Odysseus is tossed on the sea when he notices a rock and clings to it. ‘As when an octopus is drawn out of its lair and bits of pebble get stuck in its suckers,’ says Homer, ‘so his skin was stripped from his brave hands by the rock.’ There is such elegant tricksiness in that simile.
Homer still sits at the apex of western literature thanks to the beauty and influence of his verse. Robin Lane Fox has been teaching the epics for 50 years and studying them for many more. His lifelong fascination with the texts has bred a sort of feverish passion in him that makes him declare Homeric poetry to be ‘beyond us’ today (he is probably right) and without equal anywhere in the world, except perhaps in the books of Tolstoy (who is surely still inferior).
In Homer and His Iliad he offers a close-reading celebration of the elder of the two epics and a bold reassessment of how it came to life. In the reassessment part, the book feels less like a wilful provocation than a throwing down of the gauntlet by a 76-year-old with nothing to lose. Lane Fox writes less with hope than bardic omniscience that his book will become a landmark in Homeric studies.
First, the celebration. His extended engagement with the poem yields observations that will have passed many other readers by. I had not noticed, for example, how frequently characters in the Iliad use the word ‘always’ of each other’s actions to indicate habitual behaviour. Hera says that Zeus always delights in making plans behind her back and, according to Agamemnon, Achilles always finds pleasure in strife. Nor had I taken in that there are three sets of divine horses in the poem, two on the Trojan side, one on the Greek.