Where does Homer come from? And why does Homer matter? His epic poems of war and suffering can still speak to us of the role of destiny in life, of cruelty, of humanity and its frailty, but why they do is a mystery. How can we be so intimate with something so distant?
In this passionate and deeply personal book, Adam Nicolson sets out to explain why these great ancient poems still have so much to say about what it is to be human, to love, lose, grow old and die.
THE MIGHTY DEAD is a journey of history and discovery, sewn together by the oldest stories we have – the Iliad and the Odyssey, which emerged from a time before the Greeks became Greek. As nomadic tribes of the northern steppe, they clashed with the sophisticated cities of the eastern Mediterranean. These poems tell us how we became who we are.
We witness a disputatious dinner in 19th-century Paris and Keats finding in Chapman’s Homer the inspiration to travel in the ‘realms of gold’. We go to Bosnia in the 1930s, with the god of Homer studies Milman Parry where oral poetry still thrived; to Spain to visit the possible site of Hades; to Troy, Ukraine, Syria and the islands of the Mediterranean; and to that most ancient of modern experiences, the open sea, in calm and storm.
Reflecting on fathers and sons, men and women, on the necessity for love and the violence of warriors, on peace and war, youth and old-age, Homer is the deep voice of Europe, as dark as Mavrodaphne and as glowingly alive as anything that has ever been.
‘Nicolson has written a beautiful study: full of insight, generosity and unaffected passion. The writing is exhilarating. This is a book about what Homer means to him and, in some profound way, about what life means to him. There is a wonderful sense of a community of readers of Homer handing on their insights through two millennia – of the dead talking to the living, of the taking up of a conversation that has never quieted’
– Charlotte Higgins, Guardian
‘A thrillingly energised book that travels to the real-life locations of the action … and shows how, at the molecular level, it transmits a whole worldview at once decipherable and dramatically strange … To read Homer is to be struck by what Nicolson calls ‘time-vertigo’ — and this book is one that holds your hand and encourages you to peer over the edge … [A] work of exhilarating enthusiasm … [it is] an experience of wonder digested and communicated in the completest and most generous possible way. To read it is to have a fat pair of Homeric jump-leads attached from Adam Nicolson’s sparking and crackling faculties of appreciation to your own’
– Sam Leith, Spectator
‘The fruit of year of obsession, [THE MIGHTY DEAD] is erudite, far-ranging in time and space, and provocative … This rich and adventurous book is Nicolson’s own odyssey … There is delight in following Nicolson’s travels and the course of his investigation into the Homeric world … his book [is] compelling … Nicolson’s enthusiasm enriching and his examination of the character of the two epics acute and fascinating. Homer matters because he can stimulate books such as this’
– Allan Massie, Literary Review
‘a joy to read… Nicolson has a gift for bringing the driest of archaeological data to life, through the sheer force of his prose.’
– Henry Power, Evening Standard
‘If Adam Nicolson’s book does not fit established literary categories, that is probably because it is something quite new: a piece of historical detective work that is as gripping as a thriller and as delicately constructed as a sonnet…
It is an astonishing tour de force that reveals Homer to be at once as ancient as papyrus and as modern as MTV.’
– Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Telegraph