A little Homer should be in every writer’s DNA


One of the absolute requirements for becoming a good writer is to be an avid reader of good writing.  In fact, one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of a writer is “a reader who has spilled over.”

I tell people who want to get serious about writing, or reading for that matter, they’d do well to get a good grounding in the true bedrock of all literature.  They’d better visit, or revisit, The Iliad and the Odyssey.

No works of literature have had as profound an impact on stories and storytelling over the last three millennia than those two epic sagas about the Trojan War and its aftermath.  Shakespeare himself filled his plays and poems with allusions to them, and the didactic warnings they put forth about human behavior (and misbehavior) have been proven true in every succeeding generation, up to and including our own. But I swore off politics when I started this blog, so I won’t let the enormous current examples of “Pride cometh before a fall” lead me astray from that vow.

I’ve taught the Homeric sagas, have reread parts of them over and over, and watched how countless writers of books and movies have woven elements of those ancient stories into newer ones.  I’ve even done that myself of late.  My next book, about Sam Houston’s final dozen years, will be out next year. And it would be difficult not to see the old general as something of Odysseus reborn, facing his hardest battle near the end of his life after his glorious youthful victories.

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott’s verse novel Omeros transplants the characters and events of the Iliad from ancient Greece to an impoverished Caribbean island in modern times. And Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” finds the old hero back home with nothing more to do after his full life of battles and adventures than stare out at dark, brooding seas.

Margaret George, my favorite historical novelist, won fame as the author of hefty tomes about Henry VIII, Mary of Scotland, Elizabeth I and Mary Madeline. But I think my favorite of all her books is Helen of Troy. Which is somewhat ironic, since her subject in that one probably never actually existed in history.  But she certainly did in legend. Margaret’s novel is written in first person narrative, with Helen telling the story herself, taking us completely into the world of her husband King Menelaus, her lover Paris, of Priam and Hecuba, Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, and all the rest. They, and the ancient world they occupied, come fully to life on every page.

Margaret and I have the same literary agent.  When she wrote to tell me her next novel will focus on Nero, the fiddling emperor of Rome, I replied that I’d hoped she would finally get around to Cicero. She may yet, and I can promise you that Nero will be amazing.

I highly recommend you put Helen of Troy on your reading list.  But if you haven’t read the Illiad do that first.  It’s best to start things at the beginning.  And Homer’s tale is the beginning of everything when it comes to storytelling.


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