The epic tale of Odysseus and his ten-year journey home after the Trojan War forms one of the earliest and greatest works of Western literature.
‘”Strangers!” he cried. “And who are you? Where do you come from over the watery ways? Is yours a trading venture; or are you cruising the main on chance, like roving pirates, who risk their lives to ruin other people?”
‘Our hearts sank. The booming voice and the very sight of the monster filled us with panic. Still, I managed to find words to answer him. “We are Achaeans,” I said, “on our way back from Troy – driven astray by contrary winds across a vast expanse of sea – we’re making our way home but took the wrong way – the wrong route – as Zeus, I suppose, intended that we should. We are proud to say that we belong to the forces of Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, who by sacking the great city of Ilium and destroying all its armies has made himself the most famous man in the world today. We find ourselves here as suppliants at your knees, in the hope that you may give us hospitality, or even give us the kind of gifts that hosts customarily give their guests. Good sir, remember your duty to the gods; we are your suppliants, and Zeus is the champion of suppliants and guests. He is the god of guests: guests are sacred to him, and he goes alongside them.”
‘That is what I said, and he answered me promptly out of his pitiless heart: “Stranger, you must be a fool, or must have come from very far afield, to order me to fear or reverence the gods. We Cyclopes care nothing for Zeus with his aegis, nor for the rest of the blessed gods, since we are much stronger than they are. I would never spare you or your men for fear of incurring Zeus’ enmity, unless I felt like it. But tell me where you moored your good ship when you came. Was it somewhere along the coast, or nearby? I’d like to know.”
‘His words were designed to get the better of me, but he could not outwit someone with my knowledge of the world. I answered with plausible words: “As for my ship, it was wrecked by the Earthshaker Poseidon on the borders of your land. The wind had carried us on to a lee shore. He drove the ship up to a headland and hurled it on the rocks. But I and my friends here managed t o escape with our lives.”
‘T this the gruel brute made no reply. Instead, he jumped up, and reaching out towards my men, seized a couple and dashed their heads against the floor as though they had been puppies. Their brains ran out on the ground and soaked the earth. Limb by limb he tore them to pieces to make his meal, which he devoured like a mountain lion, leaving nothing, neither entrails nor flesh, marrow nor bones, while we, weeping, lifted up our hands to Zeus in horror at the ghastly sight. We felt completely helpless. When the Cyclopes had filled his great belly with this meal of human flesh, which he washed down with unwatered milk, he stretched himself out for sleep among his flocks inside his cave.Wonderfully readable... Just the right blend of roughness and sophistication. (Ted Hughes)
Robert Fagles is the best living translator of ancient Greek drama, lyric poetry, and epic into modern English. (Garry Wills, The New Yorker)
Mr. Fagles has been remarkably successful in finding a style that is of our time and yet timeless. (Richard Jenkyns, The New York Times Book Review)
Student review by Aaron Camm.
'I long to reach my home and see the day of my return. It is my never-failing wish'
The Odyssey is one of those magical texts that changes every time you read it. I pour myself into the timeless epic on a fairly regular basis and each reading is never quite the same. At first I put this down to multiple translators, which can impact any story severely, but after reading E. V. Rieu's celebrated translation in its entirety for the second time, I realised that this was not the case. It is a tale that morphs and shifts in much the same way as its main protagonist Odysseus, the man of many ways, conceals himself in various disguises. New scenes reveal themselves, old ones disappear and the characters themselves appear to take on fresh qualities. Perhaps the changeable spirit of oral poetry, passed down through the centuries, remains infused within the narrative, continuing to realign the story even after it has been printed on the page. Whatever the reasons behind this enchantment, it encourages and rewards repeated readings. I first came to the Odyssey as a young boy, starting off on picture book editions and eventually moving onto the full translations. I was spellbound from beginning to end and would spend hours captivated within the world, experiencing fantasies, nightmares, and yearnings for the realm of heroes and gods. Never before had my imagination been so affected, and thus my love of Greek mythology was sprung.
Homer's Odyssey is a sequel to the Iliad. Following the sack of Troy, it details the aftermath of the famous siege, namely the ten year return voyage of the hero Odysseus and the consequence of his homecoming to Ithaca. In his absence, a bunch of unruly suitors from the neighbouring islands have taken up residence in his palace; courting his wife, bullying his son, and squandering his wealth. The long suffering Odysseus must pit his wits against numerous obstacles if he hopes to see his homeland and family again.The poem was composed in dactylic hexameter, and is the second major work of Western literature. It is divided into twenty four books spread over a non-linear plot which pre-empts the modern novel. This format may feel strange at first, especially within an ancient text where one would naturally expect a very formulaic structure, yet the Odyssey is anything but a simple construction. It is a product of multiple genres; adventure, tragedy, fantasy, horror, romance, drama, and revenge tale all in one, with plenty of humour scattered throughout. It has the power to reduce its audience to tears just as readily as it can incite laughter, such is the majesty of the verse.The language is truly exquisite; lyrical and resonant, it effortlessly transports the reader to a realm of gilded palaces, echoing porticoes, and wine dark seas - to name but a few epithets! When reading the Odyssey, one feels assured of being in very skilled and capable hands, much like the blind bard Demodocus in the palace of King Alcinous.
Although the Odyssey is sometimes cheapened into a run-of-the-mill fantasy adventure, its central themes and motifs are remarkably mature and insightful of human nature. Subjects such as xenia (Greek for hospitality), loyalty, duty, vengeance, love, honour, greed, gluttony, wisdom, intellect, temptation and many others permeate the pages of the sprawling epic, combining to create a complex platter of very real, and very human drives, fears and desires. The supernatural and fantastic elements of the tale are merged seamlessly with the rational and every day. Polyphemus may be a man-eating giant, but he acts just like a regular, methodical shepherd towards his cherished flock. In a brilliant reversal of sympathies, we are even made to feel tenderness towards him. The immortal gods themselves are given human attributes; petty jealousies, insecurities, and wanton lust. Magic and sorcery never feel out of place, and are dealt with more naturally than any subsequent fantasy romps have managed. The audience is made to accept right from the start that the realms of the natural and the supernatural are one and the same. Characterisation is expertly done, and whether likeable or not, I inevitably find myself rooting for Odysseus by the end of the poem. If asked what my favourite part of the Odyssey is, I would have to go for the crew's perilous passage between the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, a scene which has haunted my dreams for many years.
Praise for the Odyssey aside, I will briefly sum up a few points which new readers (or even old) may take issue with. There is repetition in abundance, particularly with epithets and stock formulas, often entire scenes and speeches are replicated word for word. Rather than finding them wearisome however, I eventually learned to appreciate the poetic device. There are some minor inconsistencies in the plot, but with such an ancient text deriving from oral tradition, it is a miracle that there are not more! In addition to this, there are moments of great cruelty which some readers might find distasteful, the beginning is painfully slow (we don't even meet Odysseus until book 5), and the ending is rather feeble and abrupt. Indeed, there is much indecision as to whether the ending is even authentic, and was not later tacked on by a lesser poet. Despite these unavoidable gripes, my enjoyment of the poem remains undiminished, and I can quite confidently ascertain that the Odyssey is my favourite work of literature of all time. On the other hand, I do sympathise with a lot of peoples' aversion to the mighty epic, due largely in part to the often dry way it is taught at school. I nonetheless urge those with bad experiences to give it another try, and Rieu's translation is by no means a bad way to make the plunge.