Homer’s Daughter: Robert Graves

★★½

I discovered this on my last trip to the library and, in the thrill of finding a novel by Graves that I’d never even heard of, remembered a poem by Jo Walton which I’d read some months ago. There are few sensations to compare with suddenly finding a previously unknown book by an author you’re fond of. Like many people, I’ve read I, Claudius and Claudius the God, but I hadn’t realised that Graves had written any other fiction about the classical period.

A while ago I was eagerly looking for historical fiction set in classical Sicily and as it happens the book fits into that category as well. Set in the town of Drepanum (modern Trapani) in the north-westernmost corner of Sicily, in about 600 BC, it tells the story of the Elyman princess Nausicaa whom Graves proposes as an alternative author for the Odyssey. Unfortunately there is no introduction in my edition of the book, but I understand from what I’ve read elsewhere that Graves’s novel grew out of a conversation with a friend in which they discussed supposedly ‘irrefutable’ evidence that the epic poem had a female author. I don’t know exactly what that evidence is but, judging by Nausicaa’s comments in the novel, it may be that the Odyssey presents a far greater number of female characters than the Iliad and that women are generally shown in a much more positive light (consider the faithfulness of Penelope, for example, set against the divisive adultery of Helen).

If anyone knows any further details about this theory I’d be interested to hear them, although I don’t see how anyone can possibly turn up ‘irrefutable’ evidence either way when we’re talking about a period almost three thousand years ago with no written records. Graves seems to have a tendency to run enthusiastically after contentious ideas (for another example of that, see King Jesus, a book I’ve been trying to get through for the last three years). However, if you treat Homer’s Daughter as a playful vision of what might have been, rather than an academic theory, it’s certainly an engaging idea.

The book begins with the impulsive departure of Nausicaa’s eldest brother, the prince Laodamas, on a quest to find an amber necklace for his shrewish wife Ctimene. When his extended absence becomes a matter for concern, Nausicaa’s father the king sets out to find his son, relying on the rumours and hearsay gleaned from the ships which come into port. Now, with both the king and crown prince absent, the noblemen of Drepanum see a way to seize power for themselves. They plot to ensure, one way or the other, that the king will never return, and then decide that it’s time to make one of themselves the new king. They congregate at the palace and announce that they will stay there, eating and drinking at the king’s expense, until Nausicaa has chosen one of them for her husband.

Naturally, Nausicaa can see exactly what’s going on and has no intention of marrying any one of these vultures. But how can a young girl protect her palace and her family, when the only ones she can rely on are her adolescent brother Clytoneus and their maternal uncle Mentor? Then, one day, while Nausicaa and her women are washing clothes at the beach, she encounters a lone, bedraggled man, the survivor of a shipwreck, who clasps her knees and makes himself her suppliant; and Nausicaa realises that the instrument of her vengeance is to hand.

The story is not actually that of the Odyssey: it tells of the events which then inspire Nausicaa to sit down and compose her epic, so although you’ll find plenty of familiar allusions and motifs, you’ll be disappointed if you come to this looking for Odysseus himself. This is the story of what happens at home while the heroes are off on their adventures. Graves tries to come up with an explanation for the fusion of various different myth-cycles within the one epic poem, suggesting that the story of Odysseus’s return has been developed from references in the Iliad and fleshed out with the adventures of the hero Ulysses, whom he suggests was originally an entirely different mythological figure to Odysseus, but whose travels around a series of magical islands was adopted for the epic. Then Graves points to the myths of Sicilian origin which appear in the poem, most notably the Cyclops Polyphemus in his cave on Etna. I have to admit that the story is actually weighed down a bit too much by all this mythological speculation and by the sheer profusion of names, histories and myth-cycles that Graves references. He was of course one of the great mythographers and at times it feels a tiny bit as if he’s showing off. Nevertheless I’ve learned a bit more about classical Sicily: the Sicans and Sicels both feature and you get a real sense of the melting-pot of cultures mingling in this one small area. I would have dearly loved a glossary of names at the back to remind me who everyone was, but unfortunately that’s another feature the book lacks.

Despite the interesting ideas that power it, Homer’s Daughter never really comes to life and it’s a shame because Nausicaa is one of the most resourceful and independent female characters I’ve come across in classical historical fiction; if only she were given a bit more space to breathe! And yet it’s difficult to escape the feeling that she is an academic theory in action, rather than someone whom the author has created as a living, breathing person (the same goes for the other characters in the book). Graves’s idea was clever, if not absolutely convincing, but on occasion he gets too far into Golden Bough territory for this to be a genuinely absorbing story.

It’s almost as if he would have preferred to write a thesis on the subject but, knowing the difficulties of providing proof, decided to couch it as fiction instead to give himself more leeway. The result is a strangely stilted little book. It’s one for completists, Odyssey enthusiasts and those who are interested in how myths come to be formed from the myths of an earlier age; but perhaps isn’t something you need to read if you’re just looking for an absorbing piece of classical-era historical fiction. (For that, go to I, Claudius; or Mary Renault.)

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5 thoughts on “Homer’s Daughter: Robert Graves

  1. Heloise says:

    A search on Google shows that the theory apparently originates with Samuel Butler (of Erewhon fame) who published a book The Authoress of the Odyssey in 1922; that seems as if it might be a likely source.

    I read I, Claudius in German translation as an adolescent and maybe for that reason it has always stuck with me as a children's book (on par with Rosemary Sutcliff). I suppose I should give it another try some time…

  2. Leander says:

    Aha, the power of Google strikes again! Well done; that's very interesting to know. I would definitely recommend giving Claudius another go; I am very impressed that you got through it as a teenager. I tried it back then but just didn't click with it until my early twenties! And I'm embarrassed to admit this but I never read Rosemary Sutcliffe. Maybe I should rectify that…

  3. Heloise says:

    I think it might have helped that the German translation was abridged (at least I think it was, I'm pretty sure it was just a single volume and don't remember it being all that fat). I also watched the TV serial with Derek Jacobi when it was shown on German TV a bit later and loved that too. I really have not the faintest clue why I never read it again, I really should remedy that. *wanders off to look it up on Amazon…*

  4. Andrea Lawendel says:

    With his readings from Erewhon and The Authoress of the odyssey, Italian theatrical actor Marco Paolini gives a personal interpretation of Princess Nausicaa mythological existence. Paolini's work, with musical excerpt by cellist Mario Brunello, took place in September 2013 on the small Sicilian island of Marettimo, 20 miles west of “Drepanum”, which Butler himself identified as the “true” Ithaca.

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