I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Fall of Arthur. I’ve never been a fan of Tolkien as poet and, as a rule, skim through the examples that cropI was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Fall of Arthur. I’ve never been a fan of Tolkien as poet and, as a rule, skim through the examples that crop up in his prose or that are reproduced in the History of Middle-earth volumes. But I was intrigued by the subject and by what Tolkien may have made of the Matter of Britain (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight doesn’t count since it’s a translation of an existing poem).
Unfortunately, The Fall of Arthur is incomplete. Tolkien only completed four cantos (in several versions which Christopher Tolkien exhaustively presents) but what’s there suggests an original retelling of the war between Arthur and his son Mordred. The first cantos opens with Arthur fighting in the unmapped east when he learns of Mordred’s treachery; the second introduces Arthur’s son, his motivations for rebellion, and the queen and her motivations; the third cantos takes us to Lancelot, who languishes in Benwick mourning his fate; the fourth cantos describes Arthur’s initial landing at Romney in Kent and the ensuing battle with the rebels (not Camlann, though; Tolkien never got that far).
I was especially interested in Tolkien’s portrayal of Guinever. As I read the poem, she’s a cold, grasping, shallow woman who even in the face of the ruin of the king’s dreams shows no remorse:
/ His heart returned To its long thralldom / lust-tormented, To Guinever the golden / with gleaming limbs, As fair and fell / as fay-woman In the world walking / for the woe of men No tear shedding….
In her blissful bower / on bed of silver Softly slept she / on silken pillows With long hair loosened, / lightly breathing, In fragrant dreams / fearless wandering, Of pity and repentance / no pain feeling, In the courts of Camelot / queen and peerless, Queen unguarded…. (II.25-30, 32-38)
/ But cold silver Or glowing gold / greedy-hearted In her fingers taken / fairer thought she, More lovely deeming / what she alone treasured Darkly hoarded. / Dear she loved him With love unyielding, / lady ruthless Fair as fay-woman / and fell-minded In the world walking / for the woe of men….
From war she shrank not, / might her will conquer, Life both and love / with delight keeping To wield as she wished / while the world lasted; But little liked her / lonely exile, Or for love to lose / her life’s splendour. In sorrow they parted. / With searing words His wound she probed / his will searching. Grief bewrayed her / and greed thwarted; The shining sun / was sudden shaded In storm of darkness…. / In pain they parted…. (III.49-56, 97-106, 109)
I would recommend this for the Tolkien and/or Arthurian lit reader....more
Ted Hughes’ The Crow was a mixed bag for me. Some poems went right over my head no matter how many times I would read them. Others read like pretentioTed Hughes’ The Crow was a mixed bag for me. Some poems went right over my head no matter how many times I would read them. Others read like pretentious claptrap. But then there were a handful that I enjoyed reading, like “Crow Goes Hunting”:
Crow Decided to try words.
He imagined some words for the job, a lovely pack – Clear-eyed, resounding, well-trained, With strong teeth. You could not find a better bred lot.
He pointed out the hare and away went the words Resounding. Crow was Crow without fail, but what is a hare?
It converted itself to a concrete bunker. The words circled protesting, resounding.
Crow turned the words into bombs – they blasted the bunker. The bits of bunker flew up – a flock of starlings.
Crow turned the words into shotguns, they shot down the starlings. The falling starlings turned to a cloudburst.
Crow turned the words into a reservoir, collecting the water. The water turned into an earthquake, swallowing the reservoir.
The earthquake turned into a hare and leaped for the hill Having eaten Crow’s words.
Crow gazed after the bounding hare Speechless with admiration.
My other favorites were “Crow’s Playmates,” “Apple Tragedy,” “Fragment of an Ancient Tablet” and “Snake Hymn.”
If you’re a Hughes fan then you’ll probably like this collection well enough but I can’t competently say “yea” or “nay” for anyone else....more
I should begin by saying that I’m going to be grossly unfair and harsh in judging Ian Doescher’s efforts in this book. He comes – at times – to reallyI should begin by saying that I’m going to be grossly unfair and harsh in judging Ian Doescher’s efforts in this book. He comes – at times – to really capturing a Shakespearean flavor and verve but too often appears to believe that he’s channeling the Bard by using “thou” and “prithee” and “anon,” putting verbs at the end of sentences, and stressing past-tense endings (e.g., “banishèd”). That said, this is an enjoyable – if frivolous – diversion, and I would recommend it to the probably-not-quite-as-rare-as-you-think Star Wars nerd/Shakespeare geek (or is that “Star Wars geek/Shakespeare nerd”?).
Doescher is at his best when he gives the “rude mechanicals” voice like the stormtroopers who are searching Mos Eisley for the droids or – my favorite – an extended conversation between the two soldiers guarding the Millennium Falcon after it's captured by the Death Star.
In the first place, you’ll remember that Imperial troops are combing Mos Eisley for C-3PO and R2-D2 and one comes to a locked door, saying “It’s locked. Let’s move on.” (or words to that effect) That scene has always bothered me – why are these thugs letting a locked door deter them? It’s not as if Palpatine’s New Order includes a Bill of Rights. Doescher, however, provides some context when the trooper justifies his action with logic worthy of Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing”:
This door is lock’d. And as my father oft / Hath said, a lockèd door no mischief makes. / So sure am I that, thus, behind this door / Cannot be found the droids for which we search. / And thus may we move on with conscience clear. (III.3, p. 79)
In the second place, the tongueless guards from the movie get a chance to voice their thoughts:
GUARD 1: Oi! Didst thou hear that sound? GUARD 2: – Pray, hear a sound? GUARD 1: Aye, truly – I quite clearly heard a sound. GUARD 2: Think ears, mayhap, play tricks on thee, my friend. GUARD 1: Nay,nay. Dost thou not think this strange? GUARD 2: – What strange? GUARD 1: The droids did flee the ship we have attack’d, / And unto Tatooine have gone by pod. / ‘Tis true, thus far? GUARD 2: – I cannot claim ‘tis false. GUARD 1: On Tatooine they have been tracèd first / To Jawas vile and then to humans – GUARD 2: – Dead. GUARD 1: Aye, dead they are – our men did see to it. / But follow on: the boy who with them liv’d / Hath fled, we knew not where, till he was seen / At yon Mos Eisley with the pair of droids. GUARD 2: Aye, aye, ‘twas all in last week’s briefing. Pray, / What more of this? Hast thou aught new to say? GUARD 1: That boy and droids together disappear’d / The very hour the ship – this ship – did fly. / And now, the ship is here, though empty seems. GUARD 2: Nay, empty ‘tis! The scanning crew doth work / E’en now. GUARD 1: – Which bringeth me full circle to / The sound I just have heard. Is’t possible, / My friend, that boy and droids and revels all / Have flown within this ship unto this base / And yet – e’en now – whilst thou and I do speak, / Still hide within the ship? GUARD 2: – I am amaz’d! GUARD 1: Aye, verily? Think’st thou I may be right? GUARD 2: I said thou hast amaz’d me, and ‘tis true. / But never did I say I think thee right – / Thou dost amaze by thy o’eractive thoughts! / A hidden boy! The droids within! A fig! / Avaunt, thou silly guard, be not so thick. / They great imagination hath o’erwrought / They better senses. Thinkest thou thy pow’rs / Of judgment far exceed our Masters true? / May’st thou outwit the great Darth Vader or / The cunning of our Gov’nor Tarkin? Nay! / We are but simple guards, our purpose here / Is plain and to the point: we have been task’d / To watch the ship and follow all commands, / And not to prattle on with airy thoughts. GUARD 1: Aye, thou hast spoke a well-consider’d word. / Thou are a friend, as I have e’er maintain’d, / And thou hast spoken truth and calm’d me quite. / The rebels hide herein! What vain conceit! / That e’er they should the Death Star enter – ha! GUARD 2: It warms my heart to see thee so restor’d / And back to thine own merry, native self. HAN: [within] Pray, my we have thy good assistance here? GUARD 1: [to Guard 2:] So, let us go together, friend. Good / cheer! [Guards 1 and 2 enter ship and are killed. Exeunt others.] (IV.1, pp. 102-4)
I also like the fact that Doescher gives the story’s characters moments of introspection that are absent from the movie. Another thing that’s always bothered me about A New Hope is Leia’s lack of reaction to Alderaan’s destruction. In William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, Doescher remedies that with an internal monolog the princess has when she and Luke are sitting despondent in the Falcon after their escape from the Death Star:
His heart breaks for a person, Obi-Wan – / My heart breaks for a people, Alderaan. / My ship crush’d first, and now my planet too: / Did e’er a person know such grief as ours? ….
My Alderaan I’ve known all my life, / And hold it in my heart in high’st esteem. / So had I hop’d to one day make it home, / When this rebellion all is pass’d away. ….
But now I must some other course adopt / And write my life’s own story without them. / My dreams shall not be realiz’d as I wish’d, / Yet may I dream to see some other Fate. ….
Thus shall I strive to hold my hands outstretch’d / And be a calming presence to this man. / So I’ll in his deep mourning act my role / And show him what a comfort friends may be. (V.1, pp. 136-7)
Elsewhere, Doescher is not quite as successful. I’ll give here but one example – a pastiche of Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar and Henry V’s rallying cry in Henry V – that suffers in comparison with the originals:
Friends, rebels, starfighters, lend me your ears. / Wish not we had a single fighter more, / If we are mark’d to die, we are enough / To make our planets proud. But should we win, / We fewer rebels share the greater fame. / We have all sacrific’d unto this cause. / Ye know well the fam’ly I have lost – / My uncle dear and aunt belov’d, aye both, / And then a mentor great, a pow’rful friend. / As massive is the grief I feel for them, / I know full well they’d not have me back down. / The princess hath a planet lost, with friends / And family alike – how great her pain! / And yet as grave as that emotion is, / She knoweth they would have her lead us still. / And ye, ye goodly men and women too, / Ye have all liv’d and lov’d and lost as well, / Your stories are with mine one and the same. / For all of us have known of grief and joy, / And every one has come unto this day / Not so that we may turn our backs and flee, / But that we may a greater courage show, / Both for ourselves and those we left behind. / So let us not wish further ships were here, / And let us not of tiny holes be fear’d – / Why, I have with a T-16 back home / Gone hunting womp rats scarcely larger than / The target we are call’d upon to strike. / And ye, ye brave souls, have your memories / Of your great exploits in your own homelands, / So think on them and let your valor rise, / For with the Force and bravery we win. / O! Great shall be the triumph of that hour / When Empire haughty, vast and powerful / Is fell’d by simple hands of rebels base, / Is shown the might of our good company! / And citizens in Bespin now abed, / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here. / For never shall rebellion see a time / More glori’us then our strong attack today! (V.4, pp. 144-5)
Alas and alack, if only I had had this 30 years ago when I was in drama club – I would have loved to have performed some of the scenes found herein!
In the end, I enjoyed reading this book more than I disenjoyed reading it, and come down from the fence on the side of recommending it....more
I have mentioned in reviews of modern adaptations of Medea that she is one of my favorite mythological characters. Her story in the hands of various aI have mentioned in reviews of modern adaptations of Medea that she is one of my favorite mythological characters. Her story in the hands of various authors is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s a tale that touches on themes of love and hate, obsession, faith and loyalty, and in its most profound reading reflects human beings in their most complex nature. Up to now, my favorite translation has been Frederic Prokosch’s, written in 1947 and which I have in a collection of Greek plays edited by Dudley Fitts. When I read it, I thought it read easily, with an energy I had found lacking in others. With Robin Robertson’s Medea, I have a new favorite, though I would still recommend Prokosch’s. Robertson’s interpretation is even crisper, more energetic and more lyrical than Prokosch’s, and made me appreciate Euripides’ subtlety more than ever before. (view spoiler)[(Note: I’ve yet to read Carl Müller’s version. I liked his versions of Prometheus Bound and Herakles. He tends to be more prosy than poetic so I have a feeling it’ll read more like Prokosch than Robertson.) (hide spoiler)] Below is a brief example of the differences I’m getting at. It’s the tutor’s observation to the nurse about Jason’s actions and human nature. The first is Robertson’s take, then Prokosch’s, then the Loeb Classical Library’s version:
What mortal man is not guilty? A new woman in the bed leaves no room for anyone else. He has forgotten everything, including his boys. Has it dawned on you that we’re each of us human: we put ourselves above all others.
And which of us has not done the same? Haven’t you learned long ago, my dear, how each man loves himself far more than his neighbor? Some, perhaps, from honest motives; some for private gain. So you see how Jason deserts his children for the pleasure of his new bride.
As what mortal is not? Because of his new bride, the father does not love these boys: are you only now learning that each man loves himself more than others, some justly, others for the sake of gain?
As I wrote, Robertson has made me appreciate Euripides’ complexity more, and upon reflecting in the course of writing this, I’ve come to see Medea and Jason as two sides of the human coin. On one side is Medea, who is close to the Homeric heroic ideal; on the obverse is Jason, who is a “modern” man. Neither image is particularly flattering but both carry conviction because both ring (all too) true.
What follows are simply some of my favorite passages. Lines that – for whatever reason – struck me. The more I find myself reading Euripides, the more I find myself liking him, so I definitely recommend him. Ideally, we’d read him in the original Greek but as most of us have let our Ancient Greek get a bit rusty, seek him out in your native tongue at the very least.
NURSE: I’ll try, of course, but I doubt I’ll persuade her. When any of us approach you can see her hackles rise – like a lioness when you get between her and her cubs. If only we could charm her with music; but those old composers were such fools: they wrote melodies only for the happy times – festivals, grand banquets, celebrations. None of them thought to make a music for real life, music that would salve our wounds and soothe our bitter griefs. Didn’t they see these wounds and griefs destroy us, and a music that healed such sorrow would be precious? What is the point of music and song at a feast? People are happy when they’re full. We need a tune when there’s no food there to eat.
MEDEA: My reputation, yet again! It goes before me like a curse. My father should never have allowed me an education, never raised me to be intelligent. Those who are out of the ordinary attract jealously and bitterness. If you try to bring new wisdom to fools, the fools are furious; if your mind matches the minds of the city’s intellectuals then they’re threatened.
MEDEA: There are no names for something as foul and spineless as you. A man who is no man at all. How dare you come to us here, where you are most despised. Is this your idea of courage or heroism, to wrong your family and then visit them? Loathesome, shameless, evil man.
CHORUS: On the matter of children: many times we’ve argued, many times we’ve lost. Men’s skill in rhetoric is more subtle, more practiced than our own. But women have a Muse, too, who gives us wisdom, and this is our opinion: those men and women who have never brought up children are, by nature, blessed. They never suffer those extremes.
Look at the parents, worn down by love and worry. Are their little ones sick? Are they hungry? Will they grow up well, or badly? And worst of all, after years of this, the fear all parents know: that they’ll outlive their children. That Death will come, with his casual, careless hand, and knock them off the world.
Yet we persist – in search of love, or heirs, or some brief brilliant proof that we exist – and the fruit of all this anxious love is grief.
MEDEA: Hate on! I am so sick of your pathetic voice. [This last line, taken out of context, may not make much sense. It comes at the end of a brilliant, bitter back and forth between Medea and Jason at the end of the play, and I shudder to imagine the loathing and contempt with which a good actor would deliver it.]
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