Samuel Butler, Homer and the 21st Century

When I was at prep school a long time ago, if you were clever (which I was not) you could be clever in two different ways. Either you were good at Maths or you were good at Latin – you could not be good at both. If you were very good at Maths, you were taught calculus. If you were very good at Latin, you were taught ancient Greek.

My Father, who had been educated in a different system at a different time, did not mind that I was not particularly clever. However, he was surprised and appalled that I was not to be taught Greek. How could I read Homer if I could not understand Greek? How would I be prepared for life in the 20th century AD if I had not read Homer’s description of life in the 12th century BC? Sadly, the 20th century for my father, as the 12th century for the Greeks, had been a time of warfare, massacre, heroism, betrayal and tragedy.

My Father should not have worried. My 20th Century turned out to be different from his (for which I owe an enormous debt to my Father, his comrades and very many other people of good will of that generation.)

But also, of course, Homer can be read in translation.

Samuel Butler’s is undoubtedly a good one, although it is one of the oldest of those available (dating back to the 1890s).

Butler is mainly known for his great satirical novel Erewhon. He may have lived in the Victorian age, but did not believe in taking it seriously. Likewise, he believed that there was humour in Homer – in particular that Homer’s accounts of the doings of the Greek gods were not altogether serious. His translation is in prose and was intended perhaps, for readers who (alas like me) were never going to read it alongside the original Greek. In this sense, it may not be a work of scholarship, but it avoids some of the contortions that are necessary to reproduce the original with scholarly precision. It is all the more readable as a result.

Before you start turning the pages, remember that Homer is what they did for soap opera a very long time before Game of Thrones, Eastenders or even the Archers – not just before TV or radio, but even before writing, when what we now think of as literature was transmitted by word of mouth and preserved only in the collective memories of those who recited it.

The difference between a story that is told and one that is written is audience feedback. Once a novel is published it is frozen for ever: no publisher rushes out successive editions because some reader has suggested an improved nuance of plot here, or asked for details of a back-plot there.

Such things can and do happen when stories are passed down by word of mouth. Anyone who has told stories to children will know this.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are stories about people who thought and behaved very differently to us – but get over this and you have narratives of huge depth, sharpened and developed in countless retellings.

Above all, as the 21st Century unfolds, perhaps there are some uncomfortable resonances in Homer for us, as there were for my Father.

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