The Homeric Simile: A Fantastic Escape
“Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habañeros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end… Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines.”
George R.R. Martin, “On Fantasy”
The truth is, Man has been the same since Adam. It is an unsettling tendency of popular philosophy and scholarship to apply to the ancestors a kind of otherworldly reality, a morality and frame of mind completely different from our own. “They did not feel as we feel,” the rallying cry continues, “barbarians all! Watch as Abraham sacrifices his son, as Hector cuts down men by the dozens. Where is their civility; whence came ours? Certainly not from them.” Though ethics and social interaction without doubt changes with the generations (the descendents of kings wash cars at the gas station with some regularity, I am certain), the interior and sacred part of humankind remains untouched by social evolution and devolution. We still see the stars and are filled with wonder, and ne’er a day goes by that boys and men, girls and women do not find something miraculous in the dirt beneath their feet. These brief, transcendent moments draw us away, if but for a breath’s span, from the coarseness of the so-called “reality.” In Homer’s exquisite tradition, simile becomes the breath that sometimes draws us away from action, sometimes intensifies feeling, and sometimes draws us into closer examination, but always elevates us into the realm of the fantastic. In that place, I find, we have much more in common with the ancients then is readily apparent when outward actions alone are compared. It is my purpose to examine several of Homer’s similes and their effect on the reader. Specifically, I will examine two immortalizing similes and three merciful escape similes (these characterizations are my own). If Homeric simile is still effective, it can only be because we, though separated by thousands of years, breathe the same air that Homer did.
Photographers that are considered great very rarely see things that have not been seen before. Countless viewers have seen the mountains, hills, seasons, and objects they photograph. The special ability of great photographers is to capture everyday things and people in a new and beautiful light, and thus Edward Weston made his living photographing wrinkled bell peppers and an occasional toilet (see “Excusado”). When Homer compares the din of battle on the plain of Troy to “woodcutters… working in a distant valley,” (153) he immortalizes the sound of the lumberjack and elevates it to art. Forever after, the reader will hear the work of felling trees and be transported to that day in Troy. A few lines later, the throng of flies around Sarpedon’s corpse is described:
“But if you have ever seen how flies
Cluster about the brimming milk pails
On a dairy farm in early summer” (153).
Not only is a scene of idyll transformed into one of horror, but the juxtaposition is, as before, imprinted upon the reader in a permanent way. With tools of pen and ink, Homer has accomplished the same task that is accomplished today with silver gelatin and liquid developer (or computers and printers) – we are brought with him to see death swarms and dairy flies as linked, and one will evermore reference the other. Once there was calm beauty in one and shocking terror in the other, and now each aches with association. As a beautiful photograph of a burnt forest draws out of the viewer a conflict, so does Homer’s simile. It seems that, although mediums change, art continues to utilize the same tools as it seeks to draw out human emotion. And these tools still work.
Another tool used in both antiquity and modernity is the “merciful escape,” the break in action that allows the audience to forget about the current situation and steel themselves against the next intense happening. In cinema one often sees a well-placed joke function as the merciful escape, and this is effective, but Homer opts for merciful escape through scenes, by and large, of natural events and beauty and life before the war. Three merciful escapes are given during Achilles’ final pursuit of Hector (several more similes are used, but they serve to intensify the action, not to give a break from it). Homer first takes the reader away from a murderous chase of national import to a horse race at a hero’s funeral games, where the outcome will not be life or death, but a prize of “woman or tripod” (177). Oh, how the audience, both those behind the book and those on the wall of Troy, wishes this was the truth! We are allowed for a moment to believe that these men are no more than two boys racing to the end of the street, and we are spared, however briefly, from bloody reality. Next we are taken to a pastoral scene, another sport:
“A hunting hound starts a fawn in the hills,
Follows it through brakes and hollows,
And if it hides in a thicket, circles,
Picks up the trail, and renews the chase” (178)
Here we are a little closer to reality. The consequence is life or death, but of a fawn, not of a man or nation. The excitement of the hunt takes over, and we follow the hunter. Before the close of the battle, we have one more merciful escape, this one the most fantastic of all.
“In the gloom of night
Star of perfect splendor,”(181)
this compared to Achilles’ glinting spearpoint moments before it slakes its thirst on shining Hector’s gullet. From the intensity of battle we are removed to the place of the pensive astronomer, wondering at the brightest beacon in the night sky. From day to night, from terrestrial to celestial, we are taken upward and outward, and we see the last thing Hector sees before his doom. The spear, fearsome in its own right, is transformed into the mythic weapon, killer of the god-men, forged of starlight in a dragonfire forge. This is not only fantasy, it is high fantasy, the stuff Tolkien and his successors would try to capture some thirty centuries later. It is the mixing of something infinite and untouchable with the finite and tangible. Our hearts are drawn to the glorious impossibility of it all, and suddenly we look out the plastic window to see not slats, flaps, and turbine engines, but Icarus’ delicate wings.
There are many more similes I have not touched (including my favorite, from an aesthetic standpoint, in lines 565-570), but the ones shown have been sufficient to defend my point. The methods Homer uses to create from the mundane something fantastic, or to create from the already fantastic something even more sublime, are methods that resonate with the modern reader and prove that we are still built of the same material. They are still effective at allowing us to catch our breath or at forcing us to hold our breath. They make out of our normal experience something more beautiful and exciting, and they cause connections within us to be made that enrich life and enliven the commonplace.
I close with a quote from Edward Weston, the aforementioned photographer, that reminds us of what George R.R. Martin said at the outset and hints at a way we might, with Homer and the rest of the great creative minds, move out of the everyday humdrum.
“I have been photographing our toilet, that glossy enameled receptacle of extraordinary beauty. Here was every sensuous curve of the ‘human figure divine’ but minus the imperfections. Never did the Greeks reach a more significant consummation to their culture, and it somehow reminded me, in the glory of its chaste convulsions and in its swelling, sweeping, forward movement of finely progressing contours, of the Victory of Samothrace.” (quoted in On Photography, by Susan Sontag. No page numbers.)
Let us see in the world around us such similes, and create for ourselves a reality far grander than the limits imposed by the trap of the literal.