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Like many people in my particular arc of the interactive-fiction circle, I found myself sold on Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey the moment that Cat Manning shared its first stanza on Twitter, shortly before its publication date. Tell me about a complicated man, it begins. And… heck, let me just share the whole thing with you:
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 fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.
Chills, right? I ordered a hardcover edition immediately, to better share with my classics-loving partner. I spent much of last month taking it all in, the first of any Odyssey translation I have read in its entirety. Unusually for me, I immediately new-game-plussed it upon completion so that I could re-read its hundred-page-long introductory essay and translators’ notes in a new light. This is a very good book from cover to cover, and if you are joining me in facing down our current cultural decadence by bolstering yourself with ancient humanities, then I strongly recommend your reading it.
I knew that, once I read the whole thing, The Odyssey would join other classics that have surprised me with their breadth and rich texture beyond their respective scenes of cultural ubiquity. Just as Romeo and Juliet tours us through a palace far vaster than its balcony, and most of Psycho doesn’t happen behind a shower curtain, so The Odyssey — read in full — leads us out of the Cyclops’ cave and past the familiar Sirens and into a storyscape far more complex than its innumerably retold tall tales of monsters and mayhem.
The Odyssey’s overall structure shocked me with its subtle complexity, incorporating but not at all limited to the straight-ahead adventure-story part in its middle. I had no idea that it begins in medias res with the title character already marooned for years on Calypso’s island, but we don’t even catch up with this fact for several chapters! Instead, the epic opens in Ithaca, with Odysseus twenty years absent, and sets the stakes for his return by showing the dire situation of his wife Penelope, besieged (almost literally!) by boorish suitors, and their barely-grown son Telemachus struggling to attain manhood in such a bizarrely broken home.
This long-static situation catalyzes into motion when Zeus authorizes Athena’s request to intervene, and so the story-driving goddess swoops down to throw the spotlight onto Telemachus. The two of them proceed to buddy-picture around the surrounding islands and countryside in what scholars call “The Telemachiad”, and which comes across to me as The Case of the Missing Dad. Through young Telly’s travels and inquiries of local landholders, we-the-audience receive a piecemeal portrait of Odysseus as all remember him, and various speculations about his fate. A few men report running into him, here or there, but long ago; most assume him dead, by now.
When the scene at last shifts to The Man Himself hugging his knees and pining for home on Calypso’s beach, it strikes audiences both ancient and modern as a reveal, the payoff after pages and pages (or hundreds of recited stanzas) of invested buildup. We hunger to join Odysseus as he picks himself up and resumes his journey homeward, far moreso than if the story simply began with the sacking of Troy and the chronological start of his own troubles.
The Odyssey returns to this buildup-and-payoff model after its midsection, when Odysseus returns at last to Ithaca — and stage-manager Athena immediately sidles in, grinning and gray eyes shining, to transform a happy but mundane homecoming into a bloody epic for the ages. I had of course long known the story-sketch of “Odysseus returns, shoots the arrow through the axes, and then kills all the suitors.” I had no idea, though, that Homer — though the machinations of Athena and Odysseus, working together — stretched the promise of this violent payback bowstring-taut across chapter after chapter. The tension becomes so great that the narrator falls into it, at one point reacting to a certain suitor’s line of dialogue by blurting out that he’s gonna be the first to die. It takes several more chapters before Odysseus finally picks up the literal tightly wound bow at the center of everyone’s attention and sends an arrow through the poor slob’s throat, commencing the great massacre and letting the audience exhale. In this whole sequence, and through my looking-through-the-wrong-end reference of culture, I saw echoes of Inglorious Basterds and 47 Ronin.
But I want to return to that middle part, the rollicking adventure tale that has embedded itself into the bones of Western culture for so long, with Circe and the Lotus-Eaters and Scylla and Charybdis and all the rest. When read in context, The Odyssey reveals this tall tale-of-tales to be told by crafty Odysseus himself, returning the favor of hospitality at a nobleman’s crashpad by regaling his host with an evening’s improvised entertainment. And seeing this broader scope led me, eventually, to conclude that Odysseus is one hundred percent full of shit.
In a key scene later on, Odysseus at last lands at Ithaca, but doesn’t recognize it at first. Athena, disguised as a random nobody and barely able to contain her glee, strolls on up and greets the disoriented traveler, asking where he’s from. Without even thinking about it, Odysseus dives right into a steaming crock about how he’s, uhh, from Crete! Yeah, that’s the ticket. He’s from Crete, and he totally killed this guy — a real fast bugger, too, named… erhm, Orsilochus, sure — but wouldn’t you know it, he was the king’s son! And well, nothing to do then but grab his loot and hop on the next red-cheeked ship bound over the old wine-dark, you get me? But then, there was this big storm, see…
Athena lets him go on like this for a while before dropping her disguise, letting the sight of her true form shut him up for two seconds. Then she says, in essence: Buddy, it’s me! You can drop the act. From here, they proceed drawing their plans to get Odysseus back to his palace and clean house, a project that consumes the remainder of the epic. More immediately, though, I took this as a clear signal that Odysseus is a straight-up congential liar.
The narrator’s voice doesn’t at all discourage this view, often assigning roguish Odysseus an epithet of “crafty” or “deceitful”, and throwing down something like “king of liars” now and again. Combine all this with the fact that his whole story of what happened to him between the Trojan War and his isolation on Calypso’s island comes from Odysseus himself, delivered to amuse and impress a local aristocrat, and I feel strongly directed to assume that the entire story is a fiction within a myth.
Really compelling fiction, mind you, crafted by the most celebrated golden-tongued liar of the heroic age — thousands of years later, it’s the only part of the whole epic that’s insinuated itself into global cultural awareness! But still, front-to-back, utter baloney. Who can say how sly Odysseus actually ended up moping on Calypso’s beach? Perhaps he reckoned that counting himself among the war-missing to shack up with this ageless island hottie was just the soldier’s retirement he deserved, and had no idea at all who she really was or what he’d signed up for. It takes the intervention of another god, after a full decade, to finally let him paddle back towards Ithaca on a humble raft; by then, many years removed from the heat of war — and many years into a promised eternity as an immortal being’s personal plaything — thoughts of settling down with home and hearth may have seemed rather more attractive.
Another bit of evidence, and one that had me laughing out loud as I read it: In book 11, here titled “The Dead”, Odysseus tells his host about how he and his crew visited Hades. Now, at this point, he’s been talking a long time, and one gets the impression that he starts to run out of his best material. (I’ve no doubt he had a lot of time to practice, prior to this particular evening; perhaps Calypso, when it amused her to do so, let him workshop his act with her.) His story starts running out of gas, and he turns instead to name-dropping, talking about all these mythological celebrities he met, down yonder.
And then comes the part I love, when he turns to his host and suggests that it’s getting late, and really let’s wind this party up and get to bed, big day tomorrow. And his host says no way this is great keep going. And Odysseys says: okay. And so, whew, all right, we… met Hercules! Good ol’ Herc, you all remember him, right? He was looking good! And he came up to me, and he was like…
Quick-thinking Odysseus manages to push away apparent sleep-deprivation and find his flow again, giving us the story (and, thereafter, eternally useful metaphor) of Scylla and Charybdis. But even then his foot slips just a bit from his weariness, when he realizes that he’d just over-spiced his work a bit by describing private conversations between gods in yonder Olympus, which he of course couldn’t have personally witnessed in his allegedly first-hand account. And so, in an utterly charming moment, he nudges in a little parenthetical that he knew about the conversation because Hermes, that old gossip, had blabbed to Calypso about it during a visit one day.
None of this is to suggest that the world of The Odyssey gives us grim realism outside of the title character’s outsized action-hero fables. The poem ultimately presents us with two layers of fantasy, with Odysseus’s rollicking pirate yarn acting as a temporary reprieve from an unsettling, dreamlike world co-inhabited by mortal humans and deathless gods, treated as two classes of people — albeit vastly unequal in power. Part of the human condition in this world is not just constant godly influence, but the knowledge and acceptance that gods can and will have sway over every part of your brief life.
This portrayal surprised me in how it didn’t quite line up with most every mythologically derived bit of pop culture I’ve ever consumed! When I think of “real” gods in fantastic fiction, I imagine them as in Clash of the Titans, or the Discworld books, or — let’s face it — Dungeons & Dragons. Present, but all over there, way up in their godly hangouts, and even at their most meddlesome they act more as puppeteer than direct participant in the mortals’ ceaseless dramas. Not so in this epic, whose world churns with gods’ ceaseless coming and going. By the narrator’s description, mortals may gape when they see Hermes or Athena or a random cave-nymph hurrying by on business, but it reads more like an celebrity sighting than what any modern person would imagine as a brush with the divine.
Depending upon your standing with them, a god might show up and give you a pep talk, or they might smite you and all your lands with a flying mountain. But gods can also, it seems, reach into the minds of men and women to tweak their immediate desire and direction, or alter their perceptions so that a person looks amazingly hideous or beautiful, or make one’s own home temporarily unrecognizable. Quite often, the Homeric gods work some subtle combination of the two, showing up in person besides the mortals who hold their interest and whispering suggestions, and the text makes it achingly unclear how the mortals in question literally perceive any of this. (Quite often, this epic reminded me of the bicameral mind hypothesis of pre-literate peoples’ god-riddled thought processes.)
The human denizens of Homer’s Greece take all this in stride; what else can they do? In Wilson’s translation, characters will often utter a sentence like “Some god must have put that there” or “Some god gave me the idea.” At first, this sounded strange to my ear, as I’d read “some god” with the cadence and approximate meaning of “some guy”; it sounded like a weirdly dismissive way for characters to describe key observations. Eventually I realized that it’s simply a synonym for “somebody” with color added, making it clear that the actor is one of the other people, the undying ones who share the earth with the kings and heroes and swineherds. When a Homeric human tells another “Everything was going fine and then some god messed it all up,” their listener can only nod in sympathy.
Wilson’s book does set the stage for this by its own introductory essay, which begins by making clear that The Odyssey’s original Greek uses dialect and diction that no human culture ever actually spoke, employed to describe an unbelievable world that people of our distant past imagined as their own distant past. Readers have been critiquing this epic since antiquity, scholars from Alexandria in conversation with those in New York, reflected in the end-notes of this newest volume. I feel so lucky to have this chance to participate in my own tiny way through this wonderful new translation for my time and culture.
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