Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- The Odyssey Part 2

Well, the Odyssey took kind of a back burner in my mind over the past week, sorry to say, but I did get through this week's reading. However, when Dawn with her rose-red fingers shown once more, I had a head cold, my phone and truck are broken, and, not to put too fine a point on it, but I'm amazed to find for the first time in my life I'm getting hate mail (not amazed that I'm receiving it, mind you, but that it took this long in the life that I've lead.)
Sorry to those who commented last week and I didn't respond (Sedge, you and I had the exact same experience with Librivox last week. Mom, that's hilarious that they cut like a fifth of the book for high school students!)

So, this week I took my old friend Charles Ardinger's very wise and helpful advice and took a trip to the library to find other translations of The Odyssey. Not that there was anything wrong with the Butler translation at all, but I thought that it would be interesting to find how other translations tell the story, what the differences are and so forth. It's turned into a very interesting experiment for me. Unfortunately, I could not find the Alexander Pope translation at my library (although they did have his Iliad.) What I came away with was the J.W. Mackail translation and the Robert Fagles translation. Mackail was a professor at Oxford in the 1930s, born in the mid-1800s and, not to cast aspersions (especially since he was also a fellow socialist), it reads more like a professor at Oxford who was born in the mid-1800s. Words like "aught" and "wiles." Painstakingly crafted verse. All of which is kind of neat, especially compared to Butler's prose translation, and certainly I will refer to it throughout to illuminate certain passages, but it's clearly not going to be my Odyssey of choice for personal reading. That distinction, my friends, goes to the Fagles translation, which reads like greased lightning. After Mackail and Butler, it reads like a Cadillac. It is modern English, verse, beautiful and flowing.
Just like I personally use the RSV when I read the Bible, I prefer how it reads, although for study, academic writing, and learning more about the layers of meaning of language in the text, it's always good to have several decent translations laying about.

You are not required to do this. This is me geeking out.

So, this week we start with the princess Nausicaa and her attending company of young, white-armed ladies happen upon naked Odysseus. I originally read this in the Butler, and then the Mackail, and it seems to me as if the Victorian editions constructed the language in this section in such a way that, to my modern eyes, it was simply that, they find Odysseus and he needs to bathe. In the Fagles version there is tremendous sexual tension in that scene, which makes perfect sense and, I might add, seems likely to be truer to the original text.
Odysseus goes to meet the parents. They talk a lot and listen to a man sing a song. Odysseus reveals his identity. All of which may not be in the high school edition.
Book IX is when it really starts cracking. Odysseus tells about being driven to the land of the Lotus Eaters who graze and eat the lotus all the live long day. Those of the men who try some of the lotus then lost their will do go home or really do anything but graze and eat lotus. My goodness, but that's a rich metaphor for so much of life and society! It's a short bit, but really a brilliant piece of literature!
Enter the cyclops or rather his goats or lambs. One of my favorite lines so far is when the men say "Let us make away with the cheeses." I'm having that printed as a bumper sticker.
The cyclops picks up men by the twos, bashes their brains out on the ground, and eats them. They were wearing red togas, worked in engineering and only appeared in this episode anyway. Presumably after the initial shock wears off, they get the cyclops drunk on wine. The cyclops falls asleep and Odysseus drives a giant stake through the eye of the cyclops. Then there's the "nobody's blinding me" joke.

My assessment of the Odyssey so far is that it's an exciting, epic adventure story with, like all ancient texts, some passages that kind of lag to the modern eye. Having an engaging translation helps immensely. I am really enjoying this book and I hope that you are as well.

Next week, we shall read through book 13, so we'll do a slightly shorter one again this week. Then I think we'll finish it in two bigger sections in the two following weeks. So, this next week we read through the section called (spoiler alert) Ithaca At Last!


  1. First, I take back everything I said last week about my Librivox experience. No such problems plagued this week's "reading", which was completed in one day during my commute to and from work. I must say it went very quickly, while remaining interesting. Sure, there are some VERY long speeches - but most of the content isn't that important or interesting, just a lot of posturing. It didn't really get interesting until Ulysses started in on telling his past. He's not a bad storyteller, although I think I might have preferred the bard's version (not The Bard, but a bard such as the one in this reading.)

    I take that back a little - the silly competition section was pretty good too, actually completely ridiculous. It really hit home that this was a rich man's tale, written for and about rich men. It would be like a modern day tale written for Bill Gates, detailing the high-flying adventures of Ted Turner, where before hopping on his friend Bloomberg's private jet because his was in the shop for maintenance, decided to stop by a football stadium and have his other friend Penske have his football team play a scrimmage match for them to watch. It doesn't even try and hint at reality for the common man - which isn't in itself a fault.

    Most of the books we will read on this "Classics" list will go to great pains to explain the reality of the common man, even if the author and audience believe themselves to be far greater. Whether through condescention or morbid curiousity, or sometimes just plain truth, most writing is about the plight of the common, or even disadvantaged.

    This is in huge contrast with movies and television - most films and shows these days seem to assume that everyone has a house, or at worst, a friend with a house; a job, or even better, means by which to live that don't include needing to observe regular work hours, and enough money to stop for coffee or food without thinking twice about their account balance. Nobody wants to think about the woes of poverty when being entertained by the boob tube, or even worse, paying money to sit amongst strangers in front of a huge screen watching dreams in larger-than-life porportions. However, when at home on the couch, the loo, or the bed, it seems almost chic to lose oneself in the troubles of those who have it worse. Of course, there are many, many exceptions to this observation, but I think the generality holds up overall.

    Once we hit the first of many tales about the wild adventures of our hero, we've heard this before. Cyclops are part of our culture, to a point - at the very least, giants are. As are cannibals, and wild isolated aboriginal races. What we do discover is that aside from being a bit clever (yet only a bit - even this cleverness is based on a negative stereotype of his captors) our hero is also a pompous ass, and has to be talked down from taunting, even after he almost lost his ships and men. All that cleverness erodes when he speaks his real name, again taunting and making an ass out of himself.

    I'm wondering if this theme will hold up, and the epic tales of Ulysses will really be just the after-effects of bad karma and bad decisions made by our "hero".

  2. You're right the white-armed ladies pretty much said he needed a bath. No sexual tension in the high school book. I remembered the giant scene in my head from along time ago - gross but still left you wanting to know every detail. I have not figured out if Ulysses is stupid or just very full of himself, I mean who would go into a country where you know no one and they don't know you and you boast of going into other countries and wiping out all the men and taking what ever you want. Would you keep this guy around and shower him with gifts??

  3. On translations, I looked at my print copy of this book and noted that my high-school copy was translated by W.H.D. Rouse (1937). It has all the sections. It is published by Mentor, a division of Penguin.