Homer’s The Odyssey has long been on my list of ‘Classics to read’ (as opposed to my list of ‘Classics I will not read’ – hello and goodbye, Moby Dick). It’s the original quest, an epic story and referenced everywhere. I worried it would be an ancient, dry text, but the new translation by Emily Wilson is wonderful!
Wilson has stayed faithful to the story and used the same form as Homer. The language is lively and direct. The rhythm takes you back to Homer’s time, but the pared back style feels contemporary.
I love the idea of the story being re-told, as it would have been done many times as an epic poem shared orally, before it was first written down.
Odysseus is on a quest to return home to Ithaca and his wife Penelope. He endures many setbacks: the Trojan war, battles with Cyclops, the loss of most of his men, and then, before he can reunite with Penelope, he must defeat the suitors who have vied to marry her in his absence. His uses his strength and wits, but the gods and goddesses also play a role. Some, such as Athena, help him. Others, like Poseidon, make his journey difficult. Hermes the messenger is a great, sassy character.
It’s a terrific story – full of drama, characters who are larger than life, gods who behave like bickering families and mortals who must be godlike in their heroism to succeed. I actually did not know how it ended until I read the book, so I found I kept turning the page to find out what happened next. The translation is so clear and has great energy.
Here is Menelaus speaking to Telemachus (Odysseus’s son) and Pisistratus:
“No mortal, my dear boys, can rival Zeus.
His halls and home and property are deathless.”
And telling them of his suffering:
“I cannot eat or sleep, since no one labored
like him – Odysseus. His destiny
was suffering, and mine the endless pain
of missing him. …”
Heroism is a key theme. Odysseus was victorious at Troy, but he relies on his wits more than brute strength to overcome the challenges he faces on his journey. He is capable of violence and shows arrogance in the scene with Cyclops (to his cost). But he shows great perseverance and keeps his head. Penelope is loyal (refusing the suitors’ advances, waiting for Odysseus) and intelligent.
Fate is another theme – the gods are powerful, although they can’t dictate everything that happens: for example, Odysseus might be ‘fated’ to survive the journey so Poseidon cannot kill him. The mortals like Odysseus can control their fate to some extent, but the gods hold the reins. They seem to co-exist. The mortals live on the basis that some things are pre-destined or ‘fated’, but still they strive to do what they want.
I also liked the sense of balance and ‘good life’ that the characters showed (I’m sure there is a Greek word for this). They might be fighting battles, wreaking revenge, sailing the high seas, but they also show hospitality, always stopping to eat bread, olives and meat, drink wine, take baths and share stories.
Here is Circe addressing Odysseus:
“I know you and your men have suffered greatly,
out on the fish-filled sea, and on dry land
from hostile men. But it is time to eat
and drink some wine. …”
It give you a good idea of how the Greeks lived in ancient times, but the story has universal themes – which explains its longevity. We still show hospitality to visitors, persevere in the face of struggle and have a capacity for both friendship and war.
These are amplified in The Odyssey (in a way that we have come to associate with Greek ‘drama’) – it does now shy away from love, hate or revenge in extreme forms. This makes it memorable.
I highly recommend it. Now I just need to sail to a Greek island!