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M.I. Finley - The World of Odysseus - Book Review

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After five decades, "The World of Odysseus," the 1954 classic by M.I. Finley, is still a valuable resource for anyone interested in Homeric Greece, the story of the Odyssey, ancient morality and hospitality, or appreciating the long catalogue lists in the Iliad.
M.I. Finley's The World of Odysseus is often paired with E.R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational because both make the Greek world come alive even for those modern readers who managed to avoid the Classics in school.

In 1934 Milman Parry discovered a Serbian bard who could neither read nor write, but could recite a poem the length of the Odyssey, making up bits along the way to fit the meter. This recitation substantiated the legend about the blind Greek bard named Homer. According to Finley, about a third of the Iliad "consists of lines or blocks of lines which occur more than once." When the original bard delivered the Trojan War stories, they were not in fixed and memorized form. He could use certain set phrases whenever the meter demanded them. Familiar events were repeated for reinforcement and to allow bard and audience to rest. Finley does believe the Iliad and Odyssey that we know, the product of generations of such recitations, were composed in writing.

The World of Odysseus was first published in 1954. This was about the time that Michael Ventris and John Chadwick deciphered the Mycenaean clay tablets that had been written in the early Greek language known as Linear B.

Expectations were high that Linear B would lead to discoveries about the Mycenaean world of the Trojan War, but Finley thought the world described by Homer -- or whoever wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey -- was not a reflection of the Mycenaean period, but instead the century or two just before he lived (mid-eighth century B.C.). Work on the tablets indicates Finley was right, as Finley notes in the revised edition of World of Odysseus, published in 1975.

The latest (2002) edition of The World of Odysseus is introduced by Bernard Knox who points out minor shortcomings of Finley's "model," before calling the book a classic "indispensable to the professional" and "accessible to the general reader."

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