Homer, A Beginner’s Guide by Elton Barker and Joel Christensen – Book Review

Lincoln Green 

Image © User Bibi Saint – Pol

The first page of Barker and Christensen’s book leaves no doubt as to its relevance to readers of Left Central.  They dedicate their work to those “everywhere suffering many pains because of the incompetency and greed of their leaders and the capriciousness of the ‘gods’ who rule our world.”  At another level the book confirms the importance of reading widely, deeply and with attention.

Homer’s stories, “The Iliad” which recounts events in the Trojan War caused by the elopement of Helen with Paris, and “The Odyssey” which describes the return of Odysseus home from that war, are over 29 centuries old and were captured in text shortly after the development of writing at the point when oral story-telling began to decline.  Despite their age the stories are rich in associations and fulfil Italo Calvino’s characteristics of the classic book:  “which comes to us trailing behind the traces it has left in the cultures through which it has passed” and “with each rereading offers as much a sense of discovery as the first reading”.   Barker and Christensen’s guide is singularly well placed to confirm such characteristics.

They introduce the guide by emphasising the centrality of Homer’s work in early Greek civilisation.  Traces can be identified in material as diverse as comedies, tragedies, decorated pots and temple buildings.   Illustrations in the guide include a photograph of a 1st century marble relief of “The Iliad” with juxtaposed images which allow the viewer to identify in a holistic manner the correspondences and connections which exist between different elements of an apparently linear narrative.  In modern times the hero of Joyce’s “Ulysses” has a journey home which explicitly parallels that of his classical precursor.  Other responses amongst many identified in the guide include Homer Simpson, a modern Fool whose empty headed naivety exposes social conditions and mores via comedy, and George Clooney’s  Ulysses Everett McGill , the hero of O Brother Where Art Thou?

Nevertheless, despite the wide dispersal of Homeric references in contemporary culture, the world of ancient Greece is both alien and complex.  Barker and Christensen’s guide is of considerable help in providing a framework within which to make sense of the classical world view with its cast of thousands and complex relationships between gods and humans.

Homer’s own origins are not known, lost along with much of the oral tradition.  Writing allowed narratives to survive and monastic scriptoria encouraged replication and dispersal of key texts, with libraries formed as repositories of the written word.  Barker and Christensen suggest that scholarship itself developed as a device for establishing textual authenticity.  Developing cultural capital through familiarity with and possession of such texts became a requirement for ruling elites.  The point is worth remembering, particularly at this time when libraries are being closed and cultural capital becomes accessible only to those with sufficient economic capital.

When considering the impact of linguistics on Homeric studies, Barker and Christensen remind us of the sophisticated manner in which these verses were interpreted.  Homeric tale-telling involved elements of rhythm, tone and specific content as well as an overall narrative direction.  Tensions and resolutions could be developed as the verse meanings aligned themselves with the listeners’ experiences and expectations.   Discussions of archaic Greek language, its grammar and unique perceptual lens fall outside the scope of this guide.  The narrator of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” eloquently describes the manner in which dialogue in a specific language colours one’s world view and informs one’s actions.  He attempts to explain the “bright, terrible clarity of ancient Greek” the “strange, harsh light which pervades Homer’s landscapes … alien … inarticulable in our common tongue”…

“The Iliad” describes the events of a few days in the 10 year long siege of Troy.  Analogous to a hologram in its effects, so that a fragment contains the whole, these verses encapsulate key themes of the entire Trojan War and indeed of war in general.  Barker and Christensen identify many of these themes: how to face death, the role of gods, compensation for life-threatening employment, and the identification of what is worth living for, amongst others.  In particular the work considers a time of transition, from the world of gods to one of human affairs.  Within the “epic cosmos” of these verses, Barker and Christensen also suggest that “The Iliad” explores the need for institutions and for public assembly to deal with community crises, particularly when such crises are caused by leaders.  Modern relevance is apparent.  The reluctance of seer Calchus to speak for fear of a brutal response from his ruler Agamemnon would perhaps strike a chord with those charities forced into silence prior to a national election, and indeed with the BBC when responding to allegations of bias.

A substantial part of Barker and Christensen’s guide is then directed towards “The Odyssey” the story of Odysseus’ search for home and reunion with his wife, Penelope.  Particularly rich in associations, this narrative embraces social, political, religious and psychological issues which are fundamental to human experience.   Odysseus is at times naked, nameless and a “no-man” who is engaged in acts of becoming a whole person, frequently via narration which is ambiguous or dishonest.  The self-referential nature of the narrative draws attention to the process of story-telling itself.  In the Sirens episode for example, the song which proves deadly is one about the events in Troy.  Does listening to “The Odyssey” and engagement with story result in loss of selfhood?   Odysseus himself is a trickster and his words are reminiscent of Hamlet’s “inky cloak” giving substance as well as concealment.

Odysseus’ various meetings show “cosmic evolution” according to Barker and Christensen in that following a visit to the Underworld he receives guidance from a mere prophet and a witch, rather than from the god Zeus.  Later a visitation from the dead Achilles provides a shocking antidote to those who would glorify death: Achilles would rather be a living slave than a dead king.  The story thus separates man from gods, a part of the homecoming which forms the narrative axis of the story.

In Ithaca, Odysseus’ home, recognition of and correct interpretation of signs becomes particularly significant.  The hero’s true shape and substance are indicated by his physical attributes (his hunting scar), his artefacts (a marriage bed which he has constructed), and his knowledge (cultivation of fruit trees), all in implicit contrast to the signs of language, whose shiftiness and ultimate truth are infinitely harder to pin down, where what is signified is unstable.

The ending of “The Odyssey”, as explained by Barker and Christensen, epitomises this fluidity and shows awareness of the interpretive potential latent within the listener/reader.  A speech by Eupeithes, bereaved father of one of Penelope’s suitors whom Odysseus has killed, throws doubt on the entire narrative.  Who are we to believe?  Barker and Christensen argue that “unflinching honesty”, or perhaps the sense of ultimate truth which informs the poem, is further demonstrated in this final shift.

Barker and Christensen’s book is an excellent guide to a complex galaxy of characters and events, many of which are at least partly embedded in popular consciousness.  They indicate the richness of the text and its profound capacity for exposing the human condition.  They evidence the widespread impact of Homer’s texts on historical work as well as on popular culture.  As such the book will provide much pleasure for those interested in classical myths as well as in many of the roots of those narratives spun by the myth-makers of the present.

Homer, A Beginner’s Guide, Elton Barker and Joel Christensen, (2013,) London: Oneworld Publications, 233pp, £9.99.

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