THE ILIAD, THE ODYSSEY, AND THE EPIC TRADITION ( Doubleday Anchor Paperback Original; New York 1966) 263pp.
This book grew out of lectures I had been giving on the Homeric poems for several years first at Yale then at Stanford, and, as they say, nothing clarifies your thoughts on something more than having to explain it to others. On the basis of the lecture notes as well as inspired by a thorough rethinking of the poems after having sat in on Herman Fraenkel’s Homer seminar at Stanford, I impulsively sent off a specimen first chapter to Doubleday and came into contact with a brilliant young man Eugene Eoyang who became my editor. Jason Epstein had recently created the Anchor Book series within Doubleday as a line of paperbacks that would attract and benefit the educated, cultured reader who was not an academic. Prior to this paperback books in the United States were thought to be trashy items best read on a train or in bed as a soporific. With the European quality paperback as his model, Epstein aimed for an equivalence starting out with a reprint of Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma, but then branched out by contracting for new work. I am forever grateful to Eoyang and Anchor for giving me the opportunity to write a critical study of these poems without having to observe the academic rules: my book had no footnotes, no equivocation, nothing but my personal opinions ranging from qualified to reckless. I assumed the book would receive a negative reception from professional classicists if noticed at all, and was pleasantly surprised to read favorable reviews in all the major professional journals. The book has stayed in print one way or another for the last forty years, perhaps for the chapter on oral technique in the Homeric poems as well as the twenty pages or so of discussion of bibliography at the end. An author who comments on the authorities who influenced his thinking is offering something more valuable than a list of books read.
The book’s title is about as specific as you could get (“why beat around the bush?” asked Eugene, when he suggested it). As I had done in my lectures I first explained oral theory for my reader, for although it was several decades after Milman Parry had first published his research connecting the Homeric poems with oral poetry, the idea of something other than an author with quill in hand writing out the two poems was still hard for a public reared on the Romantic notion of ‘the author’ or ‘the poet.’ Then I gave my reader some idea of what the world might have been like in the time when the oral poets first began the tradition that culminated in the texts of the two poems. This, of course, was shaky ground; the great Emily Vermeule when writing of the Bronze Age specifically noted that she refused to use the two poems as evidence so shifting and uncertain was the history of their creation and therefore the world they might be said to reflect. I was on safer ground--that is, my own perception--when I undertook in the next chapter to identify techniques, narrative strategies--all the tools of the singer--that came together in a moment of spontaneous creation of individual ingenuity wedded to formulaic language and story details.
The chapters on the Homeric epics are much influenced by the French philosophy of existentialism which had its vogue when I as a teenager was losing my Christian faith. For example, I see Achilles first facing the utter meaninglessness of his life and then making meaning by going back to fight and by extension to be killed as the existentialist gesture. We used to think Homer or his tradition, rather, had invented this view of things, but now the well established decipherment of the cuneiform tablets of the Akkadian text of the stories of Gilgamesh show it to have beeen around a millenium or so earlier and farther to the east. I also stress that the Iliad is important for an expression of the tragic sense of life which imbues ancient Greek culture. In contrast to the Judeao-Christian-Muslim concept of a deity who cares as a father cares for his children, Achilles at the close of the Iliad (almost as a kind of summation) describes to Priam the image of the two jars from which Zeus either ladles unmitigated woe and disaster upon human beings, or adds in a little good with the evil. It is a vision of an arbitrary universe, cruel in its indifference, and perhaps the kind of thing a critic in the early fifties still reeling from the revelations of the Holocaust would find most satisfying in the poem. Those who hold out the notion of the beneficent god (Athena) in the Odyssey and a hero triumphing over evil (killing the suitors) have to contend with the critical position that reads the Odyssey as essentially a fairy tale with a bit of heroic narrative mingled in, a fairy tale on the order of Cinderella whose fairy godmother makes it possible for her to rise from her degraded postion among the ashes, fit the slipper to her foot and win the prince. But then there are numerous students of religion who would argue that the Christian story is essentially the same.
It was Eoyang who encouraged me to add on something about the Argonautica and the Aeneid. My remarks on the former are only preface to a discussion of the latter. What I have to say is only the obvious: Apollonian self-conscious manipulation of Homeric language and theme influenced Virgil in his own self-consciousness, Apollonius’ creation of Jason as a hero in opposition to the epic stereotype led to Virgil’s creation of an Aeneas with doubt and hesitation far removed from the Homeric hero’s confidence. My discussion of the Aeneid again is superficial, concentrating on the first six books and the obvious parallels with events in the Homeric poems. The poem in its entirety, as a construct independent of its literary predecessors, was something I was not about to deal with yet, and the discussion of the Aeneid suffers from this limited perception. Working up the meagre ideas I had to offer on the Argonautica, however, inspired me to think of the poem seriously which culminated in a book fifteen years later.