Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

William C. Scott, The Artistry of the Homeric Simile. Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Library and Dartmouth College Press; Published by University Press of New England, 2009. Pp. viii, 267. ISBN 9781584657972. $45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Christodoulos Zekas

[My apologies to the author, the BMCR editors and readers for the late submission of this review.]

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]


Homeric similes have long been a subject of scholarly interest, and the work under review is the latest contribution to this field. Scott is known from his earlier book on the same subject, which dealt mainly with a thematic discussion of Homeric similes from the perspective of oral theory, and their relation to the narrative.1 In his latest treatise, which is clearly in dialogue with the previous work, Scott elaborates on the association of similes with the story, and aims to reveal the complex process through which similes are created. This is a study that mainly draws on the narrative analyses of Fenik and Stanley,2 and also on oral poetics; there is much here about oral tradition, audience expectations, and the mind of the poet in making the right choice between formulaic and non-formulaic alternatives. Nonetheless this book is basically jargon-free and user-friendly even to non-oralists. On the other hand, it is not intended for the neophyte or for undergraduate reading, but for scholars with special interest in the subject, and familiarity with the technique of Homeric storytelling. Homerists in general will find it especially useful, for it presents a unified theory for the study of the Homeric simile not only as an entity in itself but also as part of the narrative.

By way of introduction, Chapter 1 deals with Homeric digressions which Scott considers as structural parallels to the simile. Prominent in his discussion is the examination of 'expository digressions', which include the parable of Meleager, the song of Ares and Aphrodite, the story of Odysseus' scar, and the Shield of Achilles. Although these long digressions interrupt the ongoing narrative, they are indirectly but closely connected with the story itself in that they shed light on future events, highlight characteristics of heroes or have strong affiliations with the main theme of the book in which they appear. Indeed, this is a very interesting remark on Homeric narrative, and I find that Scott's discussion might have profited from a more detailed explanation of the association between similes and 'expository digressions'.

The features mentioned above give us a first hint of the way in which Scott categorises the material in the main body of his work (Chapters 3-5). A second glimpse into his theory is the presentation of the criteria for the interpretation of similes, i.e. their placement in the narrative, their subject matter and length, and objects included in the extension of the subject matter (p. 8). He also makes clear from the outset that audience will be an important factor in his analysis in the sense that it participates decisively in the creation of similes (co-creating audience).

Chapter 1 concludes with an explanation about the selection and organisation of the material. Scott selects the simile-rich books of the Iliad and the Odyssey and categorises them by the narrative function of similes: "Similes that aid in the delineation of character and plot" (Iliad 2, 11, 21, and 22), "Similes as markers in shifting scenes" (Iliad 5 and 12; Odyssey 5 and 22), and books problematic in terms of structure (Iliad 13, 16, and 17). He leaves out Iliad 3, 4, and 15 whose similes do not point to larger narrative strategies.

Scott has some very interesting things to say about the principles governing the creation of similes. His theory, which is presented in Chapter 2 and supplemented in Chapter 6 constitutes perhaps the most significant part of this book and should not be neglected by anyone working on the subject. In Chapter 2 Scott defines his organising principle as the oral background of similes, which may well be displayed by the repetitive nature of their subjects (he indicates at least sixteen subject groups), and their association with certain narrative contexts. Having established that, Scott employs Foley's theory of 'traditional referentiality'3 (possibly the most promising trend in oral poetics in the last couple of decades) and extends this to the study of similes. Thus he coins the term 'simileme' to define the sophisticated procedure through which similes are composed. In his own words, the 'simileme' is "the mental structure underlying each simile, [...] the full range of possibilities for dealing with the standard topics that have been developed through a long series of performances" (p. 19), "a flexible and functional collection of variables that can be – and generally must be – adapted to a variety of situations" (p. 25). The 'simileme' is the archetypal simile which is linked to a specific subject, contains certain motifs, and is associated with specific contexts though not with specific phrases.

The next three chapters (3-5) present applications of the 'simileme' theory in terms of the role similes play in the narrative. Chapter 3 deals with similes that support matters of characterisation, show thematic contrasts, and mark a shifting scene. Scott's main method is the comparison of each simile with its parallels, i.e. similes belonging to the same family. He deduces that the varying degree of adaptation of similes is in accordance with the context. Thus, similes in Iliad 2 portray the confused state of the Greek army and the ineffectiveness of Agamemnon as a leader. To give one example, the bird simileme normally shows the strength of an attack, but the bird simile at 2.459-63 departs from this traditional usage and displays weaker features in order to express the confusion of the Greeks. To strengthen his case Scott examines passages in Iliad 2 where the poet could have used similes but chose to work differently. For instance, at 2.182ff. a simile is not the preferred choice, because it would have stressed the entrance of Odysseus, but this kind of emphasis is not required. As far-fetched as this idea may sound, it forces us to evaluate certain poetic choices in view of potential alternatives. Next Scott discusses the similes in Iliad 21 and 22 and argues that they underline thematic contrasts; in book 21 they illustrate the opposite experiences of war for gods ("risk-free" and "comic") and men ("dangerous and destructive"), while similes in book 22 show the difference between Achilles and Hector, "the perfected hero versus the humane hero" (p. 76). The third part of this chapter is devoted to Iliad 11, which "contains the largest number of similes in the Homeric poems" and "the most forceful descriptions in the simile repertoire" (p. 78). Scott argues that similes in this book reflect shifts in the battlefield.

Chapter 4 tackles similes that delineate a narrative theme. Scott's discussion commences with the examination of similes in Iliad 12 which stress the two major themes of the book, i.e. the plan of Zeus, and Hector as the performer of this plan. Here similes are employed in a traditional manner to describe the bravery of warriors and the balance of powers in battle. Yet in the last section (12.413-71), the use of similes with topics unusual for war scenes undermines the significance of the Trojan victory. In Iliad 5 "parallel similes" are employed as a means "to create a unified theme", by which the author refers to "the ambiguous situation of mortals in a world dominated by divine forces" (p. 126). I was not however convinced that similes have this effect, or that they are employed to display the ineffectiveness of Diomedes' aristeia.

In Odyssey 22 similes "interpret typical actions". Although Scott does not identify what he means by typical actions, he shows successfully that similes evolve around two poles, the battle scene and the peaceful future that awaits Odysseus in Ithaca. Scott reaches a similar conclusion for Odyssey 5 in which again similes follow the main pathways of the narrative. On the one hand, they highlight the danger Odysseus faces in the storm, and on the other hand they point to the new perspective of his homecoming. One minor observation; when discussing the number of similes in Odyssey 5 Scott mentions: "[...] book 5 contains more similes than any other book in the Odyssey because – though used in a wide variety of situations – they are tightly focused on the theme of the book, the hero's choice" (p. 121). It seems to me there is something missing from the above explanation.

Chapter 5 explores similes in Iliad 13, 17, and 16, books which Scott calls "problematic" in terms of structure. Again his main point is that "similes support narrative strategies" (p. 130). In Iliad 13 similes show the absence of direction in battle , a theme in concert with the main theme of the book. Yet despite this disorder similes hint at the future advances of the Greek army. The author reaches similar conclusions for Iliad 17 and 16 where similes again reflect the story: in book 17 similes depict the different situation of Greeks and Trojans, while in book 16 they echo the complexity of the narrative.

Chapter 6 may be regarded as a theoretical supplement to the analysis of similes. Quite ingeniously, Scott puts himself in the place of the poet and attempts to imagine how Homer worked towards the selection and composition of similes. Certainly, this is one of the most fascinating ideas of the book, for it sheds new light on Homer's laboratory. Moreover, it would be very interesting to evaluating [[evaluate?]] Scott's reading in view of orality, the thoughts an oral poet may have made when composing an epic, and his ability to pay close attention to detail. It comes as a natural conclusion of Scott's book that "Even the shortest example of the most frequently used simileme, "like a lion," is not to be dismissed as mindless submission to a habitual reflex" (p. 188).

The book also contains seven detailed charts of similemes, end-notes, bibliography, and a general index including names, books of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and subjects discussed. An index locorum would certainly have been a welcome addition.

Scott's use of secondary literature seems to me more than adequate. However, I find it somewhat disturbing that Latacz's Gesamtkommentar (at least the volumes dealing with books 1 and 2 of the Iliad4) is absent throughout. Furthermore, de Jong's commentary5 appears in the Bibliography, but does not seem to be particularly used.

The book is well produced and, as far as I have noticed, is basically error-free. Scott's writing style is elegant, but at times he tends towards repetition (particularly when discussing matters of oral tradition in Chapters 1 and 2) and prolixity when examining the sequence of events in the story. I think that his narrative analyses could have been a bit more concise in favour of the examination of similes (especially in Chapters 4 and 5). Of course this may be seen as a matter of (the reviewer's) personal taste and does by no means affect the value of the book as a whole.

To conclude, Scott's work makes an important contribution to the study of the Homeric simile. Its strength lies in the presentation of a theory for simile analysis and for the manner in which similes blend with the narrative. Scholars will definitely benefit from employing Scott's observations, and it is hoped that this book find its way into future discussions of Homer.


Preface (vii)

Chapter One
Similes, the Shield of Achilles, and Other Digressions (1)
The Usefulness of Book Divisions (10)
Chapter Two
The Simileme: The Background of the Homeric Simile (14)
The Oral Nature of Homeric Verse (14)
The Simileme (18)
Homer and His Audience (31)
Simile and Simileme (37)
Chapter Three
Homer's Use of Similes to Delineate Character and Plot (42)
Iliad, Book 2: Ironic Characterization (43)
The Similes of Book 2 (44)
The Role of Similes in Book 2 (59)
Iliad, Books 21 and 22: Similes to Show a Thematic Contrast (65)
Iliad, Book 11: Similes to Mark a Shifting Scene (78)
Conclusion (89)
Chapter Four
Similes to Delineate a Narrative Theme (94)
Iliad, Book 12: Direct Focus on a Single Theme (94)
Iliad, Book 5: The Use of Parallel Similemes to Create a Unified Theme (102)
Odyssey, Book 22: Similes to Interpret Typical Actions (112)
Odyssey, Book 5: Thematic Similes (118)
Conclusion (126)
Chapter Five
Problem Books (130)
Iliad, Book 13: The Ordering of Conscious Chaos (130)
Iliad, Book 17: Similes as Guides through a Series of Type Scenes (145)
Iliad, Book 16: Similes for Complexity (155)
Conclusion (171)
Chapter Six
The Creative Poet and the Co-creating Audience (174)
The Simile within the Narrative (174)
The Poet's Choices in Forming the Individual Simile (181)
The Creative Moment: Poet and Audience (185)
Charts of Similemes: The Basic Motifs (189)
Notes (207)
Bibliography (247)
Index (257)


1.   Scott, W. C. 1974. The Oral Nature of the Homeric Simile, Leiden.
2.   Fenik, B. 1968. Typical Battle Scenes in the Iliad: Studies in the Narrative Techniques of Homeric Battle Description, Wiesbaden. Fenik, B. 1974. Studies in the Odyssey, Wiesbaden. Stanley, K. 1993. The Shield of Homer: Narrative Structure in the Iliad, Princeton. Reviewed by R. C. Schmiel, BMCR 04.06.02.
3.   Foley, J. M. 1991. Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic, Bloomington. Reviewed by C. R. Beye, BMCR 03.01.07. See also Foley, J. M. 1999. Homer's Traditional Art, University Park, PA. Reviewed by W. F. Wyatt, BMCR 2000.04.07.
4.   Latacz, J. ed. 2000-2003. Homers Ilias. Gesamtkommentar I-II, Munich. Reviewed by J. Haubold, BMCR 2001.09.01, and J. B. Lethbridge, BMCR 2005.08.16 respectively.
5.   Jong, I. J. F. de. 2001. A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey, Cambridge. Reviewed by R. Scodel, BMCR 2002.06.12.

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