The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson review – beneath the hyperbole is a good book

This enjoyable, if sometimes wordy study of the Greek poet, is impassioned and wide-ranging

These days, mention of Homer is more likely to bring to mind the long-suffering Homer of The Simpsons (D'oh!) than the ancient Greek poet. But Homericisms lie all around us. In the part of north London where I live, there's an Odyssey Dryclean and a Ulysses 2000 Menswear (Ulysses being the Latin form of Odysseus's name).

Homer uses two Greek words to describe Odysseus, pollà plantke ("much erring", or "driven to wander far and wide"), which explain why his Hellenic hero still feels real to us. In exile and pining for home and his wife, Penelope, after going berserk in Troy in the 12th century BC, Odysseus bears the toughest of human trials and solitude before returning to Ithaca, in present-day Greece.

During his wanderings, Odysseus descends into the kingdom of the dead. Homer's picture of the underworld became the model for all later western geographies of hell, particularly Dante's. (President Nixon stole the phrase "silent majority" from Homer, who used it to describe the dead.) Adam Nicolson, in this impassioned, wide-ranging study of Homer, hails an epic poetry that comes from the dawn of western literature. The Iliad and its sequel, The Odyssey, says Nicolson, unfold in a "radiant" real time – of rawhide sandals, brine-soaked mariners and bronze shinguards.

Nicolson "rediscovered" Homer 10 years ago while sailing off Ireland. At sea, he found himself electrified by Robert Fagles's celebrated verse translation of The Odyssey, whose images of dripping oarblades and pitchers of shining wine seemed as real to Nicolson in 2004 as they must have done to Homer's audience 3,000 years ago. Homer, he writes, is "like a beautiful stone, monumentally present, a paternal foundation, large, slightly ill-defined, male and reliable". This is awful nonsense and parts of The Mighty Dead are overwritten. Beneath the hyperbole, however, is a good book waiting to get out.

On the trail of real-life Homer locations, Nicolson travels from Athens to Crete to the Hebrides, where the crofters retain a Homeric gift (apparently) of improvisational storytelling. In Calabria, on the toe of the Italian boot, wonderfully, is the fishing village of Scilla, which marks the site of the giant rock, Scylla, and the deadly whirlpool, Charybdis. As well as a scholarly appraisal of Homer and what Homer means to us today, The Mighty Dead is a hosanna to Homeric wandering and wanderlust.

Homer is not – Nicolson insists, convincingly – an endangered species from the groves of academe. Eric Clapton knew his Homer. Tales of Brave Ulysses, on Cream's Disraeli Gears album, rhapsodises the "Sirens sweetly singing" in Book XII of The Odyssey. For James Joyce, Ulysses-Odysseus was the most complete character in western literature: Leopold Bloom's wanderings in Ulysses are based on those of Odysseus. As well as a paragon of virtue, Odysseus was the hero of many wiles (polymetis), the hoaxer of the Trojan horse, whom William Morris evoked as "the Shifty". Nicolson's enjoyable, if at times verbose, book breathes new life into an ancient adventure.


Ian Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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