Tales of brave Ulysses – part two

Do it on the radioEducating Rita’s fix for staging Peer Gynt isn’t just succinct; it also suggests that each work of art has its own best format.

I’ve long wanted to read Homer’s Odyssey.  I bought the Penguin paperback years ago, but never got round to it. 

Though it’s the first work of literature – as in writing and reading – I think Rita might say: Get a talking book.  Thanks to the audio version – all 14 hours of it – I’ve just finished the whole epic saga.

I’d listened to the 42 hours of Stephen Fry’s version of the Greek myths – Mythos, Heroes and Troyhttps://stageleft.blog/2019/09/06/stephen-fry-in-mythos-gods/

Troy ends with the Greeks’ genocide of the Trojans, using that early weapon of mass destruction, the wooden horse.  It was the brainchild of the shrewdest Greek warrior: Odysseus – or Ulysses, as the Romans renamed him.

This being a Greek myth (did it really happen?), Odysseus had divine help.  His mentor was Zeus’s daughter, Athena, goddess of war and wisdom.

Troy (or Illium, hence Homer’s The Illiad) predicts that Odysseus will be away for 20 years.  The war grinds on for 10, but how does it take another decade for him to get back to Ithaca?

The answer is The Odyssey.   Battle, blood and brotherhood; death, defeat and despair; vengeance, victory and violence; life, love and, finally, home. 

It teems with incident – the lotus eaters who rob Odysseus’s crew of purpose; the nymph Calypso who promises him immortality if he stays with her; the one-eyed Cyclops who eats his men; the sea-god Poseidon who wrecks Odysseus’s boats; the sirens, luring him to his doom, plus the restless spirits of his mother, Achilles, Agamemnon and Hercules in the underworld.

And there are the heinous suitors who, hoping Odysseus never returns, try to seduce Penelope and kill their son, Telemachus. 

Homer’s feat was to write the story down, 24 books of it, in about 700 BC.  Yet the events it describes took place at least five hundred years earlier, around the twelfth century BC.  How on earth did the stories survive all that time?

They were passed down through a long oral tradition.  They lived through reiteration, rhetoric and rhythm.  Homer keeps these in his penned version.  The Odyssey is a poem, to be read out loud and listened to.  It’s in dactylic hexameters – six beats to the line.

I feel lucky to have found the 2018 version by Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate Homer into English.  It’s accessible, direct and moving.  She uses iambic pentameters (five beats to the line) which keep you hooked to the imagery and narrative drive.  The narrator, Claire Danes, also gives a different voice to these muscular tales.  

Wilson finds appealing ways to vary the repeated epithets (wine-dark sea, rosy-fingered dawn, cloud-gathering Zeus etc.).  Like Homer (apparently) she adopts short, powerful words to evoke the characters’ emotions, as when Odysseus says: I miss my family.  I have been gone so long it hurts.  A slaughter describes the victims lying in blood and dust like fish hauled out of the dark grey sea in fine-meshed nets.

Her translator’s note shows the care she takes in not adding moral bias to the original, as some have.  For example, she shows empathy with the executed slave women, unlike translators who use words like sluts and whores to imply they deserved their fate.

Similarly, she eschews terms like savage for the Cyclops and other strange beings, to avoid the legacy of colonialism.

It’s a big responsibility to interpret such a great work.  A classics graduate tells me that he finds Homer’s language intricate and beautiful and loves how words foreshadow events to come. 

 A translation may not be as rich as the original, but Emily Wilson’s interpretation made me cry several times.

Yet The Odyssey is also barbaric, macho and violent.  A desperate Telemachus vows to kill mercilessly, like his father, to prove he’s a real man.  The thrust of the saga inclines us to want Odysseus to get back home, but how to accept his slaying so many and his abuse of women?

Have we left all that behind?  In his appendix to Troy, Stephen Fry says:

Rage, lust, envy, pride and greed energise Homer, but they’re balanced by love, honour, wisdom, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice.  The same unstable elements constitute the human world today.  Dark human passions of selfishness, fear and hatred counterbalanced by friendship, love and wisdom.  The field’s open for someone to portray all that better than Homer.  But I’ve yet to see it done.

Read the first part of this post here: https://stageleft.blog/2021/12/10/tales-of-brave-ulysses-part-one/

I’d like to revisit a third Ulysses, James Joyce’s novel set over 24 hours in 1904 Dublin – another classic I’ve tried to read but never finished.  What would Rita say?  Perhaps I’ll give it a listen instead…

Paul Bassett


December 2021

Comments and feedback welcome, here or: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

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