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Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic    by Andrew Dalby order for
Rediscovering Homer
by Andrew Dalby
Order:  USA  Can
W. W. Norton, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Nearly everyone who has ever enrolled in a college-level literature course has read parts of (if not all of) the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some first-time readers have superficially studied (usually reluctantly) one or the other (or both) of the canonical epic poems. Other first-time readers - those willing to explore and discover both the ancient literary past and their own capacity for intellectual growth - have often been seduced and pleasantly surprised by the breathtaking beauty and power in these ancient Greek texts.

As a university instructor of literature, I have over the years encountered plenty of the first variety of readers, those who inexplicably prefer reading Cliff's Notes' boring paraphrases and mutilated explications rather than reading the powerful poems themselves. Fortunately, however, I have also been pleased to find a fairly good number of the second variety of readers in my classes. My faith in 21st century students - and my sanity as someone who is passionate about the importance of good literature - tenuously survives because of these enthusiastic and adventurous students who have been willing to intelligently and emotionally explore the Iliad and the Odyssey, the monumental relics of an early world.

These introductory remarks (even with my ranting and raving about students and their uninspired reliance upon Cliff's Notes) take me finally to my comments about Andrew Dalby's superb contribution to Homeric studies, Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic: This book, probably of limited interest or value to the first variety of closed-minded students but highly recommended as being indispensable to the second variety of students, is an enthusiastic, provocative, and important look at the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the poems' presumed author, Homer.

As the publisher notes, 'Dalby {a writer who clearly has an infectious enthusiasm for his subject} sets out to clarify the history of the two great epic poems. Passed from generation to generation through the spoken word, the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey were attributed to Homer by the earliest available written sources of information, which date from 500 to 300 B.C. A rhapsodos, or 'singer of woven words,' Homer never recorded any of his work on paper. Dalby pursues the reason{s} why the two great epics at last crossed the frontier from song to writing, and how this astonishing transformation from the singer's mouth to the goatskin page was achieved. Dalby makes a powerful case that both poems are the work of a single poet {which seems to conform to conventional literary studies} and comes to an ultimate {but controversial and not unassailable} conclusion that will surprise even the most serious scholars {and that is very much an understatement}: Homer was most likely a woman {emphasis added}.'

Well, with that last bit of iconoclastic assertion as the centerpiece of Dalby's thesis, who could not be intrigued? However, the real value and readability of Dalby's book does not so much depend upon his success or failure in arguing and proving his thesis. The more impressive strength of Rediscovering Homer is the range of Dalby's exploratory narrative; he dives into the many theories and assumptions surrounding the creation and perpetuation of the Homeric poems, and - in the course of his examination - gives readers a treasure trove of information about 'the traditions, language, and lifestyle of an era delegated to the realm of ancient history.' Once you have read Dalby - even if you are not quite persuaded by or even remain indifferent to his theory that Homer was, in fact, a woman - you (like me) will certainly want to grab your tattered and highlighted copies of the Homeric poems from off the shelf and rediscover - and even reassess - two of 'the most treasured works known' to humanity.

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