Alexander McCall Smith: Why Homer’s cruel world is still relevant today

The gap between the sometimes brutal ancient world, as depicted in Homer, and modern times is not as wide as we might like to think as our response to some of those in trouble on the sea demonstrates, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

Think Odysseus was cruel? Today many are indifferent to the struggles of desperate people on the wine-dark sea, like this group of Syrian refugees arriving on the island of Lesbos after traveling in an inflatable raft from Turkey. (Picture:: UNHCR/Andrew McConnell)

A Welsh friend told me an amusing story from his home town of Llandovery. Years ago, when support for Welsh nationalism was more of a minority pursuit, the teenage son of a nationalist politician decided to take direct action. This was to paint the slogan HOME RULE on a road bridge. Such slogans raise consciousness of a cause although it is doubtful whether they change the minds of drivers who see them as they go past. This young man, though, was 14 at the time and was no doubt fired by the enthusiasm. And who amongst us has not wanted to paint a slogan or two at the age of 14?

According to my friend, he set off at night to do the deed, but was interrupted by the arrival of the police, who stopped him completing his message. As a result, the slogan read HOME R, which, because of restricted space, led to it being read as HOMER. And there it remained for years, apparently, a solitary, unexpected reference to the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, until the weather eventually obliterated it just as the desert sands encroached upon the enigmatic words encountered by Shelley in his Ozymandias poem.

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For my friend, who was a boy at the time, this unexpected slogan was his first encounter with Homer, and it might well have been that for many of the motorists who drove past over the years. Some may have thought it odd to be reminded of Homer in such circumstances; others, presumably, took it in their stride. The occasional passing classicist might have been cheered at this apparent evidence of the persistence of one of the great literary works of antiquity.

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And Homer still resonates. Few readers of this column will be unfamiliar with the general outline of the great epic poems attributed to this Greek poet (or committee of poets) who wrote over two millennia ago. Just about everybody will know at least some of the salient features of the epic. The name Odysseus will resonate, even if people are a bit hazy about exactly who Telemachos and Penelope were. Helen, of course, will need little introduction, as will the unfortunate Cyclops. And the general story will be there in the minds of most: a band of Greeks went up to Troy, tricked their way in by means of a Trojan Horse, and then had to get home again. The return journey was eventful, to say the least.

Strangely persistent appeal

Like many of those whose classical education may have included Latin but did not embrace Greek, I had done no more than occasionally to dip into the Iliad and the Odyssey at various points in life. I did not sit down to a cover-to-cover reading of either of them until a few years ago, when I started with the Iliad and rejected it fairly quickly. The Iliad is a military story, and as uninteresting as most battle epics ultimately are. The Odyssey is a totally different matter, full of colourful interludes and exciting trials. It is the quest story par excellence, a theme that lies at the heart of so many of our human stories. The story of the hero who has to get somewhere or find something is one of the great themes, and any number of works of fiction can be analysed in terms of an Odyssean journey.

The continuing appeal of Homer is remarkable. There are other great epics and stories as stirring and dramatic. Beowolf is one, as are the Icelandic sagas. None of them, though, has had the enduring appeal and influence of Homer’s haunting lines, and none of them might appear, so naturally, on a Welsh road bridge. This appeal has been recently explored by Adam Nicolson, in his extraordinary Homeric memoir, The Mighty Dead. Nicolson, who wrote a lovely book about the Shiant Islands, recently did his own sailing trip – around the coasts of Britain and Ireland – accompanied by Homer’s poem, and mused on the strangely persistent appeal of the story. There is so much in Homer, Nicolson argues, that refers to our own times. It still speaks to our issues – to our loyalties, our fears, our humanity.

Merciless and alien

Yes, but it is still alien. We may recognise and sympathise with the bravery that we read of in the Odyssey, but at the end we are still confronted with a moral universe that is no longer our own. When Odysseus eventually returns, he is largely, although not completely, merciless. When he hangs the hapless slave girls who have comforted the despised suitors, we are brought up short against the realisation that a great chasm exists between his understanding of the world and our own. And yet, at the same time, we might reflect on the fact that there is seldom anything new in human affairs. We are still cruel; we are still indifferent; we are still ruthless in the pursuit of our individual interest. We still operate in cliques and bands, thinking of ourselves first and not caring about others. We still see boats adrift on the sea, full of desperate people eager for land. We see them.

Homer can develop into something of an itch, and this drew me a few weeks ago to Ithaca, to which, like Odysseus, I sailed on his famous wine-dark sea.

Ithaca does not disappoint, and I dropped anchor in bays where he might done the same. On the shores, the water lapped at beaches of wave-smoothed stones on which Odysseus himself might have set foot. Above us a sky, wide and empty, that was the same sky that stretched over him and his men. Exactly the same, and at that moment it seemed that the distance between us was but a short step.