“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” So begins Robert Fagles’ terse and energetic translation of The Odyssey, that ancient classic that hails from the 8th century B.C. Blows my mind when I stop and really think about it: Aristotle read this, wrote a commentary in his Poetics. It was read in the Byzantine Courts, where it was saved from obscurity when Europe underwent the Dark Ages. Brought back during the Renaissance, translated and read over and over and over again. It’s accompanied the development of Western civilization since it’s inception. And yesterday, January 1st, 2009, I finished reading it for the first time.
So, thoughts: where to begin? I felt to a distinct thrill when Odysseus recounted his travails and adventures while resting in the court of Phaecian king, Alcinous. His ordeals with the Cyclops, the Sirens, the trapped Aeolian winds, Scylla and Charybdis–I grew up with these tales, recounted in children books, illustrated and endlessly retold. And interpreted and explored by adult authors, such that they found a strange and powerful resonance when I read the originals.
What surprised me was how short this section was; the vast majority of the narrative deals with Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and reclaiming of his throne and hall from the pernicious suitors. Only half is given to Odysseus’ travels and adventures–the rest details endless feasts and visits paid by Telemachus and Odysseus to different courts, where wine is poured, fine meats and appetizers served, games of sport played, compliments paid and gifts offered up to both the gods and the guests. Of actual battle there is little, especially when compared to the Illiad, such that when Odysseus finally unleashes his wrath against the suitors at the very end of the tale, it comes as a welcome reprieve from all the conversation, plotting, and endless description of domestic affairs.
Another thing that struck me was how cruel Odysseus was, how his vaunted cunning came as a result of his almost cold and callous self control. Upon returning to Ithaca, he takes the guise of a broken beggar, and as such spends some eight chapters learning the lay of the land, the nature of his enemies and planning his revenge. Fair enough. However, when faced with his son, with his wife, even with his grieving father, he doesn’t reveal himself. Instead, he ‘tests’ them with heartless questions and ploys in an attempt to trick them into revealing any disloyalty or weakness of character. You could argue that he needed to remain anonymous while the suitors were abroad, but how does one explain the needless pain he inflicts on his father at the very end of the book after the suitors are dead? Instead of riding in and embracing the old man so broken by woe and grief, he plays once more the stranger, and tests the old man, calling him beggarly in appearance and giving him a tale of Odysseus, gone these many years. The result?
At those words
a black cloud of grief came shrouding over Laertes.
Both hands clawing the ground for dirt and grime,
he poured it over his grizzled head, sobbing, in spasms.
Odysseus’ heart shuddered, a sudden twinge went shooting up
through his nostrils, watching his dear father struggle…
Why? What’s the point in testing his own father so? Earlier, when confronted by Athena in disguise and asked as to his origins, he spins her a tall tale, only to have her laugh in his face:
Any man-any god who met you-would have to be
some champion lying cheat to get past you
for all-round craft and guile! You terrible man,
foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks-
so, not even here, on native soil, would you give up
those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart!
Were it not for the needless cruelty he subjects his father to at the end of the book, one could argue that all this guile and dissimulation are necessary caution given the hostile forces arrayed against him. However, I think Odysseus is at heart a trickster, who delights in his own guile and misleading people so as to cause them to show their true selves, peril or no. There is indeed something cold and callous about his ability to remain hidden even as his son and wife, not seen for twenty years, cry out their hearts before him.
Odysseus arouses my admiration, but not my affection; for all his trials he does not change, does not grow. There is no change in his character; rather he is from the incipience of the narrative a heroic figure, and it is only the gods themselves who can thwart him at any turn. Were the Odysseus from the end of the Odyssey to meet the man at the beginning of the Illiad, or even the youthful version of himself, freshly wounded by the bristling boar on Parnassus’ wooden slopes, I doubt he would have much council to give him, and would rather salute the youth, drink wine with him, and urge him on to all his future exploits.
But perhaps that is simply the nature of a classic hero. In summary? My thoughts? Hard to encapsulate in one pithy line. Perhaps: a pleasure to read, if only to acquaint myself with the real epic poem that lies beyond the commonly retold and more fantastic elements. Also: go Fagles!
Post Script: Be interesting to explore parallels between Hamlet‘s Gravedigger and The Odyssey‘s Swineheard, Eumaeus.