13 JULY 1956, Page 22

Exultant and Tragic

WE are so accustomed nowadays to thinking of individuals as subordinated to the society of which they form a part that we easily fail to notice that some of the imaginary persons we know best have only the vaguest social background—all the early Greek heroes, for instance, who in this respect are very different from their Hebrew counterparts. Warmed by the fire of Homer, Mr. Finley has exercised his scholarship and his imagination in an admirable attempt to reconstruct the background of social habit and belief from which Odysseus and Agamemnon, Helen and Penelope, Hector and Andromache emerge. It is a problem no less absorbing for being one that by its nature eludes final answers. One of the attractions of Mr. Finley's book is that he is a guide who has firm opinions of his own but does not dictate them. You have the feeling that you are expected to answer back. It is, too, an admirably American book in that its author never assumes his reader to be a classical scholar, but also never writes as a popularises. He takes only for granted that so human a subject as the Homeric world is of general interest. The severe discipline imposed on him by this attitude compels him in turn to think out his problems from the beginning.

Mr. Finley's first difficulty is to date the world of the Homeric heroes. Homer, of course, puts it back in the thirteenth or four- teenth century BC, in the days of the great bronze-age kings of Mycenaean Greece. Homer himself, that is the poet or poets who shaped the Iliad and the Odyssey into the poems that we know, probably lived in the eighth century, when the aristocracies of the Greek city states had already overthrown most of the petty kings and were beginning to tremble themselves before the burghers. The Homeric heroes, however, quite obviously belong neither to the real Mycenman age of powerful, highly organised kingdoms, nor to that of Homer. Mr. Finley reasonably argues that the historic conditions most consistently reflected are those of the early iron age when the Dorian invaders had shattered the great kingdoms but the city states had not yet developed a high degree of communal consciousness. The world of Odysseus was not that of the Trojan War; it is not only later but a great deal less civilised than that which Schliemann brought to light. It is a warrior society living in the ruins and off the spoils of an earlier world; it has forgotten the account books and inventories of Pylos and Knossos now restored to us through Dr. Ventris's decipher- ment of the script called Minoan Linear B; it is a world in which warrior chieftains as yet pay little attention to the masses and can usually disregard their womenfolk; a world in which the claims of personal honour, kinship and guest-friendship are at least as strong as those of the community. The picture of this world as analysed by Mr. Finley has many contradictions which he frankly recognises. How fit Helen into the subordinate place of woman? How account for the assumption that Penelope could bestow the kingdom of her first husband on a second one? How, above all, imagine the persistence of any human society so anarchic?

This last and all-important difficulty is probably not only due to the confusion of successive ages in the bardic tradition. M. Georges Dumdzil's comparative studies of early forms of Indo-European religious belief in India and Ireland, Rome, Greece and Scandinavia have recently brought him to a conclu- sion that may be nrelevant. He had at first thought that the surviving documents pointed to a society sharply divided into three classes : the first royal and priestly; the second that of the warriors; the third cultivators and herdsmen. But in his last book, La Fonction Guerriere, he concludes that the sharp consciousness of function reflected in the early forms of Indo-European paganism which he is discussing is at least as much due to the conflict of functions exercised by the same person. He points out that in all the Indo-European mythologies the problem of offences against the divine order arises almost exclusively in connection with the warrior function,. even when the warrior is defending the community, not fighting for his personal honour—even, indeed, when the god Indra is defending the community of gods. The function of the warrior is exultant and tragic, entailing Nemesis. This way of thinking, many centuries older than the Iliad but at the head-stream of one of the traditions in which it stands, would explain why the Greek epics, concerned almost exclusively with the fate of warriors, must give us a picture of the disruptive forces of a society rather than its working principles. They are essentially meditations on anarchy in story form. To this they owe their immense attraction for us and their tragic ends. How diffcrent frem the Hebrew patriarchs!