Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 15

The Comparative Study of Early Epics

Though comparison is the method of Science, the comparative study of the national poetry of warlike aristocracies, its conditions of growth and decadence, has been much neglected by Homeric critics. Sir Richard Jebb touched on the theme, and, after devoting four pages to a sketch of Sanskrit, Finnish, Persian, and early Teutonic heroic poetry and saga, decided that “in our country, as in others, we fail to find any true parallel to the case of the Homeric poems. These poems must be studied in themselves, without looking for aid, in this sense, to the comparative method.” 356 Part of this conclusion seems to us rather hasty. In a brief manual Sir Richard had not space for a thorough comparative study of old heroic poetry at large. His quoted sources are: for India, Lassen; for France, Mr. Saintsbury’s Short History of French Literature (sixteen pages on this topic), and a work unknown to me, by “M. Paul”; for Iceland he only quoted The Encyclopedia Britannica (Mr. Edmund Gosse); for Germany, Lachmann and Bartsch; for the Finnish Kalewala, the Encyclopedia Britannica (Mr. Sime and Mr. Keltie); and for England, a Primer of English Literature by Mr. Stopford Brooke.

These sources appear less than adequate, and Celtic heroic romance is entirely omitted. A much deeper and wider comparative criticism of early heroic national poetry is needed, before any one has a right to say that the study cannot aid our critical examination of the Homeric problem. Many peoples have passed through a stage of culture closely analogous to that of Achaean society as described in the Iliad and Odyssey. Every society of this kind has had its ruling military class, its ancient legends, and its minstrels who on these legends have based their songs. The similarity of human nature under similar conditions makes it certain that comparison will discover useful parallels between the poetry of societies separated in time and space but practically identical in culture. It is not much to the credit of modern criticism that a topic so rich and interesting has been, at least in England, almost entirely neglected by Homeric scholars.

Meanwhile, it is perfectly correct to say, as Sir Richard observes, that “we fail to find any true parallel to the case of the Homeric poems,” for we nowhere find the legends of an heroic age handled by a very great poet — the greatest of all poets — except in the Iliad and Odyssey. But, on the other hand, the critics refuse to believe that, in the Iliad and Odyssey, we possess the heroic Achaean legends handled by one great poet. They find a composite by many hands, good and bad, and of many ages, they say; sometimes the whole composition and part of the poems are ascribed to a late littérateur. Now to that supposed state of things we do find several “true parallels,” in Germany, in Finland, in Ireland. But the results of work by these many hands in many ages are anything but “a true parallel” to the results which lie before us in the Iliad and Odyssey. Where the processes of composite authorship throughout many Ages certainly occur, as in Germany and Ireland, there we find no true parallel to the Homeric poems. It follows that, in all probability, no such processes as the critics postulate produced the Iliad and Odyssey, for where the processes existed, beyond doubt they failed egregiously to produce the results.

Sir Richard’s argument would have been logical if many efforts by many hands, in many ages, in England, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, and Germany did actually produce true parallels to the Achaean epics. They did not, and why not? Simply because these other races had no Homer. All the other necessary conditions were present, the legendary material, the heroic society, the Court minstrels, all — except the great poet. In all the countries mentioned, except Finland, there existed military aristocracies with their courts, castles, and minstrels, while the minstrels had rich material in legendary history and in myth, and Märchen, and old songs. But none of the minstrels was adequate to the production of an English, German, or Irish Iliad or Odyssey, or even of a true artistic equivalent in France.

We have tried to show that the critics, rejecting a Homer, have been unable to advance any adequate hypothesis to account for the existence of the Iliad and Odyssey. Now we see that, where such conditions of production as they postulate existed but where there was no great epic genius, they can find no true parallels to the Epics. Their logic thus breaks down at both ends.

It may be replied that in non-Greek lands one condition found in Greek society failed: the succession of a reading age to an age of heroic listeners. But this is not so. In France and Germany an age of readers duly began, but they did not mainly read copies of the old heroic poems. They turned to lyric poetry, as in Greece, and they recast the heroic songs into modern and popular forms in verse and prose, when they took any notice of the old heroic poems at all.

One merit of the Greek epics is a picture of “a certain phase of early civilisation,” and that picture is “a naturally harmonious whole,” with “unity of impression,” says Sir Richard Jebb. 357 Certainly we can find no true parallel, on an Homeric scale, to this “harmonious picture” in the epics of Germany and England or in the early literature of Ireland. Sir Richard, for England, omits notice of Beowulf; but we know that Beowulf, a long heroic poem, is a mass of anachronisms — a heathen legend in a Christian setting. The hero, that great heathen champion, has his epic filled full of Christian allusions and Christian morals, because the clerical redactor, in Christian England, could not but intrude these things into old pagan legends evolved by the continental ancestors of our race. He had no “painful anxiety,” like the supposed Ionic continuators of the Achaean poems (when they are not said to have done precisely the reverse), to preserve harmony of ancient ideas. Such archaeological anxieties are purely modern.

If we take the Nibelungenlied, 358 we find that it is a thing of many rehandlings, even in existing manuscripts. For example, the Greeks clung to the hexameter in Homer. Not so did the Germans adhere to old metres. The poem that, in the oldest MS., is written in assonances, in later MSS. is reduced to regular rhymes and is retouched in many essential respects. The matter of the Nibelungenlied is of heathen origin. We see the real state of heathen affairs in the Icelandic versions of the same tale, for the Icelanders were peculiar in preserving ancient lays; and, when these were woven into a prose saga, the archaic and heathen features were retained. Had the post-Christian prose author of the Volsunga been a great poet, we might find in his work a true parallel to the Iliad. But, though he preserves the harmony of his picture of preChristian princely life (save in the savage beginnings of his story), he is not a poet; so the true parallel to the Greek epic fails, noble as is the saga in many passages. In the German Nibelungenlied all is modernised; the characters are Christian, the manners are chivalrous, and Märchen older than Homer are forced into a wandering mediaeval chronicle-poem. The Germans, in short, had no early poet of genius, and therefore could not produce a true parallel to Iliad or Odyssey. The mediaeval poets, of course, never dreamed of archaeological anxiety, as the supposed Ionian continuators are sometimes said to have done, any more than did the French and late Welsh handlers of the ancient Celtic Arthurian materials. The late German bearbeiter of the Nibelungenlied has no idea of unity of plot — enfin, Germany, having excellent and ancient legendary material for an epic, but producing no parallel to Iliad and Odyssey, only proves how absolutely essential a Homer was to the Greek epics.

“If any inference could properly be drawn from the Edda” (the Icelandic collection of heroic lays), says Sir Richard Jebb, “it would be that short separate poems on cognate subjects can long exist as a collection without coalescing into such an artistic whole as the Iliad or the Odyssey.” 359

It is our own argument that Sir Richard states. “Short separate poems on cognate subjects” can certainly co-exist for long anywhere, but they cannot automatically and they cannot by aid of an editor become a long epic. Nobody can stitch and vamp them into a poem like the Iliad or Odyssey. To produce a poem like either of these a great poetic genius must arise, and fuse the ancient materials, as Hephaestus fused copper and tin, and then cast the mass into a mould of his own making. A small poet may reduce the legends and lays into a very inartistic whole, a very inharmonious whole, as in the Nibelungenlied, but a controlling poet, not a mere redactor or editor, is needed to perform even that feat.

Where a man who is not a poet undertakes to produce the coalescence, as Dr. Lönnrot (1835–1849) did in the case of the peasant, not courtly, lays of Finland, he “fails to prove that mere combining and editing can form an artistic whole out of originally distinct songs, even though concerned with closely related themes,” says Sir Richard Jebb. 360

This is perfectly true; much as Lönnrot botched and vamped the Finnish lays he made no epic out of them. But, as it is true, how did the late Athenian drudge of Pisistratus succeed where Lönnrot failed? “In the dovetailing of the Odyssey we see the work of one mind,” says Sir Richard. 361 This mind cannot have been the property of any one but a great poet, obviously, as the Odyssey is confessedly “an artistic whole.” Consequently the disintegrators of the Odyssey, when they are logical, are reduced to averring that the poem is an exceedingly inartistic whole, a whole not artistic at all. While Mr. Leaf calls it “a model of skilful construction,” Wilamowitz Mollendorff denounces it as the work of “a slenderly-gifted botcher,” of about 650 B.C., a century previous to Mr. Leaf’s Athenian editor.

Thus we come, after all, to a crisis in which mere literary appreciation is the only test of the truth about a work of literature. The Odyssey is an admirable piece of artistic composition, or it is the very reverse. Blass, Mr. Leaf, Sir Richard Jebb, and the opinion of the ages declare that the composition is excellent. A crowd of German critics and Father Browne, S.J., hold that the composition is feeble. The criterion is the literary taste of each party to the dispute. Kirchhoff and Wilamowitz Möllendorff see a late bad patchwork, where Mr. Leaf, Sir Richard Jebb, Blass, Wolf, and the verdict of all mankind see a masterpiece of excellent construction. The world has judged: the Odyssey is a marvel of construction: therefore is not the work of a late botcher of disparate materials, but of a great early poet. Yet Sir Richard Jebb, while recognising the Odyssey as “an artistic whole” and an harmonious picture, and recognising Lönnrot’s failure “to prove that mere combining and editing can form an artistic whole out of originally distinct songs, even though concerned with closely related themes,” thinks that Kirchhoff has made the essence of his theory of late combination of distinct strata of poetical material from different sources and periods, in the Odyssey, “in the highest degree probable.” 362

It is, of course, possible that Mr. Leaf, who has not edited the Odyssey, may now, in deference to his belief in the Pisistratean editor, have changed his opinion of the merits of the poem. If the Odyssey, like the Iliad, was, till about 540 B.C., a chaos of lays of all ages, variously known in various répertoires of the rhapsodists, and patched up by the Pisistratean editor, then of two things one — either Mr. Leaf abides by his enthusiastic belief in the excellency of the composition, or he does not. If he does still believe that the composition of the Odyssey is a masterpiece, then the Pisistratean editor was a great master of construction. If he now, on the other hand, agrees with Wilamowitz Möllendorff that the Odyssey is cobbler’s work, then his literary opinions are unstable.

356 Homer, p. 135.

357 Homer, p. 37.

358 See chapter on the Nibelungenlied in Homer and the Epic, pp. 382–404.

359 Homer, p. 33.

360 Homer, p. 134–135.

361 Homer, p. 129.

362 Homer, p. 131.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03