My parents split when I was very young. The arrangement they made between them was that my brother and I would spend the weekends with our father, but would live, during the week, with my mother. One winter, when I was ten years old, it started to snow heavily and gave no indication of stopping any time soon. It was a Sunday morning and my brother and I were due to leave dad’s and return to what, for us, was home. The snow, however, had other ideas.
To go home we had to catch two buses. The first was running late, but, otherwise, the ride, although slow, was pretty uneventful. We arrived in the centre of Sheffield sometime around one o’clock. It was then that things started to go awry. At the stop where we would usually catch the next bus, which was to take us into Rotherham, there was one already waiting. It did not, however, give the appearance of preparing to go anywhere; the engine was off and the driver was stood outside, smoking a cigarette. Being ten years old I did not want to ask the driver what was happening but I heard another potential passenger enquire as to when we would be allowed to board. ‘You won’t’ said the driver. ‘All buses have been cancelled due to the snow. I’m returning to the depot.’
At this a strange kind of panic overcame me. My brother and I were halfway between my mother’s and my dad’s, with no phone and our fare the only money in our pockets. Typically, my brother wanted to wait it out. The buses would start running again soon, he said. But I knew that wasn’t the case. The snow had settled, and heavy spidery flakes were still bombing the city. Waiting would only make it harder to walk; and walking, I knew, was inevitable.
To return to dad’s was, relatively speaking, easier; it was closer and the route was straightforward; but, as when after the split, when we were asked which parent we wanted to live with, we instinctively felt drawn to our mother, despite the inevitable hardships. And so, our decision made, we set off through the snow in the direction of home, following the route the bus would have taken. Yet time and distance, we found, are deceptive. What had taken 25 minutes on a bus, would, we thought, only take us an hour. But the bus wasn’t a young child; it wasn’t cold and tired and scared. On the bus, home had always seemed close, just around the next corner; but as we mashed through the snow it seemed impossible, unreachable; it seemed, after a couple of hours, as though it no longer existed; nothing existed, except the snow, which is all we could see.
Two or three times my brother fell down, and I, almost without stopping, dragged him to his feet, shouting encouragement into the snow. At some point night fell too; and still the heavy spidery flakes came down, punctuating the darkness. By this stage I could not have said why I was doing what I was doing; instinct had kicked in; one foot followed the other, regardless. I remember coming to a distinctive spot, a part of the journey that, by bus, always felt significant, because it meant only another five or ten minutes until we reached home. But on foot, mashing through thick boot-clinging snow, that last leg, which was up hill, seemed monstrous.
Eventually we made it, of course. As we descended the hill on the other side we were met by my mother and her then boyfriend, who, we were told, could not bear to wait any longer and had started to walk to meet us on the way. And there it was: home; which is, I found, not a physical building, but the look in my mother’s eyes as she ran to greet us.
[Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus by Jacob Jordaens]
The point of this story is to illustrate how universal great literature is, for whenever I think back to that day, which is something that I do quite often, I am immediately reminded of The Odyssey, Homer’s immortal poem. My brother and I did not encounter any Sirens, or Lotus Eaters or Cyclops, but our walk through the snow was, in principle, a fight to get home, to overcome adversity and return to the familiar and comfortable. And, on the most basic level, this is just what The Odyssey is about. Following the war at Troy, as he sought to return to Ithica, to his wife and son, Odysseus had stumbled from one disastrous situation to the next, until the great warrior found himself entrapped on an island for seven years by Calypso, a Goddess. Eventually, with the help of Pallas Athena, he is allowed to leave; and so continues his famous, epic quest.
“Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
that we devise their misery. But they
themselves- in their depravity- design
grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.”
It may seem like an unusual thing to say about epic poetry, but there is a tremendous amount of dumb fun to be had when reading The Odyssey. The tricking of Polyphemus – who Odysseus gets drunk and subsequently blinds – is probably the most famous episode, but I also particularly enjoyed the beautiful witch Circe, who turns a number of the ship’s crew into pigs. To the modern reader, The Odyssey is a fantasy, having much in common with something like The Tempest or A Midsummer’s Night Dream or even fairytales; indeed, to highlight a more recent example, one can draw a number of parallels between Homer’s work and the Lord of the Rings saga. In this way, I would say that it has a broader appeal, is easier to digest, and certainly contains greater variety, than the brutal, relentless Iliad.
Despite the weird creatures, the faraway lands, the quest, and the prominence of a great hero, the heart of The Odyssey is conventional and domestic, in that it is concerned with values such as love and friendship and the importance of family. Again, this is in contrast to The Iliad, where honour and death and war are the focus. When Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, goes in search of news of his father he is given hospitality from a number of Odysseus’ friends, and their sons and daughters and wives, who are willing to do all they can to help him. Penelope, meanwhile, is, even after a number of years, and not knowing whether her husband is alive or dead, still resisting the suitors who have almost taken over her house. In fact, she even plays a trick on them, promising to take a new husband only after she has finished weaving a shroud, while unpicking it each night to make sure that she never does.
“Now from his breast into the eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,
longed for as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
Few men can keep alive through a big serf
to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:
and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.”
One thing I find refreshing about Greek myths, and by extension Homer’s work, is that women play such a strong role. It’s funny how hundreds of years later women would be seen as delicate, incapable creatures who need protecting by being locked up at home, and yet here their position, and personalities, are not dissimilar to the men’s. For example, Goddesses are worshipped and invoked just as much as God’s, and it is not the case that these Goddesses are concerned with flower arranging and children, they get their hands dirty, intervening and interacting with what is happening on earth, be that war or whatever. In fact, although The Odyssey is certainly Odysseus’ story [the clue is in the title], the second most important character is the grey-eyed Pallas Athena. Moreover, as noted earlier, Penelope, although upset that her husband is lost or dead, is no sap, while, conversely, the mighty Odysseus frequently bursts into tears.
If you have read any of my reviews you will likely know that, when approaching translated literature, choosing the best translation is, for me, of paramount importance; so much so that there are books that I haven’t enjoyed in one translation, and later really liked in another. The question of which translation one should read becomes particularly critical when one is concerned with poetry. Part of me, I must admit, is resistant to the idea of translated poetry altogether, because I just cannot see how it can possibly bear any great or significant resemblance to the original. Yet I think this is less of a danger with epic, narrative poetry; with something like The Odyssey, the translator has a story to tell, and as long as he or she tells it faithfully they have done at least half the job right.
For The Iliad I chose Robert Fagles’ critically acclaimed version. The reason for this is that I felt that his robust [you might uncharitably call it inelegant] style suited the material. I did, however, cringe frequently at some of his phrasing and word choices, which were far too modern for my taste. Therefore, for The Odyssey I went with Robert Fitzgerald, who, I believe, had a stronger ear for poetry and a more subtle touch. Yet, having said that, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Fitzgerald’s rendering to the first time reader of Homer’s work. I think the popularity of Fagles’ translations has much to do with how accessible they are; the truth is that most people don’t care about the use of modern language in an ancient Greek text; in fact, the average reader would likely prefer language that is recognisable to them.
In comparison, Firtzgerald’s rendering is more of a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, his work is still readable and is, for the most part, easy enough to get a handle on, but some of his choices are potentially alienating or disorientating. For example, character and place names are spelt in a way that most of us will not recognise [Calypso is Kalypso, Circe is Kirke, Ithica is Ithika etc]. In most cases, deciphering these is, as you call tell by my examples, not especially difficult, but occasionally the spellings are outright baffling. The worst I can recall is Sirens, which in Fitzgerald’s version is Seirenes. When one encounters something like this, one is, unfortunately, taken out of the text as you try and work out what or whom exactly we are dealing with.
However, as previously hinted, the strength of his version is that it stands up as poetry. I can’t, of course, say that it is the best or most successful version, not having read them all, but it is consistently smooth, beautiful and stirring. There’s one line in it, which is repeated throughout the text, about the dawn’s ‘finger tips of rose,’ that I was particularly taken with, and which, moreover, I have seen elsewhere translated in such disappointing and clunky ways.
[Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper]
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the poem is the sophisticated structure. I expected that it would be episodic, and it is, but I did not anticipate a non-linear narrative. The Odyssey begins in media res, with significant proportion of the action already in the past. As we enter the story, Odysseus has been missing for many years, the suitors are surrounding his house in an effort to take his wife, and his son is about to begin his own journey for news of his father. Therefore, for quite some time the main character is off-stage, so to speak. When he does appear, he spends much of his time recounting the details of his life following the war in Troy. So, we only have access to the most exciting, and the most famous, episodes as flashbacks.
What this highlights is the important role that oral story-telling plays in the text. Throughout, Odysseus and many other characters tell tales, be they fictional or true, as a way or bonding or sharing information or entertaining each other, in the same way that we do now. I have always found this interesting, this seemingly universal, immortal desire to give voice to, and share, stories with other people. It is something, as the rambling introductions to my reviews attest, that I feel compelled to do myself. At one stage, Athena turns Odysseus into a beggar, and the hero creates for him an entire history, fleshing out and breathing life into the character he is playing. So there you have it: a book that shouts loudly about home and family and so on, but which, in a more subtle fashion, is equally concerned with, as well as being itself an example of, the joy and importance of communication and human interaction.