Generally speaking, at least in regards to its readability, one really can’t go wrong with the many translations of The Odyssey. Whether you choose to go with Robert Fitzgerald,Richard Lattimore, Robert Fagles, or the publication by British professor and classicist, Emily Wilson, Norton & Company, 2017 (astoundingly the first translation by a woman, and a volume that I’d love to possess,) one is bound to experience great fun and utter brilliance. Obviously, I can’t speak for the others, and I wouldn’t. I can only chronicle my experience with Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation.
On the heels of the catastrophic and life-altering events of The Iliad, its follow-up revolved around two very distinct characters: Odysseus and Telemachus. Presumably the hero of the Trojan War (at least in the scope of that narrative,) Odysseus was Telemachus’ father, albeit from a vast distance. Understandably, that was neither man’s fault. And whether you’re familiar with The Iliad or not, I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that Odysseus’ tragic backstory was a spoiler, because in order to fully understand his plight, and how it relates to Telemachus and Penelope, it was necessary that the reader be privy of their past experiences, most of which were extreme hardships. However, you’ll find little disclosures here.
Heading into this, I was naturally concerned that reading The Odyssey first would be detrimental to my overall enjoyment, as The Iliad originated first. The latter taking place ten years later, it could be called a loose sequel. However, after expressing my concerns with Anna Smith Spark, a good friend and fantasy enthusiast, I was assured that the order didn’t really make a difference. Feel free to read them however you choose. I was immediately, immeasurably relieved.
What she did surpassed mere words. I like to think that because we made that unique connection, we’ve gotten to know one another a little better, maybe we’ve grown closer, and in the waning months since my journey began, we’re better off as a direct result. But I don’t know; it’s possible that I’m just projecting some false reality. Without question, I respect the hell out of her—a fact that grew exponentially throughout the reading. Furthermore, I’ll continually support her in whatever ways I can. Thank you for everything, Anna. You’re the best.
He found her at home. There was a large fire burning on the hearth, and one could smell from far the fragrant reek of burning cedar and sandal wood. As for herself, she was busy at her loom, shooting her golden shuttle through the warp and singing beautifully. Round her cave there was a thick wood of alder, polar, and sweet smelling cypress trees, wherein all kinds of great birds had build their nests—owls, hawks, and chattering sea-crows that occupy their business in the waters. A vine loaded with grapes was trained and grew luxuriantly about the mouth of the cave; there were also four running rills of water in channels cut pretty close together, and turned hither and thither so as to irrigate the beds of violets and luscious herbage over which they flowed. Even a god could not help being charmed with such a lovely spot, so Mercury stood still and looked at it; but when he had admired it sufficiently he went inside the cave.
Their personalized journey was conveyed concurrently, as opposed to using Odysseus’ plight as a semblance of prologue, or a fancy way to increase word count. Rather, Homer composed the narrative in such a way that there was minimal overlap between the two (obviously, I can’t speak for any plausible implication between both books.) Not only were they concurrent, the quests could be read separately, as long as you’re mindful of the eventual divergence. Composed that way, the two became one, completing and complimenting each other, like a healthy marriage.
At times, the narratives couldn’t be more different. Where is this going, I wondered, and how would they conjoin? They were leagues apart, figuratively and literally. At other times, they felt eerily similar-almost surreal—but the quests were never replicated.
The Odyssey surprised me countless times. On a surface level, I was delighted by Samuel Butler’s fluid-like translation, which retained its historical and mythological nuances, without sounding outdated or dull. And given that his version was originally published in 1898, one would expect virtual obsoletion. I consistently marveled at its modernity.
An additional surprise, which verged on shock, was the violence itself. There were several pivotal moments, where Odysseus not only resorted to violence, but fully embraced it, making violence the star. Telemachus, in his journey, did the same, but his actions were more reserved. I wasn’t as shocked that said conflicts were resolved through violence, but by the extent of it. Some of those images will likely haunt me forever, replaying repeatedly in the theater of my mind. In particular, the grisly scene when Odysseus battled one of the Cyclops, Polyhemus, was extremely revolting in its explicit nature, while never once being off-putting or any other negative connotation. Incidentally, The Iliad, for obvious reasons, was significantly bloodier.
Alongside Odysseus and Telemachus, buried just beneath the Grecian isle, were plentiful instances of pathos and ethos. That surprised me, too. I half expected Homer’s world-building to manifest itself in details of the unique cultures, beliefs and folklore; that’s pretty much a given. But oftentimes in ancient texts, pathos is non-existent. That can’t be said for The Odyssey. It wasn’t primarily emotion for emotions sake, either, but earned emotion. Those scenes, especially those centered around reunion shook me, as if to remind us of our frailty; that we’re human. Homer seemed to be saying that it’s okay to grieve, worry, and cry. There was no shame there, and crying make doesn’t weaken you. Love, loyalty, and fostering lasting friendships were also themes.
The Odyssey was a lot of fun. I’d be hard pressed to believe that much of that enjoyment stemmed directly from its Greek mythology and/or fantasy elements, of which there were plenty. Admittedly, it wasn’t fantasy like we see today in beloved classics as The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, or Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, but it was epic and set in ancient times. There were long fought battles, kings, queens, magic; political intrigue, loyalty and honor; manipulation, betrayal, dishonor, and the contentious rancor of the gods. And let’s not forget the genre’s staple: long, perilous quests, book-ended with uncertainty and glory. Life and death hang in the balance. It’s a beautiful thing.
Whether you’ve read it or not, I think it’s worth the time and effort. Even if you’re uninterested in fantasy, it would behoove anybody to experience Homer’s unique vision, or as the Greeks called him, “the poet” wrote about ancient myths and of a bygone era. A bygone world, one which is often forgotten. Essentially, he chronicled history, and isn’t that’s a large part of why we read fiction (subconsciously or not,) and classic literature in particular?
There exist theories—compelling ones—which questions the veracity of the poet’s identity, meaning that Homer was merely attributed to having written the sweeping tale. They speculate that a woman actually wrote The Odyssey, primary due to the differences in writing style between the two books. Apparently, the styles are quite different. In fairness, though, it is possible to affect an aberrant style, even a wholly differing one. Many authors, throughout time, have displayed a wide range of divergent ones, and in my opinion, they’re all the better for it. However, this seems to be the exception to the norm. Most writers stick to what they know, what they’re good at. But assuming that such a feat was possible, that Homer did write both stories, would it genuinely impact the passion that we feel for the work? If we knew, undoubtedly, that a woman wrote it, would it change our outlook? I think that’s entirely subjective, just as all art is, and that’s how it should be.
On a side note, there are most likely additional factors supporting this theories, but I’m not privy to them. I haven’t researched it enough, and perhaps that’s best, even preferable. Nevertheless, Homer’s legacy lives on.