Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- The Odyssey Part 1

I think one of the most immediately striking aspects of this text for me was that people don't write like this anymore. I think we may be the poorer for it. Parts that could have said "I cut down trees and built a boat" were about winning favor with the goddess who gives you an axe with which you use with great skill to fend off the hatred that Neptune has for you. I'm surprised someone like Allen Ginsberg didn't write an autobiography in that manner, elevating the mundane details of our lives and friends to such heroic levels. Maybe I should write my own autobiography in that manner.
Anyway, I also kept wondering how much of this is a mythologizing of fact.

This week's reading dealt largely with Telemachus having a devil of a time with the suitors who have come to woo his mother to try to get them to marry them and, possibly more to the point, to eat The Odysseus family's livestock and drink their wine. Odysseus is still on the back of the milk carton and the leeches have crept in. Telemachus makes a bunch of noises about it but nothing really seems to get them to go away. Yes, if only Odysseus would show up. Then they'd be sorry.

When Poseidon is away at a convention, Athene talks to Zeus and then goes and talks to Telemachus while disguised as King Mentes. The words of Mentes are very wise and encouraging.

Let me take a moment here to express how much I've been enjoying this translation by Samuel Butler. It's a testimony to a good translation when an ancient text breathes and lives with such electricity, flows so well. Ancient text, especially when they involve a lot of esoteric characters, can get a bit clunky to modern eyes if not handled properly. Especially with all of these long speeches, but in all honesty I've enjoyed every moment of it so far.

Telemachus goes to meet a few people who give him information. Nestor talks for a very long time. Then there's that wonderful scene with Menelaus and Proteus where they hold Proteus down and he turns into a dragon and a lion and fire and a Volkswagen and a fish to try to get away from them. Proteus reveals that Odysseus is being held captive by the nymph Calypso. Zeus sends Hermes to tell her to release Odysseus (and as much as I'm a dyed in the wool monotheist, I can definitely understand in experiencing life in this world how one could come to the conclusion of sometimes having some gods smiling on you while others hate you.) Calypso helps him build a boat. Poseidon attacks Odysseus with the sea and we end this week's reading with Odysseus asleep by some olive trees.

It is a rip-roaring good adventure story which I am enjoying tremendously. It is by no means too late to get on board with this one. We did read a little much this week, but I wanted to get through the "Telemachus talking to people" part in one go.

As a side note, I read ahead a while ago and to jog my memory before this post I listened to the Librivox recordings of this while walking over the past few days. It's a wonderful and free resource which I would recommend to anyone. Although there are varied qualities of people who read the text and sometimes they switch horses from one chapter to the next.

Next week we will read through book IX, which in my copy takes us up to page 99. We'll go a little lighter this next week and there's a rather dramatic story break at that point. Enjoy!


  1. I went on and on about how great a time I had listening to the Librivox recording of the last book, The Metamorphosis. As I had also read The Odyssey, and remember the story fairly well (although I somehow am not sure how much of what I remember is actually in The Iliad), I decided to once again go down the road of listening to, rather than reading from the book.

    I think it served me very well, at least for the first few "books" of this volume. Otherwise, I don't know how I would have felt trying to re-familiarize myself with all the characters, most of whom were contemporary to Homer's intended audience. I also learned a different, and probably correct pronunciation for Telemachus. I think I had always accented the third syllable (Teh-leh-MACH-us) rather than the second syllable (Teh-LEH-ma-kus).

    Oh well. It was also nice to phase in and out of the story a bit. This epic story always seemed to me to be better fitted for the stage or screen than for print, and I am fairly certain this is originally the way it was presented. Even coming from the mouth of a bard or fireside storyteller, this would be better than in cold print. I doubt Homer gave a thought to how the story would feel when read to one's self from the page, rather than shared with a group. This is further reason I a.)greatly dislike reading Shakespeare, or any other plays, and b)was happy to try another media format to help me digest this work.

    Where the frak was Librivox when I was in school? I would have actually completed so much more of the required reading had it been available! All that gushing aside, the readers for this volume have so far been not as good as the gentleman who voiced The Metamorphosis. The first female has a pleasant enough voice, although it is a bit harder to hear over traffic. The female who read the 5th book was much harder to understand, and she had a soft, low voice, likely a bit gravelly from smoke and age. Still, it brought some flavor to an otherwise fairly uninteresting portion of the story.

    This book drops you right into the middle - like watching the fourth episode of a 10 show miniseries. I'm not sure I like this as a beginning point, but I have to continually remind myself that I am NOT a contemporary of this author, and many of the elements of this story will necessarily remain obscured to me. Still, the middle that we are dropped into isn't the most exciting. Most of it involves the son of the hero pouting about. Finally near the end of this week's reading, we actually get a taste of the faster-paced exploits of Ulysses.

    Going back to the phasing in and out comment - this is wonderful when blowing through such parts. Divining how the gods and kings are related to each other and what their petty co-mingled dramas may involve is somewhat secondary to the meat of this story. I am not a studied scholar of Greek or Roman mythology, and I shouldn't have to be to enjoy this - so when the gods start talking, or kings give speeches, I can think about what I'm going to do at work in an hour, and let the rest of it slide on by. I can always come back later if I think I missed something. I don't read in a studious manner, highlighting and side-noting as I go. I read in a very similar fashion to how I watch a movie, a play, or a TV series - often thinking about several other things, sometimes needing to go back and re-read a section that I didn't catch enough of to move along, and when I'm done, I generally don't have any intention of re-reading. I've captured the story, or rather an impression of the story, and I can carry that to my grave without needing to re-impress that story upon my mind.

    Sure, there are books, movies, plays, etc. that draw you in, at least for a while, and move at such a pace that you must concentrate for fear you will miss something significant, but the vast majority are not this way. I will say that this first section of The Odyssey is for the most part not this way. And I'm OK with that.

  2. I must have picked up the wrong Odyssey. It looks like mine is intended reading for high schoolers and in the preface says high schoolers don't enjoy books like the Odyssey and it is too difficult to read so they changed it. Books I-IV were eliminated so students would not get confused by the emphasis upon Telemachus in the first four bookds and the delayed appearance of Odysseus in book five - so the planned amount of reading went very fast. HA!
    The second omission is the arrival of the suitors in the land of the dead. They says because whatever interest the episode adds is lost because to young readers it seems confusing or anticlimactic. Give me a break!! No wonder our kids don't learn, they are told they are too stupid to understand a book before they even get a chance to read it.