Tag Archives: Patrick Leigh Fermor

John Julius Norwich – 1929-2018

Barry Cryer and John Julius Norwich at an Oldie lunch in 2017

Very sad news over the weekend to hear of the death of John Julius Norwich, writer, diplomat, broadcaster, father of Artemis Copper (Paddy’s biographer), and friend of Paddy and Joan. Thank you to AJ for sending me this link to his final article for the Oldie magazine. Like John Julius, it was Paddy that led me to my interest in Byzantium, although my Byzantine output is nothing like the wonderful three volume history of Byzantium that John Julius wrote.

First published in The Oldie, 1 June 2018.

By John Julius Norwich.

A new show at the British Museum – about three great lovers of Greece – takes me right back to the 1950s. The English painter Johnny Craxton (1922-2009) was a joy – the only dinner guest we ever had who came on his motorbike and left his leathers in the hall. He always came on his own; we were all intrigued by the idea of his long-term boyfriend, whom we never met. I think Johnny saw Greece as a larger Crete – just as Neville Chamberlain was always said to see Europe as a larger Birmingham. Johnny loved Crete with passion.

The Athenian painter Nikos Ghika (1906-1994) provided me with my first breath of Greece in the summer of 1954, when we went to stay with him in his lovely old house on the island of Hydra.

Also staying there were Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor. Ghika later designed the serpentine pebble mosaic floors at Kardamyli – the Leigh Fermors’ enchanting house in the Mani. It was Paddy that I knew best of the three. Our friendship lasted from the 1950s until his death in 2011 at the age of 96.

In the spring of 1955, when we were living in Yugoslavia – I was working at the British Embassy – a letter arrived from my mother. She had been offered a caique for a fortnight’s sail among the isles of Greece. Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor were coming; could we come, too? At the end of August, we drove down from Belgrade to Athens, and boarded the Eros at Piraeus.

It was my first time in the Aegean, and my best. Paddy lived and breathed his beloved Greece – fluent in its language, encyclopaedic in his knowledge of its history, people and literature. And nobody has ever carried his learning more lightly.

As we sailed from island to island – and, in those days, there were almost no tourists, and I can’t describe what a difference that made – he talked about Greece, Greek beliefs and traditions, about Byron and the Greek War of Independence, about those monstrously magnificent Greek heroes – men such as Mavromichalis and Kolokotronis, whose names roll so satisfactorily across the tongue – and about the Greek Orthodox Church and its quarrels with the West over words such as ‘filioque’ and ‘homoousion’, his talk taking in all the mystery and magic of the Byzantine world. Twenty years later, I was to write a history of Byzantium myself; but I doubt whether, had it not been for that fortnight on the Eros, I should ever have done so.

One day we were in a taverna on Santorini. Britain and Greece were then at the height of the Cyprus dispute and Paddy was, of course, firmly on the Greek side. Suddenly a member of the party at the next table, hearing us speaking English and being slightly drunk, launched into a stream of anti-British invective. We pretended not to notice. Then, suddenly, he and his companions burst into song.

‘Quick,’ whispered Paddy. ‘National anthem – everybody up.’

We leapt to our feet while he, naturally knowing all the words, sang them at the top of his voice. The mood of the other table changed immediately; and they were still more impressed when he continued with all the following verses – solo by now, since no one else knew them. Abject apologies followed: the ouzo went round once more, and we all departed friends.

It was characteristic of Paddy that, when he and Joan decided to build themselves a house in Greece, they chose the remotest corner: Kardamyli, at the far end of the Mani, the second of the three peninsulas that form the southern coast of the Peloponnese. And oh, how they loved it.

Paddy basically designed it himself. I remember him saying, while the building was in progress, ‘I want it to be part of outdoors, so that, if a chicken were found wandering through the library, no one would be a bit surprised.’

By November 1969, with its vast supply of bookcases, a huge desk and plenty of room to pace over a stone floor, the ‘powerhouse for prose’, as Paddy liked to call it, was ready at last. The two books describing his teenage walk across Europe, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, were both written there, together with hundreds of letters, articles and the jeux d’esprit which he so loved, and of which he was such a master. But those dread enemies procrastination and distraction were always hovering behind him, tempting him away. And as we shall see, they were to get him in the end.

Kardamyli was a huge success. It became the epicentre of Paddy’s world. For the first time, at 54, he had a home of his own. He continued to travel around Europe to see his innumerable friends, but it was here, I feel quite sure, that he was happiest. Outside Europe he was seldom tempted to roam. Except, surprisingly, for the Caribbean. A year or two after the war, he and Joan were persuaded by their old friend (and mine) Costa Achillopoulos to accompany him on a longish tour of the islands.

The result was Paddy’s first book, The Traveller’s Tree, which was published in 1950, and also his second, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, an exquisite little novella which was his only venture into fiction.

The islands fascinated him. His chapter on voodoo is a masterpiece. And then, when he got to Barbados, what did he find? A tablet in the churchyard of St John’s, carved with Doric columns and the cross of Constantine, reading: ‘Here lyeth ye body of Ferdinando Palaeologus, descended from ye Imperial lyne of ye last Christian Emperor of Greece. Churchwarden of this parish 1655-1656. Vestryman twentye years. Died Oct 3. 1679.’

Later, Paddy discovered that Ferdinando’s son Theodore had returned to England and had settled in Stepney, where he left a posthumous daughter baptised with the typically 17th-century name of Godscall Palaeologus.

She may have married, and had countless children; but, for the time being, this little girl in Stepney remains the last authentic descendant of the Palaeologi, the last imperial family of Byzantium.

Of course Paddy was a superb linguist; but I have never known anyone who enjoyed his languages so intensely. He loved on-the-spot translations: ‘To be or not to be’ in German, for example – occasionally recited backwards – or D’Ye Ken John Peel in Italian, which my daughter Artemis (his biographer) and I sang at his memorial service:

Conosce Gian Peel, con sua giacca tanta grigia?

Conosce Gian Peel, prima cosa la mattina,

Conosce Gian Peel, quand’ è lontano, è lontano,

Con suoi cani e suo corno la mattina.

And then there were the letters –letters that could have been written by no one else. Reading them, written at such terrific speed that sometimes they grow faint because the fountain pen can’t deliver the ink fast enough, one marvels at Paddy’s facility and fluency. And yet, when he was writing a book for publication, every sentence was a battleground. When, in July 1988, Sotheby’s sold the autograph manuscript of A Time of Gifts, it was described in the catalogue as follows:

‘c.450 pages, the majority written on rectos only, some on both sides, the first chapter on lined foolscap sheets, some cartridge paper, others lined, heavily revised and corrected, revised passages frequently written on separate sheets and pasted or clipped over the original, corrections or elucidations often in red ink, foreign or difficult words printed in the margin, many sheets with encouraging notes to the typist, often stapled or stitched with coloured thread into gatherings, generally of ten pages.’

I have an idea – I hate to have to say it and desperately hope I’m wrong – that Paddy’s last years were not as happy as the rest of his life had been. He missed Joan desperately after she died in 2003, he was getting old and he gradually had to face up to the fact that he would never complete the third volume of the story of that glorious European journey in his early youth. He produced bits and pieces for it by the dozen, but something always prevented him from organising them, connecting them and making them into a single coherent document. It was, I suppose, a kind of writer’s block.

He would seize on anything – letters, articles, translations, those ingenious word games he so loved – rather than face one of two facts: the first, that he must finish the job; the second – far worse – that he couldn’t. Eventually he knew that the second was the truth. When he came to London, people would say breezily, ‘How’s Volume III coming on?’, little realising that they were driving a dagger through his heart.

Volume III is not entirely lost. The Broken Road, compiled by Colin Thubron and Artemis, breathes Paddy through and through. And anyway, he has left us so much more to revel in.

As a travel writer, he was surely in a class by himself. But he was much more than a travel writer; he was the most extraordinary literary – and social – phenomenon I have ever known, and I am proud to have been his friend.

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Until I have reached Constantinople

Patrick Leigh Fermor working at his home studio on 3 October 2004, then aged 89. Kardamyli. by Sean Deany Copyright 2012

In the catalogue to the exhibition Charmed Lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor (at the British Museum until July 15), Michael Llewellyn-Smith writes that, in his later years, Patrick Leigh Fermor “had an all-purpose excuse to send to pesterers”. The note read: “It was very kind of you to write. The trouble is that I am having to work to a strict deadline for the completion of my new book. This makes me a poor correspondent until I have finished it and have reached Constantinople – I am not sure when this will be”.

By James Campbell

First Published in The Times Literary Supplement 12 April 2018

The warning to inquisitive readers, colour-supplement journalists, adventurous holidaymakers and others was despatched from Kardamyli in Mani, in the Southern Peloponnese, from the house which Fermor had built himself, with local labour and expertise, in the mid-1960s. It was where he had completed the first two parts of his account of the “great trudge” across ­Central Europe in the 1930s, projected to end, in a long-anticipated third volume, in “Constantinople”. The book itself had become something of a pest, and he failed to complete it before his death in 2011, aged ninety-six. His wife Joan had died there eight years earlier.

I knew nothing of this when I posted a letter to Kardamyli in the autumn of 2003. I was not a Fermor devotee (there were many, though nothing like the numbers that exist today) and had read scarcely anything he had written. It was not my idea to seek him out, but that of my editor at the Guardian Saturday Review, for which I was at the time a contracted writer. The regular task was a literary profile, of a good length – 4,000 words – and of a certain seriousness. Starting from a position of ignorance didn’t bother me. I liked “finding out”, and enjoyed the homework.

Suggestions from Farringdon Road came by telephone, later email, and were always to the point. “How about Patrick Leigh Fermor?” That was it. No address, no telephone number, no deadline. The rest was up to me, but I was free to go where I liked and when I liked. I had fulfilled many commissions in this way, and had discovered something: it works better when you contact the intended subject yourself to make arrangements, rather than going through the publisher’s press office. The people there do necessary work, but with their more valued (and venerable) charges there is a protective instinct, and a need to control the show.

Fermor was definitely a protected species. His ninetieth birthday was approaching. His publisher John Murray was desperate for him to reach Constantinople. The journey, which had taken place in the 1930s, had been given elegant shape in two books written forty and fifty years after the events described: A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). The final volume, endlessly, pestiferously, inquired about, was said to be inching forwards. Both my editor and I made approaches to the publicity department; both received vague promises of representation. In the end, both were urged to think about volume 3, like everybody else.

I decided to take the direct route. But how to find him? I tried some acquaintances who might know his address. None did. Someone suggested Elizabeth Chatwin, widow of Bruce, Continue reading

Easter 1934 Paddy arrives at the Danube read by Siân Phillips

An Easter treat for you. Siân Phillips reads from page 277 of A Time of Gifts (paperback) as Paddy arrives at the Danube, spots Esztergom, has his passport stamped by the Czechoslovakian border guards, and lingers ‘in the middle of the bridge, meditatively poised in no man’s air.’

‘The air was full of hints and signs. There was a flicker and a swishing along the river like the breezy snip-snap of barbers’ scissors before they swoop and slice. It was the skimming and twirling of newly arrived swifts. A curve in the stream was re-arranging the landscape as I advanced, revealing some of the roofs of Esztergom and turning the Basilica to a new angle as though it were on a pivot. The rolling wooded range of the Bakony Forest had advanced north from the heart of Transdanubia, and the corresponding promontory on the northern shore – the last low foothills of the Marra mountains, whose other extremity subsides in the north eastern tip of Hungary – jutted into the water under the little town of Parkan. Reaching for each other, the two headlands coerced the rambling flood yet once more into a narrower and swifter flow and then spanned the ruffie with an iron bridge. Spidery at first, the structure grew more solid as the distance dwindled. (Twenty miles east of this bridge, the Danube reaches a most important point in its career: wheeling round the ultimate headland of the Balcony Forest and heading due south for the first time on its journey, it strings itself through Budapest like a thread through a bead and drops across the map of Europe plumb for a hundred and eighty miles, cutting Hungary clean in half. Then, reinforced by the Drava, it turns east again, invades Yugoslavia, swallows up the Sava under the battlements of Belgrade, and sweeps on imperturbably to storm the Iron Gates.)

In an hour, I had climbed the cliff-path into the main street of Parkan. A little later my passport was stamped at the frontier post at the Czechoslovakian end of the bridge. The red, white and green barrier of the frontier post at the far end marked the beginning of Hungary. I lingered in the middle of the bridge, meditatively poised in no man’s air.’

(Extract from A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, with thanks to John Murray Publishers.)

Who were Ghika, Craxton and Leigh Fermor?

A lovely video produced by the British Museum to accompany the exhibition Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor. Narrated by the exhibition curators. Discover more about their extraordinary friendship, creativity and life spent living together in Greece.

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor
8 March – 15 July 2018
http://www.britishmuseum.org/charmedlives

Supported by the A. G. Leventis Foundation and organised with the A. G. Leventis Gallery. In collaboration with the Benaki Museum and Craxton Estate.

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor at the British Museum

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994), Study for a poster. Tempera on cardboard, 1948. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. © Benaki Museum 2018.

The British Musem has at last started to publicise this exhibition which focuses on the friendship of the artists Niko Ghika and John Craxton, and the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Their shared love of Greece was fundamental to their work, as they embraced its sights, sounds, colours and people.

Where? The British Museum, Room 5

When? 8 March – 15 July 2018

How Much? It is free!

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994), John Craxton (1922–2009) and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011) were significant cultural figures of the 20th century. Leigh Fermor is perhaps the most widely known of the three – largely through his travel writings – and Ghika and Craxton are now recognised as two of the most remarkable artists of this period. The three first met at the end of the Second World War, becoming lifelong friends and spending much of their subsequent lives in Greece. The time they spent together and their close bonds would shape each other’s work for the rest of their lives.

The exhibition brings together their artworks, photographs, letters and personal possessions in the UK for the first time. Highlights include Ghika’s extraordinary painting Mystras and Craxton’s exuberant Still Life with Three Sailors. Also featured is Craxton’s original artwork for the book covers of Leigh Fermor’s travel classics A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Many artworks and objects on display are on loan from the Benaki Museum, to which Ghika donated his house and works, from the Craxton Estate, and from institutions and private collections in the UK and Greece.

The exhibition focuses on four key places – Hydra, Kardamyli, Crete and Corfu – where they lived and spent time together. Hydra is an island where Ghika’s family home became a gathering place for the three friends, and Leigh Fermor built a house with his wife Joan at Kardamyli. Craxton restored a house at Chania on Crete, and Corfu is where Ghika and his second wife Barbara transformed an old building into an idyllic home and garden.

Together, these places chart the story of this remarkable friendship, and how the people and landscapes of Greece were a great influence on their enduring works.

How an idyllic Greek hideaway inspired a British war hero and travel writer

Nikos and Barbara Hadjikyriakos-Ghika with John Craxton, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Joan Fermor, in 1958. Photograph: Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens.© Benaki Museum.

By Jamie Doward

First published in The Guardian

24 December 2017

Oh, to have been a fly on the bougainvillea-clad wall as the drinks flowed and the sun sank behind the beautiful house tucked away in a remote part of Greece.

One night a visitor might find Stephen Spender or Louis MacNeice. Another, Lawrence Durrell and John Betjeman.

But always holding court, cigarette in hand, ouzo glass raised, would be Sir Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor, the war hero and travel writer often said to be the inspiration for his friend Ian Fleming’s most famous creation, James Bond.

In the late 1950s, the house Leigh Fermor built with his wife Joan in Kardamyli, a seaside village located in the Mani peninsula, in the southern Peloponnese, became a haven for writers and artists drawn to its owner’s extraordinary charisma and the wild, arid beauty of the surrounding landscape.

It was here that Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011 aged 96, built his close friendship with two men – the Greek artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, who lived on Hydra before moving to Corfu, and the British painter, John Craxton, who lived for a time on Crete. Now the remarkable friendship is to be explored in a new exhibition at the British Museum that will open next spring.

Charmed Lives examines the influence that post-war Greece had on the three men and brings together in the UK for the first time their artworks, photographs, letters and personal possessions. Among the items on display will be Leigh Fermor’s typewriter (which he never managed to master), his binoculars and a Leica camera belonging to Joan, a professional photographer.

Striking paintings of Greek landscapes and local people by both Craxton and Ghika will feature alongside extracts from Leigh Fermor’s many books.

John Craxton’s ‘Still Life with Three Sailors’ reflects his Greek inspirations. Photograph: John Craxton

Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith, a former British ambassador to Athens, who knew all three men and is one of the exhibition’s curators, conceded many would be drawn by the cult of Leigh Fermor, a polyglot and autodidact once described as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.”

“There’s a tremendous fashion for him,” Llewellyn-Smith said. “In a way you’d expect it to diminish over time but the opposite is happening and it’s very difficult to explain. I don’t think it’s fully related to his work. It is for some people but there are others who are attracted by the legend.”

Much of Leigh Fermor’s legend is burnished by his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, made as an 18-year-old, and his heroics during the second world war when, leading a group of Cretan resistance fighters, he captured the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe in one of the most audacious acts in the history of the Special Operations Executive.

While his postwar books such as A Time Of Gifts cemented his legend and led to Leigh Fermor being regarded as one of the great travel writers, it transpires that the real-life 007 also dabbled as an artist and several of his works will be on display in the exhibition. These include six portraits of Cretan resistance fighters painted in 1942. They are the only ones out of around 20 similar paintings to have survived. The majority were destroyed as the Germans advanced.

“Paddy had an extremely acute visual sense and was himself an artist, an amateur,” Llewellyn-Smith said. “When he was walking across Europe, when he was 18 to 20 years old, around Vienna he had virtually no money and so he started drawing portraits of people to get enough to get a crust of bread or more.”

Llewellyn-Smith said the fact that all three men had died only relatively recently –Ghika in 1994, Craxton in 2009 – meant there was much to be gained by producing an exhibition of their lives and friendship now.

“A lot of people who knew them are still around, and therefore for those organising the exhibition, such as myself, it was possible to talk to them and get their memories and anecdotes. This couldn’t have been done if the exhibition had been delayed by many years.”

The organisers say they hope it will offer visitors an opportunity to reflect on Greece’s enduring role as a source of artistic inspiration. It may also offer a subtle reminder that British-Hellenic relations can be about more than that most famous of British Museum attractions, the Parthenon marbles. “This period when these three men got to know each other was a period of artistic and literary collaboration, almost a renaissance between British and Greek artists and writers,” Llewellyn-Smith said. “It didn’t have anything to do with politics and returning sculptures to Greece. That’s a different century.”

It may also offer clues as to why, despite smoking around 80 cigarettes a day, just like Fleming’s Bond, Leigh Fermor managed to live so long. “When he was in the Peloponnese he would go for walks every day in the mountains behind the house and he’d swim for half an hour every morning,” Llewellyn-Smith said.

In his will, Leigh Fermor gave the house to the Benaki museum in Athens with instructions for it to be turned into a writers’ retreat. While some of Leigh Fermor’s devoted fanbase have grumbled about the pace of its renovation – which at one stage appeared to have fallen victim to Greece’s economic woes, – there are hopes the exhibition may elicit funds to speed things up.

If so, it would mean that more than half a century on from when Leigh Fermor built his idyll, it will once again help nurture a new generation of artists and writer.

Charmed Lives in Greece the exhibition will run at the British Museum 8 Mar-15 July 2018

Oral history – erasing Paddy and Billy

The kidnap gang pose before the action (Courtesy of Estate of William Stanley Moss)

The kidnap gang pose before the action (Courtesy of Estate of William Stanley Moss)

This review of M I Finley’s A World of Odysseus, discusses the hypothesis that oral heroic poetry is not a medium that preserves historical fact, mentioning specifically how the deeds of Paddy, “Billy” Moss, and the others who kidnapped General Kreipe were raised to the level of Cretan heroic oral history, but by 1953, all the names had been forgotten or deliberately erased (the relevant part is highlighted for your convenience).

by Bernard Knox

First published in the New York Review of Books

29 Jun 1979

It is now more than two decades since the Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge (who was then an ex-professor from Rutgers) published a book which in a limpid, hard-hitting prose and with a bare minimum of footnotes attempted to draw “a picture of a society, based on a close reading of the Iliad and Odyssey, supported by study of other societies….” This is how Professor Finley characterizes the book now, in the preface to a revised edition which makes only minor changes in the original text but adds two valuable and stimulating appendices, replying to criticism and bringing the argument up to date. He goes on to claim that “the social institutions and values make up a coherent system” which, however strange to us, is “neither an improbable nor an unfamiliar one in the experience of modern anthropology.” The fact that the later Greeks and the nineteenth-century scholars found it incomprehensible on its own terms he dismisses as “irrelevant” and adds that “it is equally beside the point that the narrative is a collection of fictions from beginning to end.”

The ideas here stated in uncompromising terms were implicit in the work from the start. And at the time of its first publication they were not greeted with enthusiasm by the world of Homeric and Bronze Age scholarship. Far from believing that “the narrative was a collection of fictions,” most scholars of the subject found in the Bronze Age remains excavated on the Homeric sites a confirmation of the historicity of the tale of Troy, at least in its main outlines, and went on to search the text of the poems for objects described that might match the objects discovered. Almost simultaneously with the publication of Finley’s book, the decipherment of the Linear B tablets by Ventris and Chadwick seemed to provide the definitive proof that the Homeric poems preserved historical facts of the thirteenth century BC. Here were clay tablets, inscribed in a form of Greek that bore striking resemblances to the Homeric literary dialect, which contained lists of chariots, corslets, and helmets and such Homeric names as Hektor, Achilleus, Aias, Pandaros, and Orestes. John Chadwick recently took a wry backward look at the euphoria of those early days:

The revelation of the Mycenaean archives fostered wild hopes that one day we might come across, let us say, the muster of ships at Aulis for the expedition against Troy or an operation order for the attack of the Seven against Thebes.1

Finley remained one of what he calls a “heretical minority”; and it soon became apparent that the decipherment of Linear B, far from confirming the thesis that the Homeric poems were a reflection of Mycenaean society, had in fact dealt that thesis a fatal blow. It is hard to think of Homer’s Agamemnon as living in the same world with that wanax of Pylos, whose scribes duly recorded that “Kokalos repaid the following quantity of olive oil to Eumedes: 648 liters; from Ipsewas 38 stirrup-jars.” The bureaucratic inventories of the Bronze Age palaces resemble the detailed records of the Near Eastern civilizations which preceded them and the intricate accounting of the later Ptolemaic papyri, but anything more alien to the mentality of illiterate freebooters such as Achilles and equally illiterate pirates such as Odysseus can hardly be imagined.

The tablets also demonstrated that the precise geographical description of Nestor’s kingdom at Pylos which is offered in Book II of the Iliad bears practically no relation to the Mycenaean facts; the conclusion, that the poet or poets knew little or nothing of western Greece, might already have been surmised from the confused and confusing Homeric descriptions of the hero’s homeland, Ithaca. And meanwhile, quite apart from the tablets, it was becoming steadily clearer to all but the most stubborn that there was very little in the archaeological record which would serve to connect the world of the poems with the Bronze Age.

Finley, in the preface to the new edition, contents himself with a very restrained, “I told you so”; he “cannot resist pointing out that proper concern for social institutions and social history had anticipated what philology and archaeology subsequently found.” In The Mycenaean World, John Chadwick heads his penultimate chapter “Homer the Pseudo-Historian” and concludes it with the sentence: “to look for historical fact in Homer is as vain as to scan the Mycenaean tablets in search of poetry; they belong to two different universes.”

Oral heroic poetry is not a medium that preserves historical fact—as Finley pointed out, with a reference to the Chanson de Roland, which made out of a Basque attack on Charlemagne’s rear-guard an assault by Muslim beys and pashas, all carefully identified by names which are “German, Byzantine, or made-up.” A modern example, from the Second World War and from Greece itself, strengthens his case and gives a fascinating glimpse of epic “history” in the making.

In 1953 the late Professor James Notopoulos was recording oral heroic song in the Sfakia district of western Crete, where illiterate oral bards were still to be found. He asked one of them, who had sung of his own war experience, if he knew a song about the capture of the German general and the bard proceeded to improvise one. The historical facts are well known and quite secure. In April 1944 two British officers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain Stanley Moss, parachuted into Crete, made contact with Cretan guerrillas, and kidnapped the German commanding general of the island, one Karl Kreipe.

The general was living in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, the house Evans had built for himself during the excavations. Every day, at the same time, the general was driven south from the Villa to the neighboring small town of Arkhanes, where his headquarters were located. He came home every night at eight o’clock for dinner. The two British officers, dressed in German uniforms, stopped the car on its way home to Knossos; the Cretan partisans overpowered the chauffeur and the general. The two officers then drove the car through the German roadblocks in Heraklion (the general silent with a knife at his throat) and left the car on the coast road to Rethymo. They then hiked through the mountains to the south coast, made rendezvous with a British submarine, and took General Kreipe to Alexandria and on to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo.

Here, in Notopoulos’s summary, is the heroic song the bard produced:

“An order comes from British and American headquarters in Cairo to capture General Kreipe, dead or alive; the motive is revenge for his cruelty to the Cretans. A Cretan partisan, Lefteris Tambakis (not one of the actual guerrilla band) appears before the English general (Fermor and Moss are combined into one and elevated in rank) and volunteers for the dangerous mission. The general reads the order and the hero accepts the mission for the honor of Cretan arms. The hero goes to Heraklion, where he hears that a beautiful Cretan girl is the secretary of General Kreipe.

“In disguise the partisan proceeds to her house and in her absence reads the [English] general’s order to her mother. When the girl returns he again reads the general’s order. Telling her the honor of Crete depends on her, he catalogues the German cruelties. If she would help in the mission, her name would become immortal in Cretan history. The girl consents and asks for three days time in which to perform her role. To achieve Cretan honor she sacrifices her woman’s honor with General Kreipe in the role of a spy. She gives the hero General Kreipe’s plans for the next day.

“Our hero then goes to Knossos to meet the guerrillas and the English general. ‘Yiassou general,’ he says. ‘I will perform the mission.’ The guerrillas go to Arkhanes to get a long car with which to blockade the road. Our hero, mounted on a horse by the side of the blockading car, awaits the car of Kaiseri (that is what the bard calls Kreipe). The English general orders the pistols to be ready. When Kreipe’s car slows down at the turn he is attacked by the guerrillas. Kreipe is stripped of his uniform (only his cap in the actual event) and begs for mercy for the sake of his children (a stock motif in Cretan poetry).

“After the capture the frantic Germans begin to hunt with dogs (airplanes in the actual event). The guerrillas start on the trek to Mount Ida and by stages the party reaches the district of Sfakia (the home of the singer and his audience; actually the general left the island southwest of Mount Ida). The guards have to protect the general from the mob of enraged Sfakians. Soon the British submarine arrives and takes the general to Egypt. Our bard concludes the poem with a traditional epilogue—that never before in the history of the world has such a deed been done. He then gives his name, his village, his service to his country.”2

So much for epic history. Nine years after the event the British protagonists have been reduced to one nameless general whose part in the operation is secondary and there can hardly be any doubt that if the song is still sung now the British element in the proceedings is practically nonexistent—if indeed it managed to survive at all through the years in which Britain, fighting to retain its hold on Cyprus, became the target of bitter hostility in Greece and especially among the excitable Cretans.

It took the Cretan oral tradition only nine years to promote to the leadership of the heroic enterprise a purely fictitious character of a different nationality. This is a sobering thought when one reflects that there is nothing to connect Agamemnon, Achilles, Priam, and Hector with the fire-blackened layer of thirteenth-century ruins known as Troy VII A (the archaeologists’ candidate for Homer’s city) except a heroic poem which cannot have been fixed in its present form by writing until the late eighth century, at least four illiterate centuries after the destruction.

Finley’s professional interest in the poems lies in their value as a source for knowledge of the Dark Ages (so-called because we know almost nothing about them) which intervene between the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces around 1200 BC and the beginning of a new literacy some time in the late eighth century. If the poems contain no memory of historical events of the Bronze Age and, furthermore, do not reflect the civilization, customs, social relationships, or even the material objects of the Bronze Age, what do they have to tell us? Finley’s answer was (and still is) that the poems preserve, with the anachronisms and misunderstandings inevitable in a fluid oral tradition, the social institutions and values of the early Dark Ages, the tenth and ninth centuries BC. “The choice,” as he poses the question in the new edition, “lies between that period and the poet’s own time, now that the ground beneath a supposed Mycenaean world of Odysseus has been removed by the Linear B tablets, assisted by continuous archaeological excavation and study.”

The “poet’s own time” he takes to be the mid-eighth century (a date with which few will quarrel) and makes the claim that the poems fail to reflect the known social conditions of that period. “The polis (city-state) form of political organization” was “widespread in the Hellenic world by then, at least in embryonic form. Yet neither poem has any trace of a polis in its political sense.” Further, the “Phoenician monopoly of trade” in the Odyssey is a reflection of “the period before 800 BC, for by that date the presence of Greek traders in the Levant is firmly attested.” Finley sees no reason to find in Homer’s picture of the sea-lords of Phaeacia a “reflection of the Greek western colonization movement contemporary with Homer,” as many have done: “Magical ships that powered themselves were not instruments of the westward colonization, nor did magic gardens await the migrants on arrival.”

The epic poets are the guardians, preservers, and renewers of a heroic tradition and though they often admit anachronistic details or misunderstand the use or nature of archaic objects, they maintain intact, so Finley insists, the social context in which the heroes can live their larger life. From that context he constructed a model, to use his own formula, “imperfect, incomplete, untidy, yet tying together the fundamentals of a political and social structure with an appropriate value system in a way that stands up to a comparative analysis.” The most striking and original feature of this presentation (organized in chapters headed: “Wealth and Labor”; “Household, Kin, and Community”; “Morals and Values”) is his discussion of the “institution of gift-exchange.”

No reader of the Odyssey can have failed to be amazed and puzzled by the central role gifts play in the social relationships of the characters. Telemachus at Sparta, a young provincial with very uncertain prospects visiting the splendid court of Menelaus and Helen, is offered a parting gift of horses. He declines, on the grounds that his native island is no place to graze horses, and asks for something else: “Give me something that can be stored up.” Menelaus is delighted with his frankness and gives him a bowl made of silver and gold. There are many such encounters in the Homeric poems and readers seeking some explanation of the generosity and especially of the unashamed claims made on it usually found themselves fobbed off with a discussion of Homeric hospitality and the guest-friend relationship. Finley put it firmly in a familiar anthropological context.

The word “gift” is not to be misconstrued. It may be stated as a flat rule of both primitive and archaic society that no one ever gave anything, whether goods or services or honors, without proper recompense, real or wishful, immediate or years away, to himself or to his kin. The act of giving was, therefore, in an essential sense always the first half of a reciprocal action, the other half of which was a counter-gift.

His persuasive analysis of the working of this form of exchange in the poems was widely accepted; those who objected that it reflected not a society but a “heroic ideal” are given short shrift in the new edition.

The system of gift-giving which Finley identified in the poems was already familiar to anthropologists and sociologists; Marcel Mauss in his Essai sur le don (1925) had analyzed its operation in a wide variety of societies ancient and modern (though not in ancient Greece, to which he made only some half-dozen tangential references in his footnotes). If, as Finley says, “the practice…’does not reflect a society’ but an ‘heroic ideal,’ we are driven to the conclusion that, by a most remarkable intuition, Homer was a predecessor of Marcel Mauss, except that he (or his tradition) invented an institution which nearly three thousand years later Mauss discovered to be a social reality.” Since, he goes on to say, “Tamil heroic poetry of South India reveals a comparable network of gift-giving…,” Homer is not the only “instinctive, premature Marcel Mauss.”

Finley’s arguments from the system’s internal coherence and its recorded existence in real societies are compelling but a lingering doubt may remain. Speaking of the belief in the historical reality of the Trojan War and the Catalogue of Ships firmly held by some scholars who reject his sociological model he asks: “In what respect do they differ from gift-giving in their inherent credibility?” A skeptic might answer: “Not at all. Both the Trojan War and the gift-giving system may be equally unhistorical.” If the epic Muse can forget the palaces, inventories, and geography of Mycenaean Greece, remember the chariots but not how they were used, and fabricate not only a war but the names and personalities of chieftains on both sides, how can we trust her to preserve intact the memory of an intricate social system long since obsolete? Finley’s case would be stronger if the comparative method, to which he so often appeals, could produce a parallel: an oral epic poem which, celebrating heroes of a bygone age, garbles time, place, and material objects but preserves, in recognizable form, a complex system of primitive social institutions.

There is one oral epic which goes far toward meeting these specifications, the Turkish Book of Dede Korkut. The full text has only recently been made available in an English version3 (which may be the reason why Finley, whose mastery of the enormous Homeric literature is demonstrated in his useful critical bibliography, does not seem to be aware of it). The text on which modern editions are based was written in the last quarter of the sixteenth century but there is in existence a summary of the poem which was written down before 1332 and the text contains numerous traces of original versions dating from the tenth century. The book recounts, in a mixture of prose and verse, the deeds of the Oghuz, a tribe which, over many centuries, migrated from lands which are now in the Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republics to become the ancestors of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks in western Asia Minor.

In their original home their raiding expeditions were aimed at their neighbors to the north, the shamanistic Kipchaks; the Oghuz were recently converted Muslims (though sometimes pre-Islamic customs remain embedded in the narrative). But the sixteenth-century version retains only occasional reminiscences of the Kipchaks and the geography of the Samarkand area; in it the Oghuz beys now live, hunt, and plunder in western Anatolia, a thousand miles to the west; their infidel enemies “worship a god made from wood” and have churches with monks in them—one of their strongholds is Trebizond, which remained in Byzantine hands until 1461.

The Oghuz nomadic beys are given a nonexistent history; at the same time, the known participation of their descendants in major historical events is utterly ignored. “No reference is made,” say the translators, “to the well-known involvement of the Oghuz in the affairs of the Ghazmanide Dynasty…nor is there any mention whatever of the successive stages by which the Seljuks, of Oghuz origin, conquered Iran and most of Anatolia…during the remainder of the eleventh century.” The action of the epic is, as the translators put it, “mainly fiction” but, as they go on to say, “so well do the legends reflect the pattern of early Oghuz life that they must also be considered documents of cultural and social history.”

One of the institutions of the Oghuz is a spectacular variation of the gift-giving system. Their king, Bayindir Khan, commands the allegiance of the beys, the heroes of the epic; they deliver the booty from their brigand raids to him. Periodically he invites them to sumptuous feasts, at which he “distributes the wealth of the Oghuz, usually in the form of gifts to the beys.” But occasionally the feast was a “plunder banquet.” On these occasions, at the high point of the feast, the Khan would take his wife by the hand and leave; the beys would then help themselves to any of his possessions they fancied. It was, in the story, his failure to invite the Outer Oghuz to a plunder banquet which caused a fratricidal war, the “Götterdämmerung” episode which concludes the saga.

In the years since its first appearance, Finley’s “model” has won wide acceptance; his reconstruction of a Dark Age society from the epic text has even, as he says in his preface, “been the acknowledged starting-point of studies by other historians of society and ideas”—among them J.M. Redfield’s Nature and Culture in the Iliad.4 But Homer is a subject on which no two people can be expected to agree entirely, and it may be objected, without impugning the validity of his main thesis, that Finley pushes too hard against the evidence in his claim that there is no trace in the Odyssey of the “polis in its political sense” and his denial that the wanderings of Odysseus are “a reflection of the Greek western colonization movement contemporary with Homer.”

On the first point he is of course right to rule out the imaginary city of the Phaeacians and also right to deny that the presentation of “walls, docks, temples, and a marketplace” can be treated as “Homer’s recognition of the…rise of the polis.” But the equally imaginary city of Troy in the Iliad does seem to prefigure some features of later social organization—in the procession of the women to the Temple of Athena in Book VI, the debate in the assembly in Book VII, above all in Hector’s devotion to Troy and its people, his sense of his duty to the community. Hector is unique in his loyalty to a larger social unit than the oikos, that extended household which, “together with its lands and goods,” was the basic nucleus of Homeric society.

As for the western wanderings, it is true that there is nothing in the poem “that resembles eighth-century Ischia or Cumae, Syracuse, Leontini or Megara Hyblaea.” There is not very much in Shakespeare’s Tempest which resembles early seventeenth-century Bermuda either, but no one can doubt that the play reflects an age of maritime exploration. The fantastic adventures of Odysseus contain several features which suggest that this part of the poem was originally the saga of a voyage to the East, the voyage of the Argonauts, in fact; why should it have been adapted for a western sea-tale except to please an audience interested, if not in the actual founding of colonies, at any rate in the voyages of exploration which must have preceded their foundation?

These are minor cavils. It is an unmixed pleasure to welcome this new edition of a book which has become a classic in its field, as indispensable to the professional as it is accessible to the general reader, and to look forward to Finley’s further riposte to the criticism which his spirited additions are sure to provoke.