place that Nicolson can find, and his descriptions of its barren landscape and sun-scorched rocks, and perspective on the mysteries of mountainous Turkey across the water, are wonderfully vivid.

He finds the remains of a kid goat, dead in the drought, dry as parchment. "The eyes were gone, and you could look through their sockets into the skull, " the author writes. "It was the Homeric world: brutal, perfect, without euphemism, but somehow a longing for something better, softer, more forgiving."

Paddy Kehoe

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