Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 2, 2018

Iliad and Odyssey. Yet More in Realms of Gold

All readers have That List: those books — few or many — they’ve always intended to read.

It may not be a written list. All the same, those books are there, waiting.

I recently read two books that’ve spent decades on my list: The Iliad and The Odyssey, written in about 850 B.C.E. by the Greek poet, Homer.

In short, I found The Iliad and The Odyssey to be more than worth the modest effort to read. In fact, it was little effort whatsoever. Rather, it was an enormous pleasure to discover them. Now I understand why they were a raging success in the ancient world, and why they’re still touted not just as mankind’s first literature, but great literary works.

Many of you already knew this. For any of you who haven’t read them, I recommend the experience. Here’s some of what I learned.

Challenges?

Yes, there are some obstacles.

It’s Poetry

It’s an antique poetic form: unrhymed dactyllic meter. For most of us, some translator will have done the work of rendering it into a modern language in a manner that may or may not attempt to capture some sense of Homer’s line. The translator of the version of Iliad I read was primarily a scholar. The translator of my Odyssey, a poet who emphasized the importance of recreating some degree of Homer’s metrical line. I enjoyed both. As for language, I enjoyed my poet’s rendition of the verse a bit more, but both adequately showed that the original language, composed orally 2,800 years ago, was powerful, indeed.

It’s Another World

All the cultural, attitudinal and interpersonal frameworks of the stories come from an unrecognizable, alien experience. Relationships, culture, religion all followed rules and conventions different from ours. One is often forced to rely on an editor’s notes to grasp exactly why some situation represents a conflict for characters, or why some things matter so very much.

Underlying those differences, though, are human beings instantly recognizable for their human qualities: pride, honor, lust, greed, courage, intelligence, craftiness. Homer breathes genuine life into his characters, and they are not at all the wooden, archetypal forms one might expect from such an ancient book.

Those GODS!

Gods are always a problem. And the gods have a lot to do with what happens in both stories. They’re capricious, nasty, selfish, quick to anger, slow to forgive, and they do whatever the heck they want. After all, they’re gods!

Here, there may be a lesson for us into how an ancient culture structured their universe. Life is full of inexplicable tragedy, shock, surprise and disappointment. Why not blame the gods?

VIOLENCE!

Both poems are shockingly violent. In the course of the two poems, thousands of people die in nearly every way available to the 9th century B.C.E., including being eaten by monsters. In the climactic scene in Ithaca, Odysseus, Telemachus and a couple of loyal retainers lock the doors of the palace and polish off all 108 of Penelope’s suitors. With extreme prejudice. Homer’s endlessly inventive in dispensing mayhem. I don’t know if this is a positive or negative aspect of the stories. It was clearly an elemental fact of ancient life.

STORY! NARRATIVE! COMPLEXITY!

Friends, these are tremendous stories. If you’ve never read these poems, they are almost certainly different than how you imagine them. There are multiple intersecting narrative lines, interweaving conflicts, dialogue, interior monologues, flashbacks …. I was taken aback by the sophistication and complexity of the storytelling, especially The Odyssey.

In The Odyssey, we get much more than the long drama of Odysseus’ return home to Ithaca from Troy, although that’s an excellent tale. In fact, we only hear about most of his journey in the midst of a later scene when he relates it to a group of listeners. Circling that retelling are multiple threads to follow regarding the life of his son, Telemachus and his wife, Penelope, who’ve been waiting 20 years for Odysseus to return.

The multiple points of view, narrative line and the way Homer moves back and forth between present and past stunned me. I expected a straightforward, rather episodic relation of “and then that happened, and then this happened.” Homer shows us what’s happening in Ithaca, then follows Telemachus on a journey, then leaves Telemachus in the middle of that journey to go see what his father is up to in some unknown part of the ocean. Suddenly we’re on Olympus and the gods are about to change all the rules. Because they’re gods! Inexplicable storms, wars, disease, lightning ensue.

Weaving back and forth, both in time and space, Homer keeps us guessing — even now, when we think we’ve heard this story before.

That’s a Thumbs Up

Reading Iliad and Odyssey shattered every preconceived notion I had about them. I was entirely wrong about the first: It’s only about events during a short period in the ninth year of the Trojan War, not the entire conflict.

For the second, I thought the stories of Telemachus and Penelope were ancillary to the tale of Odysseus’ journey. In fact, they’re as fully drawn, central characters as he is. There’s an argument to be made that it’s really Penelope’s story, and everything else is to be viewed in perspective against her unwearying, indomitable loyalty and love.

There are countless translations and renditions of these stories in poetry, prose, film and drama. I don’t know how one chooses which to study. I had multiple versions available from my library, made my selection, and I’m happy with them.

I suggest you choose a version with some substantive introduction as well as text notes. Homer’s world is remarkably different from ours, and there’s a great deal to explore. Here’s what I chose.

The Iliad, translation, introduction and notes by Barry B. Powell, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014

The Odyssey, translated by Edward McCrorie, edited by Richard P. Martin, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2004

Having read my share of epic poetry, I’m happy to finally have sailed the wine-dark sea and seen rosy-fingered dawn.

© Brad Nixon 2018

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Responses

  1. I was fortunate to be signed up for the pilot “Classical Studies” course in high school and that was a fabulous course I am still benefiting from 35 years later. My copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey are translations by E.V. Rieu which I’ve read over and over without ever thinking to look for other editions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mark. Almost every reader of literature in English must have encountered at least one Penguin Classic listing Professor Rieu as “General Editor.” You inspired me to read something about him. He initially made his mark with those translations of Homer, and, yes, they’re still classics in themselves. His “Odyssey” (1946) was the birth of Penguin Classics. Perhaps when I REREAD Odyssey, I’ll investigate Prof. Rieu’s.

      Like

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful, fun and inspiring review. I’m putting them on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was required to read both as part of an advanced English college prep class in high school which was a LONG time ago. I do remember enjoying them. We read a lot of Greek (and other) mythology that year. Reading stories like these helps us to better understand various references in all sorts of literature. The benefits of reading classic literature are endless!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good for your school, and good for you, maintaining that awareness of how what you’ve read frames the world. You had a decades-long head start on me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember that you began this voyage a couple of months ago when you wrote about your list then. Congrats on your completion.

    Surprisingly, I have no list. Considering that I used to write professionally for a living, some may find this confession remarkable.

    My book reading is a rather unstructured affair. I discover a book in the course of my reading articles online or in print magazines that I think might be interesting. I then order it and read it. I have amassed a sort of queue in this way. But it’s never been a preordained list, and there’s no particular order of importance to the queue. Whatever strikes me at the time, I just dive in.

    Bon voyage!

    Like

    • It’s still a list. Ad hoc counts. Just because the list is fluid doesn’t negate it’s existence. A worthwhile observation. Thanks.

      Like

      • Ok, Leonard, it’s a sfumato list then. 😹

        Liked by 1 person


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