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Homer's Turk: How Classics Shaped Ideas of the Eastby Jerry Toner
Synopses & Reviews
A seventeenth-century English traveler to the Eastern Mediterranean would have faced a problem in writing about this unfamiliar place: how to describe its inhabitants in a way his countrymen would understand? In an age when a European education meant mastering the Classical literature of Greece and Rome, he would naturally turn to touchstones like the Iliad to explain the exotic customs of Ottoman lands. His Turk would have been Homer's Turk.
An account of epic sweep, spanning the Crusades, the Indian Raj, and the postwar decline of the British Empire, Homer's Turk illuminates how English writers of all eras have relied on the Classics to help them understand the world once called "the Orient." Ancient Greek and Roman authors, Jerry Toner shows, served as a conceptual frame of reference over long periods in which trade, religious missions, and imperial interests shaped English encounters with the East. Rivaling the Bible as a widespread, flexible vehicle of Western thought, the Classics provided a ready model for portrayal and understanding of the Oriental Other. Such image-making, Toner argues, persists today in some of the ways the West frames its relationship with the Islamic world and the rising powers of India and China.
Discussing examples that range from Jacobean travelogues to Hollywood blockbusters, Homer's Turk proves that there is no permanent version of either the ancient past or the East in English writing--the two have been continually reinvented alongside each other.
"In this unusually accessible academic work, Cambridge classics fellow Toner explores how classical learning has affected English perceptions of the East. For centuries, travelers and historians from Britain drew upon Greek and Roman plays, poems, and histories as 'imaginative resources' for describing and trying to understand the cultures of Islam and 'The Orient' that seemed alien. Toner ranges widely, from medieval to contemporary sources, to prove his thesis, emphasizing histories, such as by Edward Gibbon, and travelogues, from both famous names like Sir Richard Francis Burton and T.E. Lawrence and less recognized writers like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, perhaps the first secular European woman to chronicle Islamic practices. The concluding section considers the classics' ongoing relevance, from popular entertainments like The English Patient and 300 to the op-ed pages. Toner focuses on representations of the East, rather than the region itself, showing how 'the classical past has helped justify, sanction, and authenticate the English present,' while carefully distancing himself from Edward Said's Orientalism theory, criticizing it as overly simplistic. While Toner's argument is disappointingly modest in the end, the work makes a useful addition to understanding Western ideology and should appeal to academics and motivated laypeople alike." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Spanning the Crusades, the Indian Raj, and the postwar decline of the British Empire, Homer's Turk illuminates how English writers of all eras have relied on Greek and Roman literature to help them understand the world once called "the Orient." Even today, the Classics frame the West's relationship with the Islamic world, India, and China.
About the Author
Jerry Toner is a Fellow at Hughes Hall at the University of Cambridge.
University of Cambridge
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History and Social Science » Europe » Great Britain » General History