It has been many a year since I’ve read any of the Greek classics. I remember reading some plays back in high school (early 1980s), but I’m not sure I ever read the entirety of Homer’s Odyssey, and if I did, I most likely didn’t find much enjoyment in it. A classic of western literature and a staple of both literature and western civilization courses, The Odyssey tells the epic tale of a heroic Greek warrior’s 20-year quest to get home after the Trojan War. The latest translation by Emily Wilson has received a good amount of favorable press. First of all, unbelievably, this is the first translation of The Odyssey by a woman! And that fact alone has been reason for attention. More importantly, though, this translation is outstanding. Wilson uses her formidable skills to provide a translation that is faithful to the meaning of the text while capturing its rhythm and style. The story in Wilson’s hands genuinely sounds like the kind of tale you would tell to folk gathered around the evening fire, and it trips along at a lively pace. It is, unlike many previous translations, accessible to just about any reader.
Before jumping into the text, Wilson provides a lengthy and useful introduction, which I recommend reading, as it is a font of wisdom regarding the history of The Odyssey and the meaning of the text itself. Wilson addresses the “Homeric Question” of the poem’s true origins; is it the work of one poet or a collective work? And what effect did putting a spoken poem, rooted in the oral tradition, into written form have on the story itself? Among the revelations in this section, I was particularly struck by Wilson’s explanation of the research done by two scholars in the first half of the 20th century — Parry and Lord. After studying living oral tradition among Serbo-Croatian bards, they determined that oral poetry has distinctive features irrespective of culture, and that these features are evident in The Odyssey (and The Iliad). One such feature is the use of repetitive formulaic speech which allows the bard to compose “at the speed of speech,” thus maintaining fluency, and which acts as a memory aid, allowing information to be passed from generation to generation. It seems likely that The Odyssey was not the product of one person’s imagination, but a collective effort over time. The Odyssey most likely originated as an oral poem in the period known as the Greek dark ages (12th-8th centuries BCE). According to Wilson,
The oral tradition provided Greek-speaking people with a way to remember and memorialize the cultures that had been lost, including the wealthy and hierarchical civilization of the Mycenaeans.
By the late 7th century BCE, The Odyssey, as we would know it, existed in written form, but, as Wilson is quick to point out, the written text is not the same as an oral composition. It is unknown what scribe or scribes first wrote it down, or whether this is a collection of poems that, in writing, were edited to provide coherence.
Wilson’s introduction then moves on to a collection of themes to be found throughout the poem, such as “Friends, Strangers, Guests,” “Gods,” “Goddesses, Wives, Princesses, Slave Girls,” etc. Again, the translator provides a wealth of information that aids in understanding the text of The Odyssey. Her explanation of the importance of hospitality and the difference between xenia (networking relationships or alliances) and philia (personal connections of family or friendship) is especially useful. Hospitality and abuses of it are at the root of much of the action in the poem. The Trojan War itself, referenced throughout The Odyssey, began as a response to an abuse of xenia, i.e, Paris’ abduction of Menelaus’ wife Helen. While Odysseus is absent from Ithaca, a large group of suitors take over his home trying to woo Odysseus’ wife Penelope. Odysseus’ son Telemachus feels that he must be a good host, yet he resents the abuse of his hospitality (the suitors eat and drink all day and never leave). Both Telemachus and Odysseus, in their respective travels, encounter good examples of hospitality and bad. But as Wilson points out, abuses of xenia will lead to violence, whether that be out and out war, or a massacre of young men in your house.
As far as the story of The Odyssey, if you are not at all familiar, the plot goes something like this: Odysseus, Greek hero of the Trojan war, gets blown off course as he and his men are traveling back to Ithaca. They end up visiting a variety of dangerous places where more and more of Odysseus’ men wind up dead. A big part of Odysseus’ problem is that Poseidon hates him. But since Athena favors him, he eventually finds his way back home. Meanwhile, his wife Penelope has been weeping and pining for Odysseus for 20 years. A bunch of young men see an opportunity for wealth and power if they can successfully court her (all assume Odysseus must be dead), so they set up camp in Odysseus’ home. Young Telemachus, on the verge of manhood, is getting fed up with these guys eating up his wealth, and the suitors are sick of his whining and hope to kill him. Athena helps the kid out and he manages to find out that his dad is alive and on the way home. Odysseus shows up in Ithaca looking like a beggar and thus, in disguise, is able to figure out who has been loyal and who has plotted against him. Then, he, Telemachus and a few others, with Athena’s help, massacre the suitors and find a way to somehow make peace with their fellow Ithacans.
If you are interested in reading a classic, and/or if you teach lit, I would recommend Wilson’s translation wholeheartedly. If you go over to Amazon, you can sample a bit of her translation as well as one of the other more traditional translations. The difference is stunning.
From Lattimore’s translation:
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools who devoured the oxen of Helios, the sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.
Now compare the same opening passage to Wilson:
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
When he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
And where he went, and who he met, the pain
He suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor
They ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of
tell the old story for our modern
Find the beginning.
As Wilson says in her introduction:
In using language that is largely simple, my goal is not to make Homer sound “primitive,” but to mark the fact that stylistic pomposity is entirely un-Homeric.
This is the language that would probably come close to oral tradition, and it lends itself to telling a story and keeping your attention. Thumbs up on the translation, which is getting 5 stars.