Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Literature’s grandest evocation of life’s journey, at once an ageless human story and an individual test of moral endurance, Homer’s ancient Greek epic The Odyssey is translated by Robert Fagles with an introduction and notes by Bernard Knox in Penguin Classics.
Here, one of the great modern translators presents us with The Odyssey, Homer’s best-loved poem, recounting Odysseus’ wanderings after the Trojan War. With wit and wile, the ‘man of twists and turns’ meets the challenges of the sea-god Poseidon, and monsters ranging from the many-headed Scylla to the cannibalistic Cyclops Polyphemus—only to return after twenty years to a home besieged by his wife Penelope’s suitors. In the myths and legends retold in this immortal poem, Fagles has captured the energy of Homer’s original in a bold, contemporary idiom.
REVIEW + THOUGHTS
I study Classics at university. One of my favourite book series of all time is the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (and the subsequent Heroes of Olympus series). In Grade 12, when a few classmates and I went to Greece on a school trip, I fangirled the entire time. Basically, I’m a huge mythology nerd. I love anything and everything related to ancient Greece.
I’m also going to be clear here that the edition of The Odyssey that I read in its entirety was not the one translated by Robert Fagles. Though I’ve read parts of that edition for one of my university classes, the version I will be discussing here is the Stephanides Brothers’ version, which I bought while I was in Greece.
I’m making this distinction because the style of the Stephanides Brothers’ edition is very different from the Fagles edition, and if I’m honest, I found the Fagles edition better. The Stephanides Brothers’ Odyssey came across as a little too over-romanticized, and it seemed—at least to me—like it glossed over many of the less-savory parts. Circe, for example, seems to be much more benevolent and kind-hearted, and the destruction Odysseus wreaks on his return is far more… clean, for lack of a better word. Even the way Odysseus spoke to Penelope when she doubted who he was sounded watered-down.
Though I realize that romanticising is a key theme of Greek epics, the depiction of Odysseus in this edition seemed over-the-top. Almost everything he does or says is described in the noblest and bravest way possible; he is always the best in everything he does, too. The one time when he does something “bad”—losing control and taunting Polyphemus after he and his men have escaped—he does it for the men he’s lost, not his own pride. In my opinion, Fagles’ translation made Odysseus more human and more flesh-and-blood, and that’s why I liked it better.
As for the story itself, I like The Odyssey because Odysseus isn’t the standard Greek hero. Sure, he’s big, strong and handsome—the calling card for all Greek heroes of ancient epic—but his main identifier is his cunning intelligence. For the most part, Odysseus thinks his way out of situations before he fights in them, which is why it’s so fitting that Athena is the goddess who helps him. To me, his use of brain alongside brawn is what makes Odysseus a more interesting character than, say, Achilles in The Iliad.
Another thing I really liked was how both Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, showed visible change in their characters by the end of the epic. Telemachus starts off as the “weak” boy, having grown up being bossed around and mistreated by his mother’s suitors. To put it bluntly, he didn’t have much of a backbone. Yet even as soon as Athena speaks to him and gives him courage, he starts to stick up for himself more. And by the time he returns from Sparta, he is self-assured and confident, and now able to handle himself against Penelope’s suitors. Odysseus’s change is subtler; his fatal flaw is hubris, excessive pride, and when he starts his journey home, this is easy to see. This is starkest when he antagonizes the cyclops Polyphemus. But his ten-year journey humbles him, and by the time he returns to Ithaca, he has learned to temper his fatal flaw much more easily.
For me, the bottom line is this: for all the slightly hokey bits, The Odyssey is a pretty great adventure. There’s a reason it’s so famous, and that’s because it’s so characteristic of the adventure genre itself—The Odyssey is basically the “OG” starting point of the Monomyth. It’s a perfect match for Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey model, a popular plotting device many writers (myself included) still use to plan their stories today. If just for a better understanding of the mythic hero, I’d recommend it to any and all adventure and epic fantasy writers. But hey, the story’s pretty good too, and if you give it a chance, you might really enjoy it.
What book(s) did you read this month? I’m always up for new recommendations!
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