BOOK REVIEW: Odyssey by Homer [A. Pope translation]

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer

Translated by: Alexander Pope

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This epic poem tells the tale of the action-packed return of the King of Ithaca, Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin,) from the Trojan War, as well as, of his resumption of the throne. The return home is harrowing because, early in the journey (though not in the story,) Odysseus blinds a cyclops that turns out to be the son of the sea god Poseidon (a.k.a. Neptune.) Because he incurs the wrath of Poseidon, the journey which – even in the rickety sailing / rowing ships of the day – would have taken a few weeks, took ten years, most of which he was the guest / hostage of the nymph Calypso. Retaking the throne was challenging because he was enshrouded in a disguise by Athena (a.k.a. Pallas) so he couldn’t just walk right up and say “remember this face, I’m the boss.” The disguise is donned so he can make sure his wife, Penelope, is being faithful (despite the fact that he’s been schtooping nymphs, witches, and probably a few human women that don’t bear mentioning) and since throngs of suitors have descended on Penelope’s castle who would rather see Odysseus dead (in hopes of acquiring his kingdom) it’s safer all around to check things out in disguise.

The poem doesn’t take a linear approach. It begins twenty years after the war at Troy. Everyone who survived is back, except Odysseus and his men, and so a plague of suitors vies for Penelope’s hand in marriage so that one of them can acquire Ithaca’s wealth. Penelope, the picture of matrimonial virtue, is not having it, but Greek hospitality says you’ve got to feed and look after visitors (because they might just be gods in disguise.) The first few books not only set up the problem of the suitors but also follow Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, as he travels around trying to find out from those who returned from Troy whether they know anything about Odysseus’s whereabouts.

The poem then skips to where Odysseus was at the time of Telemachus’s travels, which was stuck on Calypso’s island. The gods intervene to force Calypso to let the King go, but Poseidon is still upset and swamps Odysseus’s ship. Odysseus washes up onshore and makes fast friends with the local king and queen. It is through friendly discussion that we hear about all the trials and tribulations of Odysseus’s journey up to that point. He tells the couple about how he blinded a cyclops with clever word play and a flaming stick, how Poseidon first tempest-tossed him, how he ended up on the island of the nymph / witch – Circe, how Circe turned his men into swine, how he survived the Sirens by plugging the ears of his men and tying himself to the mast, how he survived the horrifying monsters Scylla and Charybdis, how he visited the underworld and met with some comrades from the Trojan War, how he got stuck on Calypso’s island, and then how he ended up on the island on which he tells the story. The king and queen are big fans, and send Odysseus off with best wishes and some parting gifts.

Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca, is summarily dropped off on the shore with said gifts – while he’s sleeping. That’s when he gets his disguise from Athena. He reveals himself to Telemachus, but otherwise keeps it all on the down-low, even keeping his return from Penelope. Telemachus also has to be careful because many of the suitors would love to assassinate him because he’s the only male opposition to their plans (if you haven’t noticed, Ancient Greece was misogynistic.)

Odysseus checks out the town in his beggar disguise and is enraged that the suitor’s have overstayed their welcome, are eating all the island’s livestock – not to mention trying daily to get in his wife’s knickers. It all comes to a climax when a festival banquet takes place, and Penelope (who is always looking for creative and / or polite ways to put off her suitors) says that she’s willing to marry any among them who has the strength and skill to string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axe heads (battle-axes with a hollowed out blade so the weight is reduced.) They all fail. Some have arms too puny to string the bow; others lack the accuracy to shoot through the rings. That’s when disguised Odysseus says he’d like a try. The suitors object that he’s a beggar and couldn’t possibly run a kingdom. Telemachus, who knows what is up and who is – with his mother – hosting the event, agrees to let the disguised King take his shot. He succeeds, and then goes on a killing spree of the suitors.

After the bloodbath, he has to take great efforts to convince Penelope that he is actually her husband, the King. The god-given disguise is only part of what makes Penelope doubt. Odysseus has convinced everyone else by then. However, Penelope has had men trying to get in the sack with her for a decade, and to her mind it wouldn’t be above some skeezy god to play this gambit to try to bed her. She thinks the killing spree smells of god-like activity. [Even by Hollywood standards one guy killing 108 suitors (plus who knows how many of their groupies and hangers-on) strains credulity.] But eventually she is convinced.

Then Odysseus has to go see his father, Laertes, who is not long for this world. It’s during this visit that a second wave of attackers comes, and the “feeble old man” Laertes puts a javelin through the chest of the first of them. Then there’s a divine intervention that keeps the bloodbath from rolling on.

The most commonly stated moral of the story is: don’t run afoul of the gods. [Put more broadly / secularly, this could be restated as: behave morally.] Of course, Odysseus is not particularly moral, and he ultimately does alright despite being a liar, a trickster, a cheater, and a hypocrite (not to mention the murderousness.) So, there might be an additional clause, i.e. “behave virtuously, but – if you can’t – be on good terms with a few choice gods.” In truth, “use deception skillfully” may be more of the true moral of the story. Being tricky is a major part of what gets Odysseus through when all about him are dying. Modern critics sometimes take as a moral: “If women be nutty, then men are stark, raving lunatics.” This is consistent with what we see in the story (and, perhaps, in life,) but it would probably be attributing more progressiveness to the blind poet, Homer, than was the case.

I read the Alexander Pope translation, which is surprisingly readable given that it’s from the early eighteenth century (1720’s.) There were a few turns of phrase that I couldn’t find anywhere in dictionaries or search engine, but nothing that caused a major misunderstanding. It is a metered and rhymed translation, so it’s fun to read. Still if one isn’t comfortable with reading archaic English (for example if one doesn’t like reading Shakespeare,) one might not find it as enjoyable and easy to follow. That said, the edition I read had a short prose synopsis at the start of each book (i.e. chapter,) and reading that increases comprehension of the verse [if you don’t mind spoilers, which – if you’ve read this far, you presumably don’t.]

I’d highly recommend reading the Odyssey, and I was pleased with the Pope translation.

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POEM: Calypso Facto

For seven years,
Ulysses was hostage to Calypso.

He was like, “Wife is waiting, gotta go!”

“You know, by Neptune, you are still cursed?”

“Being stranded with you was fun at first…”

“Out there’s the ever-present threat of Death.”

“Worth it, to not wake to your morning breath.”

COVID-19, you are my Calypso!



[Anyone got Zeus’s number?]