The Door in the Mountain is a retelling of the Minotaur myth told from the points of view of Ariadne, traditionally the young Minoan princess who, smi
The Door in the Mountain is a retelling of the Minotaur myth told from the points of view of Ariadne, traditionally the young Minoan princess who, smitten with love for the Athenian Theseus, aids him in killing the Minotaur, and Chara, her slave, who is a creation of the author.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. Like HM Hoover’s The Dawn Palace, an interpretation of Medea, Sweet has given believable motivations to her protagonists, even if – in Ariadne’s case – they make her the villain [which kind of bums me out because I’ve always harbored a soft spot for Ariadne, considering her fate in the traditional version]. I understand why Ariadne becomes the person she does but I hope Sweet grants her some redemption in the sequel(s).
The novel is categorized as YA. I would amend that to “older” YA. There’s an episode where Ariadne willingly participates in torture that some parents might consider too disturbing for their children.
I would recommend Sweet’s interpretation, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Flame in the Maze....more
Merlin is Robert Nye's irreverent, raunchy and often lyrical (Nye's a poet) take on the Arthur legend. Many scenes reminded me of John Boorman's "ExcaMerlin is Robert Nye's irreverent, raunchy and often lyrical (Nye's a poet) take on the Arthur legend. Many scenes reminded me of John Boorman's "Excalibur." To take one example: Arthur and Mordred's fight at their last battle:
Mordred in black armour rode to kill the king. King Arthur ran at Mordred with his spear so that the spear went right through Mordred's body and out the other side.
"Father! My father!" Mordred cries. He thrusts himself forwards along the spear that is killing him. He drags himself on. He crawls slowly, hanging by his wound. He hauls himself inch by inch to reach the king (p. 210).
If you've seen Boorman's film, that should bring to mind the very similar point where Arthur and Mordred meet in battle:
Which is not say that the book (first published in 1978) and the movie (1981) are at all alike. They are very different versions of the Once and Future King's reign.
I came across this book while perusing Merlin's page on Wikipedia. If you prefer your Arthur legends more respectful in tone and execution (and less sexually explicit, e.g., "Sir Gawain and the Sleeve Job"), then this book is not for you. However, I found it enjoyable and would recommend it....more
A Short History of Myth lives up to its title but despite its brevity is well worth reading. It’s an extended introductory essay to the Canongate MythA Short History of Myth lives up to its title but despite its brevity is well worth reading. It’s an extended introductory essay to the Canongate Myth series, several volumes of which I’ve read: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, and A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, respectively, reinterpretations of The Odyssey, the Atlas myth, and the Viking Apocalypse.(1)
Armstrong asserts that myths are timeless stories that define what life is about. They answer questions such as why are we here? what is our relationship to the divine? where do we come from?, etc. They may arise from an actual event but aren’t bound by historical narrative. One of the examples Armstrong uses is Jesus Christ. As a man, it’s well established that Jesus lived in 1st century AD Palestine, claimed to be a messiah, and that the Romans executed him. As the Christ, his message became fodder for Paul’s mythologizing, transcending the historical fact of his existence. From this point of view, it’s not essential that Jesus existed. [But that’s a topic for another book and not central to what Armstrong is talking about here.]
Back to myths in general...
Myths are often characterized by a concern with death and our fear of (personal) extinction. They’re intimately connected with rituals, without which they become meaningless or (at best) entertaining stories (a la TV’s Xena). The most influential myths force their protagonists (and, thus, us) to go beyond their experiences. Myths also show us how to behave.(2) And, finally, myths reflect the higher reality of which we can only catch glimpses (in ecstatic trances or via drugs, for example). The “truth” of a myth lies in its effectiveness. As Armstrong writes, “[i]f it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth” (p. 10).
In the Introduction, Armstrong mentions modern society’s near total alienation from myth, which she’ll return to at the conclusion. In between, she divides mythological development into six periods:
1. Paleolithic (pre-agriculture) 2. Neolithic (agriculture) 3. Beginning of urban civilization (Sumer, etc.) 4. Axial Age 5. Post-Axial (up to the Reformation in Europe) 6. Post-Reformation Europe
Paleolithic myth(3) arose out of a desire to reconcile humanity with the violence by which they survived in the world – i.e., by hunting. Armstrong argues that in these earliest myths the “hero” was born. A person who faces the prospect of death and undergoes an arduous journey to return to his people with gifts and wisdom. She mentions Herakles and Artemis as most likely arising from this tradition. The chief divinity at this point, appears to have been a goddess figure (though this doesn’t imply that humans lived in a matriarchy, as some have argued).
Why should a goddess have become so dominant in an aggressively male society? This may be due to an unconscious resentment of the female. The goddess of Catal Huyuk gives birth eternally, but her partner, the bull, must die. Hunters risked their lives to support their women and children. The guilt and anxiety induced by hunting, combined with frustration resulting from ritual celibacy, could have been projected onto the image of a powerful woman, who demands endless bloodshed. The hunters could see that women were the source of new life; it was they – not the expendable males – who ensured the continuity of the tribe. The female thus became an awe-inspiring icon of life itself – a life that required the ceaseless sacrifice of men and animals. (p. 39)
The Agricultural Revolution didn’t displace the goddess but humans adapted their hunting myths to reflect a new understanding of their relationship with the Earth. The goddess assumed more maternal and nurturing aspects. She still represented – at times – the implacable and fatal aspects of life but she was now also a force of creation. Armstrong concludes her Neolithic chapter with the suggestion that humans were able to find a sense of optimism absent in Paleolithic myths: “The initiation at Eleusis showed that the confrontation with death led to spiritual regeneration, and was a form of human pruning…. [I]t could enable you to live more fearlessly and therefore more fully her on earth, looking death calmly in the face. Indeed, every day we are forced to die to the self we have already achieved. In the Neolithic period too, the myths and rituals of passage helped people to accept their mortality, to pass on to the next stage, and to have the courage to change and grow” (p. 57).
The advent of cities caused yet another fundamental change in myth. Humans were gaining ever greater (though still precarious) control over their destinies and growing ever more alienated from Nature. And the gods reflected that new distance. Myths arose or were adapted to celebrate and justify cities, writing, bureaucracy, and the other appurtenances of civilization. Another interesting development was the increasing prominence of human agents, as in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which challenged the traditional mythology of the Mother Goddess and asserted that it was best for gods and humans to remain apart.
The loss of the old certainties embodied in Neolithic mythology led to the spiritual crisis that ushered in the Axial Age (beginning around 800 BC). “[The Axial Age] marks the beginning of religion as we know it” (p. 79). In terms of myths, they became more introspective and often had an ethical cast. And the gods (or God in the case of the Jews) continued to become more remote. It became impossible to experience the sacred in everyday life; only through breaking down the normal consciousness could people contact the divine. In this section of the book, Armstrong reviews the varying responses China, India, Israel and the Greeks developed in response.
And their responses (including the later developments of Christianity and Islam) held true until the 16th century AD, when Europe entered the Modern Era, a chief aspect of which “was the death of mythology” (p. 119):
The Western achievement relied on the triumph of the pragmatic, scientific spirit. Efficiency was the new watchword. Everything had to work. A new idea or an invention had to be capable of rational proof and be shown to confirm to the external worlds. Unlike myth, logos must correspond to facts; it is essentially practical; it is the mode of thought we use when we want to get something done; it constantly looks ahead to achieve a greater control over our environment or to discover something fresh….
But logos had never been able to provide human begins with the sense of significance that they seemed to require. It had been myth that had given structure and meaning to life, but as modernization progressed and logos achieved such spectacular results, mythology was increasingly discredited. As early at the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place. We are seeing a similar anomie today in developing countries that are still in the earlier stages of modernization (pp. 121-2).(4)
The loss of mythology has made it difficult for people to face the unspeakable, though not for want of trying. Art, music, drugs, films and more: all attempts to recapture the certitude and significance that mythology had formerly supplied. “But there is something unbalanced about this adulation. The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves. Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation. We no longer know how to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and transformative” (p. 135).
In the last few pages of the book, Armstrong calls for new myths (or – as we shall see – myth-like stories) that will help us identify with our fellow humans, realize the importance of compassion, create a spiritual attitude that challenges individual selfishness, and venerates the Earth as something more than a resource to be exploited. As she writes, “unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet” (p. 137).
She also connects this extended essay to the purpose of the Canongate myth series: Using the novel as a means of achieving what myth had done for our ancestors. She likens the reading of a book to meditation since readers have to live for a while in a world outside of their lives and – in a good novel – find themselves a different person when the experience is over.
A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world (p. 149)
I would recommend taking a look at this book. It packs a lot into a small package, and there’s much that Armstrong can only assert without being able to back it up with extensive argument, but I think many of her points are defensible and much in her analysis of what’s wrong with our world, true.
1. My favorite is Weight but can recommend the other two as well. 2. This is not necessarily ethical behavior. The earliest myths are more concerned with ritual purity and preparing the listener for the afterlife, among other things. Morality – as we understand the term – would only become an integral part of mythology with the Axial Age. 3. I should mention that Armstrong’s focus in this short book is on West Asian mythology, though she’ll mention in passing other cultures. 4. I would say the “developed countries” are still attempting to cope with the modern world....more
Jocasta falls just short of three stars for two reasons, which I’ll detail below.
First, a precis: The novel recasts the myRating: Two-and-a-half stars
Jocasta falls just short of three stars for two reasons, which I’ll detail below.
First, a precis: The novel recasts the myth of Oedipus as told from the titular character’s point of view (hopefully, I shouldn’t have to recount the traditional version of the myth?). Though the authors have elected to largely abandon any supernatural elements, (view spoiler)[ for example, the Sphinx is Melanthe, the half-Egyptian Maenad priestess of Dionysus, who poses the potentially fatal riddles to the suitors who come to Thebes after Laius’ death, (hide spoiler)] there’s the Tiresias (the prophetic mouthpiece of Apollo), who does seem to channel a divine will when she (he) utters her (his) dooms.
The Tiresias prophesizes that fourteen-year-old Jocasta will be queen of Thebes and marry its most famous king. She is chosen for Alphenor, the heir-apparent to Thebes’ rulers Amphion and Niobe. But on the night of the betrothal, Niobe blasphemes, the Tiresias curses the family, and all but one of the royal children die. The next day, Amphion is torn apart by a mob, and Niobe goes mad. Jocasta and her family are at a loss, especially in light of the prophecy, but things soon appear to be looking up when Laius, a son of a former Theban king, returns from exile in Pelops’ city of Pisa (Olympia), claiming the throne and Jocasta. The night of the wedding things do go well. Jocasta falls in lust at the sight of Laius, and Laius reciprocates the feeling. But soon after the couple consummates the marriage the prophetess tells Laius that any son of his will kill him. The king attempts to repudiate Jocasta but he has no cause, and – of course – she’s already pregnant with Oedipus. Nine months later, the newborn is torn from Jocasta’s arms and Laius has it exposed, or believes that the man he sends to do it, has done it. The novel passes over the next twenty years quickly. Laius continues to send tribute to Pelops and, living in fear of conceiving a son, never touches Jocasta again. Though Laius proves a most inept king, Jocasta and her brother Creon rule the city, and make it prosperous despite the tribute.
The story picks up when Laius decides to consult the Delphic oracle. As in the traditional version, he meets an unrecognized Oedipus on the way to Delphi, there’s an altercation, and Oedipus kills him. Subsequently, Creon organizes a competition in Thebes to find a new husband for his sister: Whoever can answer the riddles of Melanthe, the Maenad high priestess, will become the next king of the city. Oedipus shows up to participate, and as with Laius, Jocasta is smitten at first sight. Because Oedipus is the supposed son of Corinth’s king and an alliance with that city would counter the power of Pelops, Creon conspires to ensure that the youth wins the contest.
Again, the next two decades are glossed: Jocasta and Oedipus rule an ever more fortunate Thebes, and they have four beautiful children: Antigone, Ismene, and the twins Eteocles and Polynikes. And then everything goes sour when Jocasta’s relationship with her husband comes out.
Why not three stars (or more)?
One reason is the writing. It’s just “meh” – competent but not particularly beautiful or elegant. And there are anachronisms that jar the reader out of the early Iron Age setting, making her wonder if a Mycenaean Greek would have actually said that.
I could have forgiven such clumsiness, however – as I have with other authors – if Jocasta had been a more compelling character, but she has no arc. The child of the first chapter is not all that different from the fifty-plus-year-old woman of the final chapter. Jocasta comes across as rather clueless and passive, particularly in the hands of her brother, whose personal ambitions, machinations and political acumen are what keep Thebes strong. I can accept that a fourteen-year-old girl, growing up insulated from the hurly-burly of politics, would be at sea when suddenly thrust onto center stage. But if I’m to continue to be interested in her at all, she has to show some maturation over the course of the twenty and forty years that the last two-thirds of the novel encompass. It’s difficult to see that in this version of Jocasta.
I was impressed by how the authors euhemerized the myth. It worked for me, though I’m still puzzled about the role of the Tiresias, the one ambiguously supernatural element. In the end, though, the book reads like a first or (at best) second draft. There’s a potentially interesting character in Jocasta, and you can see the glimmerings of potential in Cleon’s and Oedipus’ but they’re not drawn sufficiently well to make me recommend the book. On the other hand, if you like this genre (as I do), it may be just good enough to warrant a perusal.
 Tiresias is a title for the blinded person who speaks for Apollo. In the beginning, the post is held by an old woman. When she dies, her successor is Jocasta’s father, Menoeceus.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
R.K. Narayan’s abridged, prose version of India’s national epic, The Mahabharata, is concise, fast paced, well written, and – unfortunately – passionlR.K. Narayan’s abridged, prose version of India’s national epic, The Mahabharata, is concise, fast paced, well written, and – unfortunately – passionless. Narayan has excised nearly everything not directly related to the Pandavas (Yudhistira, Bhima, Arjuna, and Nakula and Sahadeva) and their wife, Draupadi. In the process, he’s also stripped the story of any emotional power. For the most part, it’s like reading a book summary rather than a proper story. For example, there’s the chapter that has come down to us as The Bhagavad Gita, one of the more profound scriptures by anyone’s reckoning. In Narayan’s telling, it’s reduced to:
When Arjuna fell into a silence after exhausting his feelings, Krishna quietly said, “You are stricken with grief at the thought of those who deserve no consideration.”
Krishna then began to preach in gentle tones, a profound philosophy of detached conduct. He analyzed the categories and subtle qualities of the mind that give rise to different kinds of action and responses. He defined the true nature of personality, its scope and stature in relation to society, the world, and God, and of existence and death. He expounded yoga of different types, and how one should realize the deathlessness of the soul encased in the perishable physical body. Again and again Krishna emphasized the importance of performing one’s duty with detachment in a spirit of dedication. Arjuna listened reverently, now and then interrupting to clear a doubt or to seek an elucidation. Krishna answered all his questions with the utmost grace, and finally granted him a grand vision of his real stature. Krishna, whom he had taken to be his companion, suddenly stood transformed – he was God himself, multidimensional and all-pervading.
Time, creatures, friends and foes alike were absorbed in the great being whose stature spanned the space between sky and earth, and extended from horizon to horizon. Birth, death, slaughter, protection, and every activity seemed to be a part of this being, nothing existed beyond it. Creation, destruction, actity and inactivity all formed a part and parcel of this grand being, whose vision filled Arjuna with terror and ecstasy. He cried out, “Now I understand!”
The God declared, “I am death, I am destruction. These men who stand before you are already slain through their own karma, you will be only an instrument of their destruction.”
“O Great God,” said Arjuna, “my weakness has passed. I have no more doubts in my mind.” And he lifted his bow, ready to face the battle. Krishna then resumed his mortal appearance. (pp. 147-8)
If all you’re looking for is a readable English synopsis of the epic, then I would recommend this book. But if you’re looking for an English version that captures the gravitas of the original, you won’t find it here....more
Not much more to say here than I did in my review of volume 1, A Thousand Ships, except that his plot for this chapter closely follows Michael KakogiaNot much more to say here than I did in my review of volume 1, A Thousand Ships, except that his plot for this chapter closely follows Michael Kakogiannis's Iphigenia (which is not a bad thing, I liked that film).
Children of Morrow was a favorite when I was younger. It’s a post-apocalypse YA novel about two mutant children who flee the murderous intentions of tChildren of Morrow was a favorite when I was younger. It’s a post-apocalypse YA novel about two mutant children who flee the murderous intentions of their village’s mayor and his henchman. I reread it about a decade ago and found that it held up rather well. It was thus that when I resolved to read The Dawn Palace (part of my recent fixation with Greek myths – see my reviews of The Iliad (Mitchell trans.), The Odyssey (Fagles trans.), For Her Dark Skin (Everett), Ransom (Malouf) and Medea (Wolf), among others) I was confident that I would like the story.
I’m happy to report that not only did I like the story, I liked it a lot. I thought this was one of the better interpretations of the Jason/Medea legend, and – despite its target audience of older YAs – it can appeal to adults as well.
Hoover wisely – I think – elects to make Medea a 14-year-old girl, and Jason is not many years older. She is the daughter of Asterodeia, the daughter of Helios the sun god, and Aeëtes, an expatriate Corinthian, who is king of Colchis from his marriage to her. The novel opens when Medea is five and sees a vision of her mother departing. Come the morning, she finds the court in mourning because Asterodeia has apparently died during the night. I say “apparently” because the child discovers that the covered body is not her mother’s. Asterodeia has gone back to her father, leaving Aeëtes to rule as regent for Medea (so she thinks). The years pass. Medea’s aunt Circe teaches her about herbs, magic and other knowledge astrally, visiting her in dreams and taking her to a timeless place where they she can study and learn undistracted. This is a time of change, however. The ancient matriarchal dynasties and the goddess-centered religion are being displaced by patriarchs and the male-centered Olympian pantheon. Aeëtes has remarried and plans to put Apsyrtus, the son of that union, on the throne. Medea learns of the betrayal shortly before Colchis is honored by the arrival of Jason and his Argonauts. Hurt, betrayed and feeling lost, Medea falls hard for the charming, unscrupulous and handsome Greek. Subsequently, the story departs from the received version (i.e., Euripides’) of the legend by making Jason solely responsible for killing Apsyrtus and it is he who murders his and Medea’s children. But it doesn’t exonerate Medea. Before she finally realizes his true nature, she does great evil because of her love for the man.
Outside of the author’s take on the myth, there were two things that made this book so enjoyable for me, and those are Hoover’s characterizations of Hercules and Medea. Hercules’ and Medea’s paths cross three times. The first time they meet is near Troy, which Hercules has sacked because Laomedon, its king, had cheated him:
The dark form moved. Living wood creaked and broke. Rocks chinked and sparks flew. Flames licked up and grew bright, and the smell of burning cedar pitch mingled with the salt air. When he raised the flaming fatwood brand, she saw him clearly.
The arm that held the impromptu torch was thicker than her waist. He was nearly seven feet tall and heavily muscled. As a cape, he wore the dried-out, shabby pelt of a huge lion. Its head served as his helmet. His face was framed by the teeth left in the lion’s grotesquely dislocated jaws. His nose had been repeatedly broken; his dark eyes were fever-bright. His own dark hair, the dead beast’s mane, and his red beard seemed all tangled into one bushy mass. The pelt’s forepaws were fastened to his leather breastplate. The hind legs and tail flapped at the back of his bare knees. A belt secured a leather apron at his waist and also held the widest sword she’d ever seen. (pp. 129-30)
He warns her that Jason will betray her just as he betrayed him because they are both children of the gods, and promises to be a friend when that day comes. A promise that greatly disturbs Medea as she realizes he is on the knife-edge of madness and despair.
Their second meeting occurs several years later. She and Jason and their children have found succor in Corinth with Creon, its king. Hercules’ madness “was more evident now. His throat moved as if he were carrying on an angry internal dialogue, obsessed by old injustices” (p. 178). He reiterates his friendship for her and that he’ll help when Jason inevitably abandons her.
The final time they meet, Medea has fled Corinth, finally recognizing Jason for what he is and taking her revenge against him, Creon and Glauce. Hercules has murdered Deianeira, his wife, and his children. He’s holed up in his palace and so sunk into madness that “[h]e sat naked and hunched up, his huge arms hugging his knees so tightly that his muscles bulged and strained. His eyes were wide and unfocused; his jaws clenched, his throat working. As she watched, appalled, he began to rock in that spastic frenzy peculiar to lunatics. Faster and faster he rocked, until his heels were lifting higher with each backward lunge, and he finally tipped over and fell sideways, his head thudding against the roof” (pp. 203-4). She nurses him back to physical and mental health, and finds that – in the end – he can’t protect her and she must find the strength in herself to salvage what she can of her life.
Hoover humanizes the elemental force of nature that is Hercules and makes the reader sympathize with his plight – a man who set out to do good in the world but whose every action turns out horribly wrong.
As with Hercules, so with Medea. Over the course of the novel, Hoover creates a complex, believable and sympathetic character. As I mentioned, she commits evil but she’s also capable of good, and it’s never simply a question of doing the right thing since there’s no act she can do that won’t have maleficent consequences. I don’t have any specific passages that could illustrate my point. It’s a matter of the author’s ability to flesh out Medea’s character throughout the story but it works. Even more so than Hercules, Hoover’s Medea is a fully human person who readers empathize with even if they can’t always condone what she does.
There are two further points I wanted to mention before closing out this review. The first is Hoover’s treatment of gods and magic. There certainly is an element of the supernatural; I’ve already mentioned how Circe visits Medea astrally. But, otherwise, the gods and magic are more noticeable in their absence. Much of Medea’s power comes from greater knowledge of the physical world. For example, she murders Glauce and Creon with a dress and crown seeded with white phosphorus. Her murder of Pelias is accomplished with stage magic and duplicity. And her skill as a physician, not spells, saves lives. I wasn’t sure if this worked when I first read the novel but upon reflection I think it does, for the most part. I personally like the ambiguity of not knowing if the gods exist or to what extent – if they do – that they interfere in human affairs.
The second point is that if there is a weakness in this novel it’s that the author compresses the second half of the story (after Jason and Medea reach Greece), and it feels rushed and incomplete. I would have liked 50-100 pages more devoted to Medea’s life in Greece so that its sudden disruption would have had as much emotional “oomph” as the events of the first part.
That aside, this novel comes highly recommended by yours truly (I’ll be sending a copy to my niece for her birthday), and it makes me intrigued about Hoover’s other work. Children of Morrow had already proved she could be an interesting writer but if her other work matches The Dawn Palace, I’m even more interested in seeking out her stuff....more
Note that in what follows all book and line references are to the Fagles translation.
In the classic Star Trek episode “Errand of Mercy” there is a sceNote that in what follows all book and line references are to the Fagles translation.
In the classic Star Trek episode “Errand of Mercy” there is a scene toward the end that my readings of The Iliad and The Odyssey brought to mind and prompted the comment made in the Comments earlier, i.e., “the Klingons are ancient Greeks.” The Organians have revealed themselves to be super-evolved, incorporeal beings and have put a stop to the “insane war,” as Ayelborne calls it, the Klingons and the Federation have begun. Kirk begins a self-righteous (and hypocritical) rant that the Organians have no right to interfere with relations between the warring parties before Ayelborne stops him in mid-tirade with the observation that he is claiming the right to wage war on an interplanetary scale, slaughtering millions (if not billions, considering the technology). Kirk stops, pauses and says, “Well, no one wants war.” At which absurdity, Kor, the Klingon commander (played by John Colicos) gives Kirk a look of utter disbelief. Later Kor expresses his regret that he and Kirk will not have a chance to fight and ruefully comments, “It would have been glorious.”
Here’s a link to the scene I’ve described on YouTube; note Kor’s look and how, later, he lovingly lingers on the word “glorious.”
This sentiment the Klingons will still hold a century later as in this episode (forget the title) of DS9: It’s the end of the Dominion War, and Sisko, the Federation admiral (can’t remember his name) and General Martok are celebrating the defeat of the Dominion and the Cardassians. Martok makes a toast to the killing of their enemies but he’s nonplussed when the Federation officers only half-heartedly join in. How can you not celebrate the glorious slaughter just ended, he wonders?
I bring up these examples because it occurred to me that the warrior ethos of the Achaeans would have suited the Klingons quite well. Both cultures value war – the proof of a man’s character is in his ability to fight well, capture prizes, and slay his enemies. Some Klingons are by nature Achillean, e.g., Kang; some are Odyssean, e.g., Koloth. But they all would have felt at home in Bronze Age Greece.
Alas, none of this has much to do with this review of Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey, it’s only something that struck me as I read and didn’t play a large role in how I responded to the story. Nevertheless, any chance to horn in a Star Trek reference is not to be missed (an observation I’ve made elsewhere).
As to The Odyssey, a little background is in order. Several years ago, I mentioned in my review of the Audio CD of Gilgamesh that I had not read the great, foundational classics of the Western Canon: Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey. I’m still avoiding The Aeneid, The Song of Roland and The Canterbury Tales, though I have a modern English version of the latter on my To Read shelf and I’ve contemplated getting Fagles’ translation of Virgil. For the most part, I’ve caught snippets of these works over the course of my academic life or I’ve watched their watered-down versions on TV or at the movies (if available). (view spoiler)[In celebration of finishing the book, I watched the 1955 Italian version (titled “Ulysses”) with Kirk Douglas and Sylvana Mangano (yowza!). It wasn’t bad. It followed the story more closely than I thought it would, though it glossed over the murder of the maids at the end, combined the characters of Circe and Calypso, and made Odysseus’ philandering a result of amnesia or, in the case of Circe, her resemblance to Penelope. (hide spoiler)] So I was surprised to find that, of the 24 books, only eight dealt with the adventures most Americans are familiar with – the cyclopes, Circe’s island, the Sirens, etc. The first four books don’t even concern Odysseus at all; they’re an account of Telemachus’ visits to Nestor and Menelaus to search out news of his father. Fully half of the poem (books 13-24) occurs after Odysseus returns to Ithaca and recounts his schemes to reveal his identity and take revenge on the suitors.
Going into this review, I thought that I preferred The Iliad but now I’d have to say it’s a toss up. I’ve found that both speak eloquently to me but about different things.(1) Where The Iliad is a brilliant examination of the loathing and attraction we feel toward violence and the personal costs of war (see, for example, Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning or Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel for more contemporary perspectives), The Odyssey became a tale of a family recovering from war’s effects(2) and the importance of personal narrative.
As to the first theme, there are three axial characters around which the story revolves. The most often forgotten is Telemachus, Penelope’s and Odysseus’ son, still in his swaddling clothes when Odysseus left but now a full grown:
Telemachus’ story is of a young man trying to find out who he is. Consider that he’s been raised by an over-protective mother (1.409-14), old nurses and his father’s aging retainers. There’s a scene where Telemachus expresses doubts about his parentage to Athena (disguised as Mentes, a visitor to Odysseus’ house):
And young Telemachus cautiously replied, / “I’ll try, my friend to give you a frank answer. / Mother has always told me I’m his son, it’s true, / but I am not so certain. Who, on his own, / has ever really known who gave him life? / Would to god I’d been the son of a happy man / whom old age overtook in the midst of his possessions! / Now, think of the most unlucky mortal ever born – / since you ask me, yes, they say I am his son (1.247-55).
Telemachus isn’t expressing actual doubts as to who his father is. He’s looking at his life and what he’s accomplished and asking himself, “How can I claim to be Odysseus’ son when I allow these suitors to plunder his house?” So off he goes to see if he can discover news of his father, and in the process discovers himself:
Enough. Don’t let me see more offenses in my house, / not from anyone! I’m alive to it all, now, / the good and the bad – the boy you knew is gone. (21.344-7)
Even going so far as to defy his father’s orders about the straying maids(3):
…they marched the women out of the great hall – between / the roundhouse and the courtyard’s strong stockade – / crammed them into a dead end, no way out from there, / and stern Telemachus gave the men their orders: / “No clean death for the likes of them, by god! / Not from me – they showered abuse on my head, / my mother’s too / You sluts – the suitors’ whores!” (22.484-90)
The second axis is Odysseus:
When I was young, I liked Odysseus’ tale, but was never much interested in Achilles’. Of course, I only knew the bowdlerized version: No murdered maids, no sacking of Ismarus, no consideration that Polyphemus had a credible grievance against Odysseus and his crew, no dwelling on just what Odysseus, Circe & Calypso got up to on their islands, to sully my innocent child’s mind. An older self, however, is more cognizant of the man’s complexity: He’s a rapist, a murderer, a liar and a philanderer (i.e., the quintessential Achaean hero); yet … he’s charming, intelligent, and (despite his wandering eye) devoted to wife, son and father.
Book 5 begins with our hero’s wanton sacking and rape of Ciconian Ismarus, a little town on the Aegean’s north coast that hadn’t even been a Trojan ally but had the misfortune of lying along Odysseus’ homeward route:
The wind drove me out of Ilium on to Ismarus, / the Cicones’ stronghold. There I sacked the city, / killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder, / that rich haul we dragged away from the place – / we shared it round so no one, not on my account, / would go deprived of his fair share of spoils (9.44-9)
In Book 5 too, we find him mourning his plight:
With that the powerful giant-killer sped away. / The queenly nymph sought out the great Odysseus – / the commands of Zeus still ringing in her ears – / and found him there on the headland, sitting, still, / weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away / with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home, / since the nymph no longer pleased (5.164-70)
Yet not averse to enjoying the nymph’s embrace:
Even as he spoke / the sun set and the darkness swept the earth. / And now, withdrawing into the cavern’s deep recesses , / long in each other’s arms they lost themselves in love (5.249-51)
But, in the end and despite everything Poseidon and the other gods think to throw at him, Odysseus remains true to his wife, son and father:
Sunny Ithaca is my home. Atop her stands our seamark, / Mount Neriton’s leafy ridges shimmering in the wind. / Around her a ring of islands circle side-by-side, / Dulichion, Same, wooded Zacynthus too, but mine / lies low and away, the farthest out to sea, / rearing into the western dusk / while the other face the east and breaking day. / Mine is a rugged land but good for raising sons – / and I myself, I know no sweeter sight on earth / than a man’s own native country….
True, but time and again Odysseus turned his face / toward the radiant sun, anxious for it to set, / yearning now to be gone and home once more… / As a man aches for his evening meal when all day long / his brace of wine-dark oxen have dragged the bolted plowshare / down a fallow field – how welcome the setting sun to him, / the going home to supper, yes, though his knees buckle, / struggling home at last. So welcome now to Odysseus / the setting light of day, and he lost no time / as he pressed Phaeacia’s men who love their oars, / addressing his host, Alcinous, first and foremost (9.23-32 and 13.31-44)
The more interesting character is Penelope, the third axis:
Her gender makes it difficult to assert herself as an individual(4), but manage it she does in several scenes where she shows she’s equally charming, intelligent and devoted as her spouse, and a worthy companion for an Achaean king. Homer makes it believable that she would wait 20 years for Odysseus.
Penelope is at her best in Book 19 when she interviews Odysseus, who has returned home disguised as an old beggar, interrogating him at length about his connection with her husband. I am of the school that prefers to believe Penelope recognizes Odysseus by the end and engineers the crisis of the archery contest in Book 21 to give him opportunity to smite the suitors (see 19.408-9 for the lines which strongly suggest so).
Whether she recognizes him or not, Penelope exerts a measure of control over the situation throughout by keeping Odysseus guessing, asking him to interpret her dream about the geese (19.592-624), proposing the archery contest (19.643-81), cross-examining Eurycleia in Book 23, or facing each other at last and only relenting when Odysseus proves his identity with the story of their marriage bed:
Living proof – / Penelope felt her knees go slack, her heart surrender, / recognizing the strong clear signs Odysseus offered. / She dissolved in tears, rushed to Odysseus, flung her arms / around his neck and kissed hi head and cried out, / “Odysseus – don’t flare up at me now, now you, / always the most understanding man alive! / The gods, it was the gods who sent us sorrow – / they grudged us both a life in each other’s arms / from the heady zest of youth to the stoop of old age….
The more she spoke, the more a deep desire for tears / welled up inside his breast – / he wept as he held the wife / he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last. / Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel / when they catch sight of land – Poseidon has struck / their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds / and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming, / struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore, their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy as they plant their feet on solid ground again, / spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her the sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze, / that her white arms, embracing his neck would never for a moment let him go… (23.230-9, 259-272)
The second theme I want to briefly touch upon is “personal narrative.” You are your story. If you lose control of it, you lose control of yourself. The Odyssey abounds in stories: There’s Helen’s spin on her time in Troy (4.243-98), Eumaeus’ biography of his youth (15.437-541), the suitor Amphimedon’s version of events in his interview with Agamemnon in the House of Death (24.106-225), or Penelope’s own tale of how she coped with Odysseus’ absence (pretty much all of Book 19).
But the story-teller nonpareil is Odysseus – “the master of stories” (23.300). He spins no fewer than five versions of his homeward journey, beginning with the most fantastical in Book 8 – the one Homer knew his audiences would most like to hear: The perils of the Lotus Eaters, outwitting Polyphemus, the heartache of nearly reaching home on Aeolus’ winds, losing all but his flagship to the cannibal Laestrygonians, his yearlong dalliance with Circe, the Land of the Dead(5), the seven years’ imprisonment with Calypso, and finally finding himself washed up on the shore’s of Scheria, to be found by Nausicaa and brought to the Phaeacian court to tell his marvelous tale. (Succinctly recapped – though strategically edited – for Penelope and the readers in 23.354-87.) Elsewhere, Odysseus is a Cretan refugee (13.290-324, 14.219-407, 19.194-234, and at 24.339-52), and his sojourn considerably less god-fraught and magical.
Which is true (or truer)? Do any of them have a measure of truth? Or is there yet an unspoken truth we’ll never know? (e.g., Odysseus spent 10 years a slave of the Cicones after they had defeated his men…hmmm?)
Whatever the case, the truest line in the entire poem is – not surprisingly – Penelope’s:
One moment he seemed…Odysseus, to the life – / the next, no, he was not the man she knew, / a huddled mass of rags was all she saw. (23.108-10)
Whoever the man was, he was not the Odysseus that had left Ithaca 20 years before.
In Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, he writes about the fragility of knowledge. In the West, Homer was forgotten for nearly a millennium, and – in that sense – the Renaissance truly was a “rebirth” of knowledge, just as so much of what survives from our past is the result of accident. What we have are fossils, the ten percent that had the good fortune to be buried under the mudslide or caught in the flash flood and preserved. It’s mind numbing to consider how much we’ve lost.
Which is all the more reason to rejoice that we can read such master works as The Odyssey and The Iliad, and so I strongly recommend that you don’t wait until you’re in your mid-40s to do so.
(1) In the Bernard Knox’s Introduction, he mentions that a major theme of the poem is the importance of guest rites and ensuring proper relationships among warriors but – let’s be honest – unless you’re an anthropologist or historian, who really cares about such things today? Which raises the question of why we should bother to read something recited/written by people three thousand years dead. It’s because you find in it something of import or interest that speaks to you. I didn’t find anything in The Odyssey that affected me on an emotional level but I did find an interesting story about a family struggling to survive and a study about how people present themselves. When I go back to read this again (and I will now that I know how good it is), I’m sure I’ll find something else.
(2) See 8.585-96
(3) Before you think Odysseus gets off the hook, he had ordered that they receive clean deaths – the maids were stilled doomed.
(4) Even her son tries to keep her under wraps (21.390-9), and one can only imagine what she may have accomplished if Athena hadn’t been constantly putting her to sleep (ibid., and elsewhere).
(5) Two things of note here, though not directly pertinent to this review, are the contrast with Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, and Penelope (11.457-518) (see Agamemnon’s final words: “the time for trusting women’s are gone forever!”) and the famous interview with Achilles, where he doesn’t claim to regret his choice but does lament that life – glorious or obscure – is better than being king of the dead (11.554-59).["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more