Emily Watson in Slate:
The Iliad and The Odyssey excite more historical curiosity than most works of literature. To be sure, the poems contain elements that are obviously mythical. In The Odyssey, there are the fabulous, ever-fertile gardens of Alcinoüs, the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, or the bow that nobody but Odysseus can string. Although The Iliad has fewer monsters and marvels, its mode is hardly that of realism. Historians’ accounts of the fortunes of war do not usually include the councils of the gods, who may whisk a favored hero from battle or blind the soldiers with divine mist.
But both poems include details that apparently reflect ordinary life in archaic Greece. There are princes who co-sleep on windy verandas, royal houses with only one chair, babies frightened by war gear, princesses who do the laundry and like playing catch. Ordinary domestic life gets mixed up with mythical exploits. What, then, of the Trojan War itself? Did it ever take place at all? Modern scholarship suggests that the poems do, indeed, reflect historical events—but in a complex and unhistorical way. Rediscovering Homer—a new book by an independent scholar, Andrew Dalby—offers a concise account of the evidence, including ancient Hittite and Egyptian documents, archaic Greek art, and archaeology. His book is helpful as a more-or-less reliable guide and summation of modern Homeric historical study, which should be accessible to readers with no specialist knowledge.