Homer is not for the squeamish. The Iliad is a gore fest of slashed necks, metal spearheads entering brains, blood spurting through nostrils, sea creatures nibbling human fat, and Achilles raging on, “insane to hack more flesh”. The Odyssey, while less relentlessly brutal, also features hideous monsters, a memorable blinding scene, and the mass slaughter of all those who dared to assume Odysseus dead after 20 years’ absence.

In his vigorous and visceral book about a lifetime of Homer-reading, Adam Nicolson spares us none of the dripping gobbets of flesh, while also giving us much else to think about. His slightly stilted first chapter announces that he has come to see Homer “as a guide to life, even as a kind of scripture”, which sounds like blurb-talk, but then he surprises us by actually convincing us that it is true. The Mighty Dead is almost unbearably personal; it includes Nicolson’s devastating account of being raped at knifepoint – an account that has all the more impact for being unexpected and very restrained, with little prelude or comment. Yet the link to the guiding themes of violence, honour, force and masculinity is made clear. And for most of the remainder of the book, the focus stays less on Nicolson than on Homer, and on origins and theories of the Homeric world. The results are at once moving and enlightening.

Homer has such power partly because he is an enigma. We don’t know who he was (or who they were), while the texts themselves can be puzzling but fascinating to readers unused to the repetitive, incantatory structure of oral tales. The sources are so old; if we venture beyond early fragments of physical evidence (a few jesting lines inscribed on an 8th-century BC wine cup), we find the ground falling away beneath our feet. We meet a dizzying “time-cliff”.

Since we have to rely on a long series of recitations, transcriptions, interpretations and (for most of us) translations, much can go wrong. Nicolson himself was unimpressed when he first had to pick through Homer at school, in Greek. It was like filleting fish, he says. But translations can ruin things too. He quotes the once- influential edition by Alexander Pope, clearly designed for 18th-century sensibilities, in which a simple phrase about a glad-hearted shepherd becomes a long, frothy confection about swains rejoicing under blue vaults of sky. No wonder Keats was blown away when he looked into George Chapman’s older, more muscular translation.

For Nicolson, it was Robert Fagles’ version of The Odyssey that had this effect; he was so hooked that he kept reading it while sailing in the stormy Atlantic, lashing the book to a compass binnacle. As a seafarer himself, he clearly loves the salty, restless side of Homer. There is no doubt that The Odyssey is a classic sea story but Nicolson also reads The Iliad mainly as an account of aggressive seaborne Greeks making trouble in the more settled world of Troy.

Always alert for modern parallels, Nicolson makes connections with the high-flown rhetoric of military leaders in Iraq and Kuwait, and with the attitudes and brutality of American street gangs. It’s all about courage, revenge, honour, respect; it is all about manhood and war.

Yet, oddly, it is women who have given us some of the most interesting remarks on these aspects of Homer. Simone Weil’s study of The Iliad, published on the eve of the second world war, argues that his work speaks only to those who see “force” as something eternal and unavoidable in history, not to those who hope vainly for civilised progress. In an essay on Weil, Susan Sontag adds that, sometimes, people do not crave civilisation or beauty in art at all but the “deepening of the sense of reality” that comes from terrible things.

Nicolson quotes them both, and his own conclusion is similar. Homer may not be a life guide in the sense of offering self-improvement – indeed, to follow his values would lead to some kind of “gang hell”. Yet there is wisdom and clarity to be found in his “fearless encounter with the dreadful”. It is hard not to feel, watching recent events, that there is something in this hard-bitten vision, and that the dreadful can never be much further away than (at best) the horizon.

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson, William Collins, RRP£25, 336 pages

Published in the US in November by Henry Holt & Co

Sarah Bakewell is the author of ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer’ (Vintage)

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