Where It All Begins: The Odyssey

The OdysseyLast week, I wrote about the problems of translating, especially when it comes to translating ancient poetry. If you read that, you probably noticed a couple of names I dropped: Rober Fagles and Bernard Knox. So this week, I’m taking a look at what I consider their best work: their joint edition of Homer’s The Odyssey.

Among those who read the classics, people generally fall into one of two categories: those that like Homer’s Iliad and those who like The Odyssey. I don’t think there’s a wrong choice, but I’m personally more of an Odyssey guy. Even to people without much knowledge about ancient Greece (Mycenaeans if you wanna be technical), it’s a fun read, the forerunner to generations of adventure stories. You probably know the plot: after the fall of Troy, Odysseus roams around the world trying to find a way home. He spends years living with Calypso on an island, tricks the cyclops Polyphemus, is tempted by the sirens and all that. Will he make it back safely? Will his son Telemachus outwit the lazy suitors of his mother Penelope, who by hanging around the palace and eating all his food are slowly draining away their resources (and plotting to murder him)? And will poor Argo the dog ever see his master again? The story has inspired everything from Virgil’s Aeneid to Joyce to O Brother, Where Art Thou.

So, what makes this edition the one to read, when there’s dozens of translations out there. Penguin Classics has this, plus a prose translation by E.V. Rieu in print, not to mention acclaimed translations by Richard Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald or Alan Mandlebaum. What sets this one apart? For one, I wanted a verse translation (goodbye Rieu) and I wanted one with a detailed introduction. I wanted something with some notes and maybe a postscript, but I didn’t need critical reactions. I was hoping for something a little contemporary. Both Fitzgerald and Lattimore’s translations were written over 40 years ago, but Fagles came out in 1996 and I found it a little fresher feeling.It did the trick for me: his translation is the strongest thing in this book’s favor: it’s accessible, detailed and fun to read, especially out loud, which is how this should be read. He doesn’t stray from the Greek names, but he does transliterate them a bit: for example, it’s Calypso, not Kalypso and Odysseus, not Ulysses.

I was also impressed by the long and informative introduction supplied by Bernard Knox, which covers nearly everything you want to know about the poem and more. Knox works back from the current day to what we know about the origins of the poem and, surprisingly, how it was all but lost for centuries when people stopped reading Greek; Dante only knew him through Virgil, which explains his appearance in Inferno. He breaks down it’s oral traditions, it’s characterization and more, referring to criticism that goes as far back as On the Sublime and as recent as Singer of Tales.

It’s a helpful introduction to the Homeric world that helps neophytes understand a little more about the context for the poem, but doesn’t spell it out for you the reader, either. I don’t always recommend reading an introduction before diving into an unfamiliar book, since they often assume prior knowledge and give away the plot, but this is a good exception. And it actually got me interested enough that I’ve picked up some of the books listed in the further reading section (check back someday for reviews on H.D.F. Kitto’s The Greeks and M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus).

Rating: 9/10. I don’t think there’s really a good excuse not to read Homer if you’re serious about reading. His influence over culture is everywhere and even if you’ve never heard of him before, you’ve probably picked up elements of this story over the years. And even if you were taught The Odyssey in high school (although I didn’t read it until after college), I can’t recommend reading it again as an adult. It’s absolutely fucking timeless and the most accessible of all the ancient fictions. Forget whatever O Magazine recommends, this will make a rad summer read.


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