Tuesday, October 05, 2010

How Historical is Homer by Laurel Corona author of Penelope's Daughter

Historically Obsessed is proud to welcome author Laurel Corona. Laurel's new release "Penelope's Daughter" hit bookstores everywhere on October 5th 2010. I promise my review will be up shortly and I can not wait to get into the details of the book and honestly tell you how much I loved it. I am proud to welcome Laurel to talk a little bit about Homer and what it means to be a historical fiction author. Please take it away Laurel we are all dying to hear what you think.
 How Historical is Homer? 
We all think we know what the term “historical fiction” means. According to one of the Wikipedia sites, “Historical fiction is a genre in which the plot is set amidst historical events, or more generally, in which the author uses real events but adds one or more fictional characters or events, or changes the sequence of historical events.”

The Historical Novel society focuses on the author. “To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).”

Sounds good.  It has to be an invented story based on historical fact, and “historical” means outside the lifetime of the author—unless we are over fifty, in which case, even without any fantastic time-travel device, we could be characters in our own books.

Ouch!  I feel like perhaps I should go strap on a bustle, although the truth is that when I was officially “historical” I didn’t even own a bra—first because I was too young and then because, well, I just didn’t.  The Sixties, you know.

I think I could make the case that a) Penelope’s Daughter is not a historical novel at all, or b) these definitions don’t really work for some historical fiction. I’d be a bit crazy to argue for the first, so I’m going to make a case for the second. 

There’s a great deal about the past that isn’t really historical, in the sense of documented and/or widely accepted as true. Anyone writing about eras deemed “pre-historic,” i.e. before written records were kept, won’t have a whole lot of concrete facts to work with. This can be a rewarding challenge, as Anita Diamant showed us when she took one biblical reference to Dina and created The Red Tent from it. Like Diamant, we can research a time and a place (what people ate, how they dressed), and infer from our own experience and basic humanity other things that have to be true (childbirth is painful, floods are dangerous).
Historical fiction draws on both research and imagination, each book with its own mix.  Sometimes we have to imagine something from scratch, and sometimes we’re working directly from the pages of our sources.  In the case of Homer’s epics, however, there’s not in much in the way of sources to draw on. We have to question whether the Homeric epics are really historical, as the term is generally used.  Presumably for an event to be historical it has to have happened, and for a person to be historical he or she has to have existed.  There’s nothing in the Iliad or the Odyssey that can undeniably meet those tests.

The reason for this is a strange quirk of Greek history.  In the Mycenaean era rudimentary written records were kept, though they produced no literature. Ironically we know of Linear B, one of the earliest written languages, because when the city of Pylos was sacked and burned (by whom we don’t know) the building housing the clay tablets on which records were kept was turned into a kiln in the conflagration. The tablets were fired, allowing them to survive until they could be discovered in modern times.  Here’s the quirk: after this sacking and burning (which took place all over the Peloponnese and Crete) the people of the region became illiterate.  It’s rare for a culture to lose literacy altogether, but that’s what happened. Though scholars argue about why, no one knows for sure.

Pylos, Mycenae, and the other great centers of pre-Greek culture fell between 1300 and 1200 BCE.  Homer came on the scene roughly 800 BCE, so 4 to 5 centuries elapsed before Greece became literate enough again to produce written records of what its bards sang.  But sing they did, and over those centuries, the stories of the Iliad and Odyssey came into the culture. Homer (and we don’t know if there really was a Homer) didn’t make up these stories.  He or someone else (she?)wrote down what bards had always sung about, stories people already knew by heart.
"Helen of Troy by Evelyn de Morgan (1898, London); Helen admiringly displays a lock of her hair, as she gazes into a mirror decorated with the nude Aphrodite".

Stories of heroes. Stories of great deeds.  Are they true? Was there an Agamemnon?  Was there a Helen?  Was there a war with Troy, and if so, why was it fought? We can speculate, but we don’t know for certain. The entire “Age of Heroes” would have happened during this period of illiteracy, what are called “the Greek Dark Ages.”

What’s been written about the city-state of Athens, or “Classical Greece,” as it is often called, fills libraries. There’s less about Mycenae, but still some good and accessible scholarship. The problem in writing Penelope’s Daughter

I took back to the library all the books about women in classical Greek society because they really weren’t relevant. I thought about what might survive of a culture that had been overrun and decided to use those speculations as the foundation for the novel. That and the Odyssey itself. As a historical novelist, I don’t imagine I’ll ever have it so easy again. What I wrote was consistent with the scholarship I did uncover, but Homer was my rock, my primary primary source.

Is there anything to the legends he relates? It’s well documented that literacy and memory have an inverse relationship.  Those who can’t write things down have richer and more accurate memories. In situations where oral histories can be compared to contemporaneous written ones (as, for example, when the Arabs traded with the east coast of Africa centuries ago), oral historians are generally found to be amazingly accurate. Why should the early Greek culture be different?

My guess is that these stories are based in fact, and that probably many of the characters are real.  Over the centuries the “fish story” effect kicked in, and by the time the stories were written down, everything and everyone had gotten bigger--stronger, wilier, braver, and more beautiful. Was there a Penelope?  I think there probably was.  Did she have a daughter?  I obviously think so!

Thank you Laurel for the wonderful visit and guest post. It is nice to know what the definition is of a HF writer. Most importantly thank you for bringing the softer side of ancient Greece to a whole new light for me. 

For more on Laurel

Penelope's DaughterFour Seasons, The: A Novel of Vivaldi's Venice
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  1. Great post, Laurel! I really liked your discussion of what exactly historical fiction is.

  2. Rosanne, Did Laurel not break it down into the blatant truth about HF. Some people forget what it really is sometimes. Thank you Laurel.

  3. In many respects, the less historical it is, the easier it is to write historical fiction about it! Fewer pesky facts to contend with. ;-)

  4. Lovely! The Odyssey is one of the great 'source' stories of all time - almost reads like a modern fantasy novel, with all its strange and weird creatures and happenings. It has inspired so many wonderful paintings and poems through the ages.

  5. I am soooo excited to read this book! I received it for review the other day and can't wait to start it. Great post!

  6. Laurel, very good point is that not one of the reasons we love HF is because it is loosely based on facts? I love it for that reason it is the greatest feeling in the world to look up a historical figure after the book and read more about them. It makes them so real. Thank you for visiting it has been a pleasure to have you here.

    Robert, I need to brush up on it. I read it in college but that was some time ago. I concur it has inspired the masses through out history. It is one of the greatest works literature we have.

    Svea, ooooh you will love it Helen of Troy was phenomenal in it. Plus the cover is drop dead gorgeous and it so fits in with the novel. A perfect choice on Laurel's part.


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