Literary Magazine

Homer’s Feast

I love the works of Homer. They are regarded by most literary historians as being the dawn of Western literature, having been written down probably sometime between 800 and 700 BC. There is a lot of dispute and debate about what we actually have, but surely the most important thing to remember is that what we have is wonderful.

The Homer scholar, Eva Brann, has said that in every field of endeavour man has progressed and improved since the ancient Greeks started it all, except for one: literature. Everything that has followed Homer has been inferior, with one possible exception: Shakespeare.

There is a lot us writers can learn from the Iliad and the Odyssey. This essay is simply my way of rediscovering these things. Hopefully, you will find it helpful, or at least interesting.

Start small. In both the Iliad and the Odyssey, the story begins small and as it progresses it snowballs into epic. This is the best way to start a poem, short story, novel or any work of literature. Just start small and start putting words after words, sentences after sentences and paragraphs after paragraphs. Pretty soon you’ll have a whole world in your palms.

Non-linear narrative. Non-linear narrative, like that found in the Odyssey, is so much more interesting than straight ahead linear narrative. It takes more skill to do but it can really liberate the story. He who writes in a non-linear way has so much more freedom and scope than he who chooses the linear path.

Multiple strands. The Odyssey follows two plot strands: the adventures of Odysseus and the journey of his son, Telemachus, as he comes of age. Like non-linear narrative, multiple strands open up new possibilities. Interweaving these strands takes skill but it makes for a much more interesting and satisfying read.

Keep it concrete. The epics of Homer are probably the most concrete works of literature ever written. There is very little abstraction. Through the behaviour of the heroes and the gods and goddesses, Homer talks about abstracts such as love, war and civilisation. Concrete is always preferable over abstraction as it is easier to imagine and if you can imagine it, you can understand it.

Build to a climax. Achilles finally entering the battlefield and Odysseus finally confronting the suitors are both thoroughly satisfying climaxes. We need climaxes as they bring pleasure and the goal of art is pleasure. Both epics also have a reflective, cooling down period after the climax, which serves as a conclusion. In the Iliad, Hector’s father, Priam, begs Achilles to return the body of his son so’s he can bury him. This is a perfect ending to the poem. Why it is, I don’t know. It just feels right, which is how you, as a writer, will know the best possible ending for your creation.

There are so many more things we as writers can learn from Homer. If you haven’t read the works, stop what you are reading now, get your hands on a copy and take the journey. It takes a while to adjust to the experience but once you are in you will find it incredibly rewarding. The Greek tragedian, Aeschylus, said that everything he wrote was just morsels from the feast of Homer. This can be extended to all Western literature. It is an idea that informs the great novel of our time, Ulysses. After Homer, there is nothing new. All we can do is reinterpret and reinvent. Maybe that is the most important lesson of all.

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