Sunday, December 15, 2013

BACK TO THE CLASSICS REVIEW: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

I’m sorry to say that I won’t be able to complete two of the optional categories in the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge this year, but I have just turned the last page on my final book from the required categories. For the pre-18th century classic, I chose The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles.

I’ve read various versions/re-imaginings of The Odyssey before. It’s one of those stories I never really grow tired of hearing, along with The Iliad. The Iliad is more heart-wrenching and is my favorite of the two. But Odysseus’ adventures are inspiring. His need to just get home is so understandable. And Penelope’s faithfulness, cleverness, and despair-turned-to-joy are lovely to read about when so many of the women in the old Greek stories are portrayed so unpleasantly.

Still, it was time for me to read Homer’s version rather than condensed or novelized forms. The Odyssey is a beautifully rich and rambling journey through the narrative of Odysseus’ multi-year effort to return to Ithaca from Troy. It details the trials he was put through because of the anger of the gods, including, ultimately, the loss of his crew. Meanwhile, a horde of young men have descended upon his home to woo his beautiful wife. They are eating him out of house and home and devaluing the inheritance of his son, Telemachus. His wife, Penelope, has put the suitors off by means of a clever ruse for a few years, but her time has run out.

Meanwhile, Telemachus has grown to manhood. Unfortunately, he has not the strength or support to run the suitors off. It’s gotten to the point where he would just as soon have his mother choose one of the suitors so that the others would leave and let him keep what is left of his inheritance. But, what if his father is still alive?

At the urging of Athena, Telemachus sets off to visit Odysseus’ old comrades-in-arms to see if they might have any word of what has happened to him. This keeps him busy for the last few months of his father’s wandering. He is hastily summoned home by the goddess just as his father does return. Then, he and his father take their revenge on the suitors.

In the course of Telemachus’ voyage and Odysseus’ last few stops and return home, there is quite a bit of recounting just what all has been going on with everyone since the fall of Troy. There is even some reminiscing about the bad old days in Troy. Odysseus talks about how he had to go down to the Underworld where he met up with some of the dead warriors. They, too, talked about happenings since Troy. It’s a very full story. An interesting story. If you love these old Greek myths and legends, it seems everyone gets a mention in one way or another.

When Odysseus is home at last, and places himself in the way of the suitors, they heap abuse upon him. The story now moves quickly. Homer makes his villains behave so foully toward Odysseus that the reader (or listener) is ready for the retribution planned by the gods and executed by Odysseus and Telemachus. It’s swift, brutal, and gory.

Novelized or condensed versions of this book that I’ve read straighten out the chronology and remove a lot of the repetitiveness. They are easier to read and, for this modern reader, more emotionally engaging. Homer meanders. There is a little too much repetition of events and of set phrases: young dawn’s rosy red fingers or Penelope wailing about the cursed city of Troy that she calls desTroy. Although it’s lovely the first and second time, after awhile I started to feel like "I’ve read this already." Or "Odysseus, you’ve told this story already. Twice. Let’s move on." And yet even so, the book is captivating. Even with knowing how it is all going to end.

It’s a wonderful book to have read once. I know I’ll continue to seek out re-tellings of the tale, but I doubt I will re-read this one. However, I will eventually read Homer’s Iliad.

The Back to the Classics Challenge was hosted by Sarah Reads too Much.


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