Tolstoy and Homer

As I write this I'm sitting by the Mediterranean Sea, enjoying a view that has been the same for thousands of years. It’s the perfect place to write about the similarities between Homer and Tolstoy.

As I have written before, Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer. He was so obsessed with the classics, that he taught himself Ancient Greek in a mere couple of months when he was in his forties, so that he could read them in the original. You can find Homeric elements in all his literary works. I say elements and not influences, because they are not in the least bit contrived, far from it. They are the foundation of his writing, his natural instinct.

Typically Homer

The epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey were written some 2800 years ago, assumedly by Homer. They are about the Trojan War and its aftermath and have been extremely influential. The major themes of the Iliad are glory, honour, wrath and fate. The Homeric hero would rather die honourably and receive eternal glory than be a coward. The war is constantly interfered with by the eternal gods, who use the war to fight their own petty battles with each other.

Fascination with war

Tolstoy may have been a pacifist, but he did like to write about war, often drawing from his own memories; he went to war in the Caucasus as a young man. Going to war for him was like going back to an ancient, primitive world, where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night. It provides a chance to escape from daily life and responsibilities, and to prove yourself. Striving for glory is important. In War and Peace Nicholas and later his younger brother Petya can't wait to go to war. In the Iliad Paris is scorned for his unwillingness to fight. For Hadji Murad there simply is no other way of life, he will fight until the end.

Contrast with home

Nevertheless, both writers contrast life on the battlefield with that that the heroes have left behind: home, family, and working the land. The shield that Hephaestus makes for Achilles is adorned with more peaceful scenes than war scenes. In between battles the hero Hector visits his family, showing his tender side. Hadji Murad’s life had always been rather violent and the Russians regard him as a heroic and legendary figure, but he too gets sentimental thinking about his mother and his family and it's the welfare of his family that motivates him.

To die heroically

When Hector faces Achilles in a man to man fight, he is initially scared, but eventually he faces Achilles and dies a hero. Hadji Murad dies heroically as well, still standing, even though he is mortally wounded; he keeps fighting until he literally falls down. The scene is extremely Homeric and Tolstoyan at the same time: no one can describe the moment of death quite the way Tolstoy can, but the blood streaming into the grass is pure Homer.

Fate

The outcome of wars is decided by the arbitrariness of the gods or the tsar or Napoleon. We humans are mere mortals, without control of our destiny. And because of this the message of these two gigantic writers is that life has to be lived and enjoyed right now.

“As when the smith an hatchet or large axe

Temp’ring with skill, plunges the hissing blade

Deep in cold water, (whence the strength of steel)

So hiss’d his eye around the olive-wood.” (Homer – The Odyssey)

“With a solemn, triumphant march there mingled a song, the drip from the trees, and the hissing of the sabre, “Ozheg-zheg-zheg…” and again the horses jostled each other and neighed, not disturbing the choir but joining in it.” (Tolstoy – War and Peace)

Books in my suitcase:

George Steiner – Tolstoy or Dostoevsky

Homer and Tolstoy

© Elisabeth van der Meer – photos by me and from Wikipedia


Liever in het Nederlands? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com

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38 thoughts on “Tolstoy and Homer

  1. Wonderful piece Elizabeth! I like how you compared and contrast did Tolstoy with Homer. I am reading world peace right now at your suggestion it was wonderful I read Hadji Murad a couple years ago and I loved it. Tolstoy is such a wonderful writer is prose is so clean and clear. By contrast Dostoevsky is a mess. But I’m still not sure which author I like the best. I think Dostoevsky may edge out Tolstoy. I am haunted by Dostoyevsky yet. I Envy youthe Mediterranean.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. very true

    for what it’s worth, I would like to add (not to imply that you yourself don’t realize this, Christy)

    that Elisabeth has penetrating insight

    and, beyond that, she engages with literature in a way that is compelling for other lovers of (Russian) literature

    and she can communicate her
    enthusiasm

    simply and clearly

    eloquently

    without any pretense

    I’m glad I discovered her site.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent post dear Elisabeth… I love the way you highlighted the conjunctions and similaritoies between Homer and Tolstoy. I guess universal subjects (among other factors) define classic authors. They trascend Time and Space. They are eternal. The section involving Fate truly resonated with me… GREAT ⭐ Wishing you the best. Sending love!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hello, dear Amalia. Good to hear from you! Yes, great minds think alike and it’s fascinating to see how they approach these universal subjects differently.
    We cannot escape our fates and we have to make the most of life. I’m certainly doing my best here in sunny Sardinia.
    Lots of love to you!
    Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What profound thoughts to post on the International Day of Peace. I will come back to read this post again. Your posts are a three post read – at least. Sometimes I come back more times. Thank you, Elizabeth. Safe travels. I love the books in you have on the go!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so much, Rebecca. It wasn’t intentional, but you’re right, it is suitable for international Day of Peace. I have a couple more books with me and tons of inspiration. This is a quiet vacation, and we’re reading and relaxing, as well as eating and enjoying the sea and the sun. Have a wonderful day!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This post is fascinating and very well put together, Elisabeth. Thank you.

    The connections you make between the Iliad and the Odyssey and various Tolstoy works such as Hadji Murad and War and Peace are fascinating.

    You note that Tolstoy “was so obsessed with the classics, that he taught himself Ancient Greek in a mere couple of months when he was in his forties, so that he could read them in the original.”

    It is my understanding that he wished to learn Greek so that he could read the Gospels in the original. His writings about the Gospels can be seen in works such as “The Gospel in Brief, or A Short Exposition of the Gospel,” “The Four Gospels Unified and Translated,” and “What I Believe.”

    You state that “Tolstoy may have been a pacifist, but he did like to write about war, often drawing from his own memories; he went to war in the Caucasus as a young man.” His description of battles in his early works are incredible. I have read at least part of The Cossacks, but not Sevastopol Sketches.

    I would like to comment on some specific observations/sentences of yours that I particularly enjoyed.

    “You can find Homeric elements in all his literary works. I say elements and not influences, because they are not in the least bit contrived, far from it. They are the foundation of his writing, his natural instinct.

    GREAT SENTENCE! BEAUTIFUL!

    “Going to war for him was like going back to an ancient, primitive world, where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night.”

    A GREAT SENTENCE BY YOU: “where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night.” Beautifully put.

    “… no one can describe the moment of death quite the way Tolstoy can, but the blood streaming into the grass is pure Homer.”

    BEAUTIFULLY PUT

    I think I have made a similar comment about your prose before. You have a facility for writing sentences in which a general observation is beautifully yoked to a specific images/detail chosen by you to illustrate the point — the two get fused in compressed fashion in a sentence.

    I am working on a post of my own about good writing. I hope to use some of this stuff of yours as illustrative examples.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you again, Roger.
    About Tolstoy learning Greek, yes, I believe you’re right in saying that he wanted to read the Gospels in the original, but he wanted to read other classics too. Here’s a quote from Henri Troyat’s biography:
    “He sent for a theological student from Moscow to teach him the rudiments of the language. From the first day, the forty-two-year-old pupil threw himself into Greek grammar with a passion, pored over dictionaries, drew up vocabularies, tackled the great authors. In spite of his headaches, he learned quickly. In a few weeks he had outdistanced his teacher. He sight-translated Xenophon, reveled in Homer, discovered Plato and said the originals were like “spring-water that sets the teeth on edge, full of sunlight and impurities and dust-motes that make it seem even more pure and fresh,” while translations of the same texts were as tasteless as “boiled, distilled water.” Sometimes he dreamed in Greek at night. He imagined himself living in Athens; as he tramped through the snow of Yasnaya Polyana, sinking in up to his calves, his head was filled with sun, marble and geometry. Watching him changing overnight into a Greek, his wife was torn between admiration and alarm. “There is clearly nothing in the world that interests him more or gives him greater pleasure than to learn a new Greek word or puzzle out some expression he has not met before,” she complained. “I have questioned several people, some of whom have taken their degree at the university. To hear them talk, Lyovochka has made unbelievable progress in Greek.” He himself felt rejuvenated by this diet of ancient wisdom. “Now I firmly believe,” he said to Fet, “that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”
    It clearly became an obsession for him.
    Thanks again for the compliments!
    Regards, Elisabeth

    Like

  9. Elisabeth — The quote from Troyat’s biography (which I read a long time ago, and was totally immersed in; it pretty much made me into a Tolstoy enthusiast on its own) is great, and very informative. It is clear from the quote that his desire to learn Greek wasn’t simply to be able to read the Gospels in the original. My comment, therefore, was not quite on target.

    If he was forty-two when he began studying Greek intensely, that would have been in around 1870. It seems that his spiritual conversion occurred a short while after this date, although one would have to study his biographies carefully to develop a cause and effect sequence. “A Short Exposition of the Gospel” and “The Four Gospels Unified and Translated” were published in 1881. “What I Believe” was published in 1884.

    Not being a Tolstoy scholar, I am inclined to believe that you’re right. Perhaps it was the case that having studied Greek for other reasons, Tolstoy found it greatly advantageous to him when it came to studying the Gospels.

    “Now I firmly believe,” he said to Fet, “that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”

    This quote which you supplied from Troyat, shows that the influence of the Greek epics on him was primarily literary — i.e., his admiration for them as literature — and would seem to imply that the added benefit of being able to read the Gospels in the original was an extra bonus.

    If you know more, or find out more, please keep me informed.

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  10. I shall certainly do that. Although I recall reading that his desire to study the gospels inspired him to learn Greek. It probably went as you say. I shall look into it when I’m home again. Thanks, Roger!

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  11. Brilliant article! I absolutely enjoyed it. I think that people in Tolstoy’s time were more influenced by Greeks than modern people are, since they had Greek language course in University and most of schools.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. What a fascinating post! I am one of the few who prefer the Iliad to the Odyssey, so I very much enjoyed this. And the chaos of the battles in both Homer and Tolstoy does remind us that humans have so little control.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hey Kat! That’s great! I prefer the Iliad too. Yes it’s a profound message, one that is probably holding up nowadays too, when you think about all those idiots in this world in high places. So yes, let’s make the most of it, while we can 😊 Thanks, Kat!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. For what it’s worth, I would like to add a comment to the effect that the Iliad and the Odyssey are almost completely different. I read The Iliad in high school in a prose translation. All warfare and violence. Someone – I think it was Achilles — was always getting dragged around in the dust with a rope around his feet hitched to a cart.

    I read the Odyssey much later in a very good verse translation. It was a much different experience. Beautiful language and metaphors. Not much violence until the very end (if I recall correctly).

    This is not to say that the Iliad is inferior. Someone or other (some critic, scholar, or commentator) does a great job of comparing the two works.

    I should go back and read a rally good translation of the Iliad. Then, maybe I could voice an opinion about which work I preferred. I wouldn’t be surprised if I found out it was the Iliad.

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  15. Great post Elisabeth! Your posts are always interesting to read, you have a very keen point of view and you are able to express it so clearly that I always look forward to your next post 😊 Thanks so much for sharing all these information abouth russian authors, keep up the good work!

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Holy smokes! And here I thought I was hardcore when it came to Tolstoy. Great piece. Wonderful insight. Excellent comparison. Informative, interesting, inspirational! Splendid work!
    P.S. Slightly jealous about your locale (small piece of my heart may still be back in Barcelona and Nice), as it’s currently humid, raining, dark, and otherwise miserable in Toronto.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Thank you, Richard, you’re making me blush! Good to meet another Tolstoy fan.
    P.S. I’m not in Italy anymore, unfortunately, it was nice reading and writing with the sea in the background. Next year again!

    Like

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