What is it about the Homeric epics that makes them resound through our culture like the waves of the wine-dark sea? We know very little about ‘Homer’ – theories abound, as they do about Shakespeare, though nobody has, so far, suggested that Shakespeare was a woman – and yet his image as one of the founding figures of Western civilisation is unshakeable.
The social systems of the Iliad and the Odyssey are alien to us: the apple-cheeked Briseis is merely a piece of loot; honour and glory matter more than people’s lives; gods fill the gaps behind people’s actions. But the universality of Achilles’ wrath, the tenderness of Hector and Andromache, the faith of Penelope and the wit of Odysseus, ‘the unkillable genius hero of Troy’, make these poems what they are: glorious and essential.
A story’s ability to metamorphose is a sign of its greatness. Simon Armitage has re-imagined the Odyssey as a play – as he explains in his introduction, originally broadcast over the radio. This brings to the foreground the oral nature of the poetry: most people read Homer in a dry