I managed to watch episode 7 of BBC’s adaptation of His Dark Materials live tonight. It included a scene I’ve been looking forward to for weeks now. Like many others, I am sure, I re-read Pullman’s entire trilogy a couple of months ago, in preparation for the series, and I was reminded of something I had noticed the very first time I read Northern Lights, and had discussed with my students at the time, but had then promptly forgotten about. But this time it stuck, and that’s probably because it came in close proximity (timewise) with noticing the exact same phenomenon in a text I have read (and taught) goodness knows how many times, but failed to spot (at least consciously) before: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The phenomenon is a literary one, and a very ancient one too: a Homeric simile.
What is a Homeric simile? A good working definition is a simile that runs on for a few lines and creates an elaborate comparison (in contrast to the usual short formula of “x is like y”). The Homeric simile formula tends to be: “like/as” + first part of the comparison followed by “just so/thus/that’s how” + second part of the comparison. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are full of such long, elaborate similes (hence the term “Homeric”), and here is a typical example:
Just as a evil-minded lion comes upon cattle, that are grazing in countless numbers in the low land in a great marsh. Among them is a herdsman not yet experienced in fighting a wild beast over the carcass of a crooked-horned cow; but he walks with the herd, first in front and then behind—while the lion leaping into the middle devours a heifer, and all the rest flee. Just so were the Achaeans powerfully routed by Hector… (Iliad, 15.629–36)
Interestingly, just like in the Iliad, both in His Dark Materials, and in The Lord of the Rings, a Homeric simile occurs at the moment, or on the aftermath, of battle.
In His Dark Materials, we find it in Chapter 20 of Northern Lights, titled “Moral Combat”, when Iorek Byrnison and Iofur Raknison do battle, instigated by Lyra’s trickery. It is a crucial moment in the book, because “Iorek and Iofur were more than just two bears. There were two kinds of beardom opposed here, two futures, two destinies”. They first challenge each other with ritualistic words, and then it all kicks off with a Homeric simile just on cue:
Then with a roar and a blur of snow both bears moved at the same moment. Like two great masses of rock balanced on adjoining peaks and shaken loose by an earthquake, which bound down the mountainsides gathering speed, leaping over crevasses and knocking trees into splinters, until they crash into each other so hard that both are smashed to powder and flying chips of stone: that was how the two bears came together. (Northern Lights, Chapter 20: “Mortal Combat”)
In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Homeric simile occurs just after the One Ring has been cast in the fires of Mount Doom, and outside the gates of Mordor, where the armies of Gondor are attempting to distract Sauron from Frodo’s quest, a “great wind” has just indicated that something has changed. This is another case of a crucial moment in a long narrative. As Gandalf says: “The realm of Sauron is ended! […] The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest”. And then:
The Captains bowed their heads; and when they looked up again, behold! their enemies were flying and the power of Mordor was scattering like dust in the wind. As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope. (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Book VI, Chapter 4: “The Field of Cormallen”)
In both cases, the Homeric similes work to amplify the “epic” moments they refer to. As outlined in William C. Scott’s influential study they are both “long digressions”, and each one of them is “in motion” – they are stories that “have a beginning, a middle, and an end”. And they are not just decorative, but they “significant parts of each book’s theme” – the epic battle of different visions of existence in the former, and the mindlessness of evil in the latter. Also, in both of them the writer “creates a strong break from the locale of the ongoing narrative for digressions that develop their own stories in response to their own motivations” – although there’s something eminently comparable between armies of humanoid-beings and “armies” of ants; and giant polar bears’ doing battle and rocks clashing during an earthquake.
There are no other Homeric similes that I could find in the rest of His Dark Materials and The Lord of the Rings, but do let me know if you spot any I missed!
Thanks for the wonderful post. There is one more Homeric simile about 3 pages later, describing the decisive blow in their duel, in the paragraph beginning “That was when Iorek moved.” It balances the first simile nicely and bookends their combat.
I just read the book for the first time a few weeks ago, and, as you might imagine, the similes leaped off the page at me. I laughed out loud when I read them. I had actually been thinking about putting something of my own together about them. Now I don’t have to.
And thank you for the clue to the book about Homeric similes. I have already downloaded it. Many years ago I interviewed for a job in the Dartmouth Department of Classics. Since I met the entire department, I must have met Professor Scott. It was a terrific job and the interviews were great fun. I look back on them fondly even though I didn’t get the job.