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The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson; The Last Days of Troy by Simon Armitage, book reviews

A journey by land and sea extols the perennial power of the greatest epic poems

In his thrilling and unsettling book about the Homeric epics and their perennial power, Adam Nicolson always takes care to note where and why episodes in the Iliad and Odyssey occur. For the placement of pivotal events sways the meaning of the whole. And right at the dead centre of his wonderfully expressive alloy of travelogue, scholarship and advocacy, which broods with heartfelt grace on Homer's "fearless encounter with the dreadful", stands a memoir of a knife-point rape.

The author was the victim, 30 years ago in Syria, when he strayed from the ruins of ancient Palmyra. While the attack took its course, he ran through "the full spectrum of Homeric reactions" as "the banality of one's own death" drew near, and the Iliad's hyper-masculine rituals of domination and abjection played out one more time. (Rape has, by the way, become a weapon now used against Syrian rebels by the Assad regime.) Curiously, some early discussions of The Mighty Dead have overlooked this scene: proof that we still have to heed Nicolson's giant-hearted and golden-voiced plea for the epic poems whose subject "is not elegance but truth, however terrible".

Professional classicists, as well as evasive prudes, may not altogether love Nicolson's book.

As he journeys by land and sea from the coasts of the Hebrides and Ireland to Homeric locations in Ukraine and Crete, Sicily and Spain, he pursues his theories with a swashbuckling, pedant-prodding vigour.

To Nicolson, the Iliad and Odyssey – first written down in around 750 to 700BCE – recall and transmit a much older Bronze Age world of migration and strife, perhaps as far back as 1800BCE.

They record the encounters of "northern adventurers", nomadic horsemen from the distant steppes, as they clashed with and settled among the city-dwellers of the Mediterranean. Homer's wandering and warlike Greeks, then, were "strangers in a southern sea", uncouth outsiders or even "a gang from the ghetto confronting the urban rich" of Troy and other literate, commercial states. Here, even Goliath becomes a shaggy Greek.

His anthropology may sow division. Nicolson's aesthetics, however, should command assent.

He loves Homer's even-handed but tender-souled "embrace of wrongness", as – especially in the Iliad – the poetry registers a brutal cycle of violence and vengeance with "a loving heart and an unclouded eye". More future-oriented, even optimistic, the Odyssey – to Nicolson the "American" rather than "European" epic – trails rather in the Iliad's wake here, though it too benefits from his skipping and soaring prose. Nicolson's books always shine with the Homeric virtues of eloquence, passion, generosity, audacity and candour. So it is almost a surprise to learn that only in recent years have these epics served as "a kind of scripture for me". He does them proud.

In a rare false note, Nicolson defends his undertaking by claiming "the place of Homer in our culture has largely withered away". That is surely not so, and Simon Armitage's play about the bitter fag-end of the Trojan War arrives to join a long rank of recent re-imaginings. War-weary, disenchanted, his Greeks and Trojans almost seem to stagger back from the bloody stalemate of Iraq or Afghanistan.

In lean, supple language, often lit up by a sombre wit, he also gives rich voice to Helen, abducted then defamed. Despite her bleak "life close to tears", she weaves the tapestry that – in true Homeric fashion – will rescue her story from time's oblivion. Armitage does, it turns out, agree with Nicolson about the rough up-country manners of Achilles. "He'll eat anything," sneers Agamemnon, "he's from the north".

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