Homer, Shakespeare, Tolkein:
Books tend to be published in cities.  That is where the resources are and where the decision of what to publish is made.  In a couple of months I will talk about an exception, but largely books are an urban phenomenon.  One would expect them to be sympathetic with urban life and take interest in urban issues.  There are exceptions. 

Homer by tradition was a blind poet of ancient Greece.  It is often said that Homer’s supposed work is actually the work of a large number of poets over a long time.  If so, it was certainly a good committee.  Achilles is generally taken to be the hero, a great Greek warrior who must confront his own destiny and decide what it will be.  He wins the key fight.  Some of us rather like Hector, a prince of Troy fighting against overwhelming numbers to save his home. 

Hector is introduced by a technique exploited by Shakespeare.  We learn about him by hearing an account.  The first remark is that Hector encourages his troops like a madman.  As the story unfolds we learn that he not only pushes them hard but insults them routinely.  In the end a “god” character appears in the guise of one of Hector’s brothers and encourages Hector to make a stand against the otherwise invincible Greek hero.  Hector throws a spear, signals for another and then looks to find no brother.  He has been tricked by the supernatural.  I am not so sure.  Having watched Hector insult every friend so predictably, one is tempted to think the brother simply had taken enough abuse.  The point is driven home when Hector turns and runs.  That is no disgrace.  Hector has already said that the mark of the best warrior is being able to get out of the way.  Hector runs along the wall of the city with Achilles coming behind in his chariot. 

Think about it.  The walls are crowded with Trojans.  Everyone is watching the fight.  It would take only a spear and arrow or a rock coming down from the wall to distract Achilles or injure a horse.  A hand might be stayed here or there on the principle that this is a picked fight and it would not be honorable to intervene.  But no missile arrives even to miss.  Nobody likes Hector.  The plot is a synthetic whole, introduced at the beginning and carried through to the end, scrupulously maintained throughout.  Other things like the consistent direct voice and the consistent interest in human feelings and motivations convince me that this is the work of one genius. 

There are facts of amazing precision.  When Achilles finally throws his spear, it hit Hector in the collar bone and kills him.  The rule in cowboy stories is that a wound to the shoulder is not lethal.  Is this just a mistake?  By no means.  Below the collarbone is the subclavian vein, attached to the bone.  An open displace fracture of the collarbone will not allow the vein to collapse.  Armor would keep Hector from putting a hand on the wound.  And the clincher is that the pressure in the subclavian vein of a standing healthy man is negative.  The heart a few inches below efficiently clears blood draining from the lungs.  The open vein, and it is a big one, sucks air until the heart loses its prime and cardiac output ceases abruptly.  The episode is totally realistic. 

Another fact is a reference of Trojans pouring out of the city attacking Greeks like cranes attacking pygmies.  Well the pigmies were real enough at the time of Homer, but being attacked by cranes?  It seems like fancy.  Yet there was a bird called the “terror crane” that lived in prehistoric times.  The internet informs me that it lived 50 million years ago in North America, stood over six feet and could have taken down a horse.  I believe I have read that an even larger version lived in Madagascar recently enough so that it might have actually been a contemporary of people living in that part of the world.  So Homer got the fierce crane right for sure, and quite possibly the right time and place. 

Homer’s sympathy is with people, and he prefers the country life to the urban one.  Troy was a great international power.  It was situated above a beach on the Dardanelles, part of a waterway connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.  There it controlled traffic between Asia and Europe by land and between  Eastern Europe and northern Anatolia to the east and West Europe and North Africa including Egypt to the west by water.  At the time, commerce was by shallow draft galleys that could be pulled up stern first onto the beach.  For thousands of years now, that waterway has been dominated by Istanbul, because an estuary called the Golden Horn is deep enough to shelter more modern deep draft vessels but not then, and Homer’s audience were seafaring traders.  They would have understood the geography.  Troy was urban to the hilt.  The icon of Troy was the brassy, irritating Hector. 

Achilles’ choice of destiny was between a long life and a peaceful one and a short life but a glorious one.  He went for the glory.  There is no doubt he would have been happier staying down on the farm.  There is a crucial moment when the Trojans have driven the Greeks back to the beach and are storming the ramparts the Greeks have erected to protect their ships.  Hector in the van decides to break the gate open by throwing a rock at it.  “The rock was round and pointed at one end.  It was of a size so that it would have taken two of what now pass for young men to lever it onto a cart.  But Hector picked it up with one hand.”  At this high water mark of the urban resistance, Homer has taken you right back to the farm.  Homer’s heart is in the countryside.

The second genius to consider is Shakespeare.  He had some things in common with Homer.  While Shakespeare’s style can be loft or even opaque, my younger brother says not to worry if you don’t understand Shakespeare.  If he needs you to understand something he will be sure you do.  Shakespeare employs Homeric directness and clarity when it is needed. 

Shakespeare also has remarkable command of facts.  Take the cavern witch scene in “Macbeth.”  The witches are standing around a cauldron cooking something.  Their cauldron is a big iron thing, too big for a cooking pot, and its shape makes it easy to tip over.  I think the scene is from the manufacture of saltpeter.  Usually this was done by composting urine and manure, but I am told by history buffs that it could be made by boiling manure, urine, rotten meat or anything that holds organic nitrogen.  The smell would have been appalling.  Who would have done such work?   Ugly old women with no friends or family would be a good guess.  Once you got past the smell, it was reasonably light work for three women standing around stirring and ladling off the chemical.  And it was a social event.  They would have enjoyed it. 

Take a moment right after Macbeth has killed the king.  He says to himself, Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”  (http://www.william-shakespeare.info/script-text-macbeth.htm)

So he refers to a green sea.  A friend once told me you can stand at the tip of South Africa, possibly at Cape Point, and look out and see where the blue Atlantic meets the green Indian Ocean.  Apparently Shakespeare had talked with a sailor. 

Shakespeare’s heart is in the countryside.  If nothing else, he was friends with the Earl of Pembroke who busied himself with building a rural paradise using resources that would usually have drawn a powerful man to a city.

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his masterpiece, the three volume Lord of the Rings.  Somebody did a survey on what was the greatest novel of the 20th century.  To their dismay, Tolkien came out first.  They were so hacked they did another survey.  Tolkien won again.  Number two was more to their liking, James Joyce’s Ulysses.  To my mind it is an example of the effect of brain damage from Spanish Flu on 20th century art.  It was the kind of groovy, trendy thing that they wanted.  And if anybody cast has heart clearly with the village, it was Tolkien.  The Shire, the village of the Hobbits, is a wonderful play.  Mordor, the urban realm of the Lord of the Rings is the embodiment of evil. 

There are other examples.  But just for these three, consider the irony.  A writer addressing an urban audience makes it clear that the city is just awful.  Yes, perhaps like writers of children’s books he is appealing to the lives of their recent ancestors, he is being sentimental.  But these are not sentimental, soft textured books.  They include scenes that are as brutal and grisly as any ever written.  I think the reason they could get away with that is that they were writing from the heart, and they just were so skillful they could get away with anything.

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