Thursday, 14 January 2021

The Odyssey


A classic work that everybody should read once in their life, right?

Acclaimed actress Claire Danes burnishes an epic story of heroes, gods, and monsters in a groundbreaking translation of The Odyssey, the first great adventure story in the Western literary tradition. When the wily warrior-king Odysseus sets off for home after the Trojan War, he doesn’t realize this simple undertaking will become a perilous journey of 10 years. Beset at every turn, he encounters obstacles, detours, and temptations—both supernatural and human—while his wife Penelope fends off would-be suitors desperate to take the throne.

Emily Wilson is the first woman to take on the daunting task of translating over 100,000 lines of a three-millennium-old poem from Ancient Greek to modern-day English. Her breathtaking rendition captures the poetic immediacy of the original text, while allowing listeners to experience The Odyssey with an honesty and directness few other versions have achieved. The result is a lean, fleet-footed translation that recaptures Homer’s “nimble gallop” and brings an ancient epic to new life. A fascinating introduction provides an informative overview of the Bronze Age milieu that produced the epic, the major themes of the poem, the controversies about its origins, and the unparalleled scope of its impact and influence. 

First off, what an apt cover! It's been raining non-stop in Kigali for days. Going to start building an ark tomorrow.

This was really beautifully translated, and entirely in iambic pentameter. That's pretty damn impressive. Complete labour of love by Emily Wilson

I did enjoy learning about the translation process and everything, but maybe a three-hour introduction was a little bit much. I think, if I was picking it up for the first time, I'd skip straight to chapter one and then come back to read the introduction at the end. Just because it's packed with spoilers.

I also loved Greek mythology as a kid, so I was fairly familiar with everything that was about to happen, but I'd never read the full Odyssey and was looking forward to discovering the story. In amongst interesting historical information, the introduction basically walked you through what was about to happen, complete with quotes, which kind of left me wondering why I needed to bother with the full text afterwards. For me, part of the attraction was the entire adventure of the unknown. And, it's not like the story is that complicated. It's a lot of men in boats, men crying, women weaving and then a blood bath at the end. It's translated so smoothly that any modern-day reader could keep track of what's going on. It's not Cloud Atlas or anything.

But, it was still very enjoyable. If you love Madeline Miller's books (Song of Achilles/Circe) then this, as the source inspiration, really adds to your understanding of her work. 

Some of the interesting historical nuggets that I enjoyed where that the Greeks were all about hospitality towards strangers, it was a matter of honour. However, part of that hospitality was about knowing when to let your guests leave: To force a visitor to stay is just as bad as pushing him to go.

Something worth remembering at Christmas time. I live in fear of ending up at parties or events where I cannot leave. 

The etymology was also very interesting. Obviously, The Odyssey is so named for Odysseus, the lead character (no, not the one who slept with his mother - that's Oedipus). But I didn't realise that epic comes from epos, meaning a song or story, from the root to say/to tell. There was also regular mention of a rhapsode, meaning a person who recites epic poetry. 

Um... is that where we get the word rapper from? Or is that just a coincidence? It's absolutely related to the word rhapsody.

So, that was all very interesting. If you buy the audiobook, I think you also get a PDF of the translation. 

Something else I found out - Poseidon is a dick (I'm probably going to drown at sea for saying that). I thought he was awesome as a kid, but he comes across as really vindictive in this. I know all the gods can be, but his whole thing against Odysseus was that Odysseus killed his kid. Talk about burying the lead - the kid was eating everybody at the time. Like, teach your kid some manners and perhaps people won't want to cave his face in.

Talking of which, the end of the poem took a real turn for the murdery:

The victims have no help and no way out as their attackers slaughter them. And men watch and enjoy the violence. So these four fighters sprang and struck, and drove the suitors in all directions. Screaming filled the hall as skulls were cracked. The whole floor ran with blood.

It's about a hundred pages of 'woe is me,' then 'right, everyone's going to die.' 

That's basically the abridged version.

You can flick to the end. 

There was a bit of a debate in the introduction about why Penelope doesn't recognise her husband immediately when he comes home. There's a bit of speculation around whether she truly doesn't recognise him or whether she does but decides to feign ignorance for a while. I think it has to be the former.

Like Pitch Meeting says:

'I don't understand why [insert improbable plot point] has to happen?' 

'So the movie can happen... look, I'm gonna need you to get all the way off my back about this.'

Disguise is such a major part of classical literature and storytelling. Shakespeare employed it all the time, and there's an entire Star Trek Voyager episode that goes on at length about the importance of 'the disguise' and 'the reveal' in formulaic playwriting. I mean, it's just a thing. Everybody was crazy about anagnorisis back then.

So, in that respect, this is a very nice way to experience the Poetics of Aristotle (well, Homer) in action. The way Wilson has approached it really brings it to life and gives it rhythm, and some of the imagery is really beautiful.

Very impressive work.

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