I read and read and read, and become pickier and pickier and pickier in the books I deem worthy of my attention. My Christmas book list has had too many misses the last couple of years, with too many books not living up to their reviews. But one on my 2015 list lived up to—and surpassed—its promise of “an astonishing tour de force,” (Daily Telegraph): Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters.

The Mighty Dead by Adam NicolsonIf I had been born and educated in Britain, I would have most likely taken Greek and Latin because classical studies were part of the curriculum in the 1950s. Which means I would have been introduced to Homer and Plato and Aristotle far earlier than I was, which means I would have appreciated their works far earlier. Being born and educated in Canada, I did not meet the classical greats until university, and my admiration of them has deepened over the many years since.

Naturally, along with every educated contemporary in the Western world, I knew the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey, but had no idea of its seminal place in our civilization. Now I do and I am enthralled. And because Nicolson said it better, I come to quote him, not to paraphrase him (to adapt another Western great’s inimitable phrasing). To begin:

“There are two possibilities for human life. You can either do what your integrity tells you to do, or niftily find your way around the obstacles life throws in your path. That is the great question the poems pose. Which will you be? Achilles or Odysseus, the monument of obstinacy and pride or the slippery trickster in whom nothing in certain and from whom nothing can be trusted? The singular hero or the ingenious man?

“The Iliad embraces an earlier, rawer, more heroic and more tragic past. The Odyssey looks forward, takes modern dealing and adventuring and casts a magic spell over it so that it becomes a strange and idealised version of the trading and colonising life. The Iliad is a picture of what we think we once were and maybe long to be; the Odyssey is a version of what we are and what we might yet be. …”

Golden mask

The battle face of the Iliad: brutal, excluding, potent

When I was young, the choice was always the romantic choice: Achilles in his youth and beauty and strength; now that I am old, the choice is always the human choice: Odysseus in his wisdom, flawed that it is, gained through life’s twists and turns. The singular hero is something to dream about and write about. But the ingenious person is the way to live a good life—not perfect, like nothing human is, always learning from and adapting to the circumstances and other people in your journey.

And then Nicolson offers an intriguing view of the Homeric landscape:

“Homer, often seen as the template from which many later encounters of west and east are drawn, is better understood as the great meeting of north and south, what happens to northern adventurers in a southern world. That is the meeting which lies at the roots of Greek civilization, and from which the later history of Europe stems.”

This view was new to me and gave me a whole new perspective of the origins of our Western world. I have always seen history through the duality of the Occident and the Orient, with the differences between them stemming largely from their origins and subsequent evolution. Now, Nicolson presents the barbaric, blond northerners—my maternal ancestors among them—invading the civilized, brunette southerners; these barbarians brought creative destruction to the southern societies and, in turn, were civilized by them.

“The origins of the Greeks…were not in the Mediterranean….Fundamentally they were northerners, their roots in the steppelands of Eurasia, the oceanic river of grass, five thousand miles long and up to a thousand wide, that runs from Hungary to Manchuria.’’

Theirs is the land of land, not of sea as has been the dominant theme in our written history of the cradle of Western civilization. It is a land dominated by huge skies and spaces with tribes and their prized horses roaming its vastness in search of new pasture and adventure. It is untamed, heroic in its state of nature, barbaric in its human development. It is the place from which Achilles comes, who brings this ancestral layer to the battle of Troy.

The world of the Ancient Greeks

The world of the ancient Greeks

The great question in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey is: “What place can civilization have in a world dominated by the brute geological facts of violence and dominance?” We are still asking this question in our modern world dominated by the pen but eternally threatened by the sword. Today, the lure of the sword is vividly illustrated every time a young man or woman succumbs to the barbarism of Islamic State, shucking off the strictures of the civilized pen and embracing the bloody ecstasy of the sword.

From the universal to the particular, Homer illuminates the question of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What do I matter?’ by Odysseus’ plight of homelessness and then unrecognized and unsung when he finally arrives home. And even if you gain standing in your own home and community, you remain a nobody in the rest of the world. And even the people who are household names in one era are quickly overwritten and forgotten by the next generation as history rolls relentlessly on. And even as two millennia have passed, we still ask, “Who am I?” and “What do I matter?” The human journey is not for cowards.

Odysseus’ virtue is that “in the face of life’s impossible choices, he is able to navigate between the whirlpool and the rock”, between the whirlpool of Charybdis and the rock of Scylla. The heart of the poem is “…this contingency, the absence of any overriding permanence. It is the first depiction we have of ‘the fascinating imaginative realm’, as Milan Kundera called the novel, the great descendant of the Odyssey, ‘where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood’.”

Odysseus bound to his ship to resist his throbbing desire for the Sirens

Odysseus bound to his ship to resist his throbbing desire for the Sirens

And so Nicolson describes history and Homer’s place in it: “In any age, the present is no more than the saddle of level ground at the pass, an instant of revelation in front of you and abandonment behind. Like all great art, Homer is essentially transitional, emergent, hung between what is lost and what does not yet exist.” That’s why I read: to learn our past and to glimpse our future.

Read the book. You, too, will be enthralled.