If Homer was in fact two (at least) different people as suggested by M. L. West*, and the Iliad was written long before the Odyssey, then what does this tell us about the concept of “the author”?

Peter Green, in reviewing West’s book in the Times Literary Supplement, agrees with West’s claim. As a translator of both works, one after the other, Green seems well placed to assert that the quality and style of the Greek used in the second work is markedly different from that in the first. Now of course, as we are used to think of Homer as a dimly perceived fons et origo of an ancient oral transmission, we might have expected exactly the opposite: that oral transmission might well have brought together two initially divergent texts, smoothing out any original stylistic differences, rather than the opposite. Are we wrong? Maybe this was true of the Iliad but not of the later Odyssey which may have been written by an unscrupulous scribbler keen to cash in of the success of a well-known oral epic! But who’d really care?

This all makes me think that James Macpherson’s main problem in writing his Ossian works was just that he was born a century or two too late, or publicized his “finds” too soon. We have no real idea who composed ancient bardic works. No doubt they are actually collaborative works, and if he’d handled things more skillfully there’s no reason why Macpherson shouldn’t quietly have been one of those collaborators. I find it difficult to see any real moral difference between someone embroidering on a poem 1,000 years ago, and someone doing so last week. What’s come between the two cases is simply the concept of authorship, isn’t it?

The idea of the author as an important individual is something that gathered steam in the eighteenth century, and owes its full development to the Romantic age. If the date of “discovery” of Ossian’s works had in fact been long after Macpherson’s death, and they had come down to us by less noticeable paths of transmission, we might happily have believed that they were indeed the work of an ancient Celtic bard named Ossian. (Of course the more gullible among us did just that in 1760.) All marks of their composition would have been buried under years of dust.

And I’m not altogether sure we’d have been any the worse off as a result. We don’t ask who the author of the Roman de la rose was. We’ve been happily reading it for 700 years without worrying whether it was written by Guillaume de Lorris or Jean de Meun or by both of them. The authorship isn’t the important thing: the story is. Same goes for the Bible. Just imagine how modern publishing and reviewing would strive to unearth the author of that one. The income from quotation alone would be worth a big fight. Dare I suggest that it doesn’t really matter whether all of Shakespeare was written by a person called Shakespeare, or Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or whether the plays were ultimately collaborative works composed by a group of actors: they’d still be the same plays wouldn’t they? Our need for there to be a flesh and blood individual called William behind them seems almost silly if you think about it too much. If we discovered that half of Hamlet was written by Bill Bloggs would we cease to read it? After all the play’s the thing.

Authors’ words have been treated fairly cavalierly for centuries. Getting it written down is obviously important: we don’t doubt that Vergil wrote the Aeneid, though of course early translations were often fairly impressionistic, and lots of medieval romances are unauthorized derivative works based on bits of it. When they transcribed works scribes in the middle ages often introduced error, no doubt mostly unintentionally, and this has necessitated, as well as justified, editorial intervention to reestablish what we “know” to be the author’s intention. Improving on a text gathered from the oral tradition long seemed like a duty rather than, as we’d now think it, an intrusion. Bishop Thomas Percy used a “parcel of old ballads” as the basis of his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). William Shenstone described them as “pure gold in dust or ingots” in a letter to Percy suggesting that printing them as is, unimproved, would be to miss an opportunity to reactivate their power, and would make them “a prize merely for . . . virtuosoes”. Percy did fiddle with the language and included modern ballad imitations in his collection. Ballad collecting was big in the eighteenth century, as people came to realize the vanishing richness of a long oral tradition. Robert Burns preserved many folk songs, but the words we now associate with these tunes are usually his, not carried directly over from the oral tradition. Sir Walter Scott has been criticized for including in his massive The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border pieces like Anna Seward’s (1742-1809) “Freebooter’s Farewell”. He’s also castigated for adding modern lines to “The Flowers of the Forest”, but it now seems doubtful that any of its words are ancient, only the melody. Should Jean Eliot’s (b. 1727) or Alison Cockburn’s 1731 version be regarded as original? Surely it’s irrelevant. And I expect we can assume he tidied up grammar and syntax without batting an eyelid. John Pinkerton (1759-1826) got in on the act with his Ancient Scotish [sic] Poems, never before in Print, 1785, large parts of which he wrote himself, in order, as he claimed, “to give pleasure to the public”. The Brothers Grimm smoothed out their fairy tales, and Hans Christian Andersen wasn’t involved in the direct transmission of oral culture. Because an author has no name we feel perfectly happy to “improve” his or her work, something especially evident in translations from other languages.

And really, what’s wrong with that? The copyright law gives an exemption for parody, though it’s often hard to win against well-heeled copyright owners. Just try getting a parody of Mickey Mouse published, or even one of Dr Seuss. Copyright was meant to encourage creative production, not to enrich authors. That copyright was invented at the start of the eighteenth century just as the idea of the author was getting going is no coincidence. The earliest reference to “authorship” in the OED is 1710, same year as the Statute of Anne, the foundational document of copyright. Before there was money to be made there was no reason to protect your words. If anyone embellished them that was to your credit: your writing was good enough to inspire someone else.

If so many people weren’t trying to make a living by becoming an author, it might be a consummation devoutly to be wished that we should get back to such a collaborative view of authorship.


* M. L. West: The Making of the ‘Odyssey’, Oxford University Press, 2014. Reviewed in TLS September 11, 2015