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


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