The Odyssey by Homer

I never was a reader of classic in fact I had to read the cliff notes version before attempting one. Last year’s reading through all those Jane Austen was a pain but weirdly enough this classics is really good. Initially I thought The Odyssey would be hard on me and I was right when I begin the reading with Samuel Butler’s translation. I tried using Librivox’s audiobook to keep me going but its confusing me since Pallas Athena became Minerva, Zeus became Jove and Odysseus became Ulysses, I end up being so disinterest with the descriptiveness that I turn to Fagles. Fagles saved me.

There’s a huge differences between Fagles (1996), Butler’s (1922) and Rieu’s (1946) translations. I read through nearly half of Butler’s, quarter of Rieu’s and all of the Fagles and to be honest, if you saw Fagles version. Get them.

One of the reason that Fagles is most preferred is that when a professor recommend it, you get it. Other than that, Fagles is said to be closest to the poetic form from the original Ancient Greek and even I notice the poetic elements in the words rather than the excessive descriptive paragraphs of the same thing with Rieu and Butler’s. Both translated Odyssey in novel style and most of the free source “The Odyssey” translation came from Butler, it made absolute sense why some people have differences in opinions on this epic.

Before I began, I actually read this book with the help of Ian McKellan’s narration. I know I have been an anti-audiobook thing but I’m not being hypocrite, in fact I was still struggling with the audiobooks but I was absolutely fine with poems (and The Odyssey actually is a series of rhapsodies) since these things are not meant to be read. Its mean to be said out loud and for me, this is quite an exception. But I still have problems concentrating with the listening part because I often fall asleep or space out so thats why I read and listen at the same time.

With Ian McKellan’s (aka Gandalf or Magneto if you don’t know who that was) theatric experience, he effectively brought the classic into deathless dramatic epicness. Experiencing “The Odyssey” is nothing if you haven’t listen to it being told by a bard who is ironically is who Ian McKellan is and listening to Sir Ian McKellan breathing the soul of Homer into Odyssey is possibly near orgasmic thing that I’ve ever had to listen to.

The Odyssey began with a prayer to the Muse as the narrator started giving a short summary of the story. It’s mostly centered around the events surrounding the missing hero, Odysseus, King of Ithaca. 20 years since Odysseus went to Troy to fight the war for Helen of Argos (not Helen of Troy!), the hero never went home and everyone including his wife and son accepted that he’s died. Years earlier prior to the even in the first book, hundreds of men came to Ithaca to court the King’s widow, Queen Penelope as it seems to be a custom for a beautiful young widow to remarry after the death of their husband. But Penelope managed to avoid the remarriage by prolonging the courtship which ends with the suitors overstaying Penelope’s palace for years and spend all of the palace’s resources on their feasting.

In the first book, Athena became distraught over the plight of the great hero who is stuck in limbo and the fate of Odysseus’s wife and son with their guests terrorizing their home. After she begged Zeus to command Calypso to let Odysseus go from her sensual snare, she disguised herself as Mentes, an old friend of Odysseus, to nudge the young prince to take action against the suitor’s menace. With the guidance by the goddess, Telemachus finally set off to the seas to search for real news from his father. Meanwhile, Odysseus escaped Calypso’s grasp finally heading towards his home but his journey was diverted and he was stranded again in Scheria due to Poseidon’s being angry over what Odysseus had blinded his son, the cyclops Polyphemus during his earlier journey. In Scheria, he began to weave his tale and finally tell the Phaecians of his past and his journey back from Troy to Ithaca. The tales itself include his encounter with Circe, Polyphebus, Aeolus, The Cattle of the Sun and etc. The Phaecians took pity on him and send him back to Ithaca where he plotted doom against the suitors who defiled his house.

The story is being told in various multiple narration in the beginning (Athena, Telemachus, Penelope, Odysseus etc) that is why I get some readers would get lost and felt it is boring but if its being read out loud, the poetry in Odyssey is much more prevalent than some passive narration style. Because Fagles updated the translation to be nearer to the original, you’ll get the feel of what Homer had initially tried to portray with his stories.

Since I do critical reading with The Odyssey, I do take note to the major recurrent theme of Xenia. A concept of hospitality by the Greek that embrace travelers into their home, mostly because they fear a god would disguise themselves as travellers and would punish them if they didn’t treat their guests well. There are also signs from the gods or the hint by Odysseus cunning tongue or the forebodings. Some argue that The Odyssey is used to justify the role of some political ideologies that even I couldn’t grasp it firmly. Besides I was thinking that The Odyssey’s characterizations and conflicts are being overused in so many modern literature particularly famous archetypal ones.

Other than that, I do notice this book is actually a mild romance novel, particularly with Penelope who is constantly grieving about her husband from the start of the book. I can’t say about Odysseus fidelity but frankly, some characters in this book is classic strong female archetype. Athena (obviously.. disguising as several guys, fighting in wars, a peacekeeper etc), Penelope (a loyal woman who acting skills and great patience is what kept her in that limbo and somehow did do something to escape her near inevitable fate of loveless forced marriage from a broken mutual love marriage), Calypso (a woman desperate in need of love and companionship so much that she offers everything kept a man who never love her) and Circe (basically a lonely girl who know how to defend herself against a bunch of men coming into her house and turn them into pigs which they are). Ironically, the female in this book have more character than a bunch of YA novels and hypes these days.

I had some misgivings about the story initially since Telemachus part of the book is really annoying. But it move well whenever Athena and Odysseus was around.

To anyone who is considering to take on the classic, for more immersive experience,  I would recommend the combination of Fagles translation and Sir Ian McKellan’s audiobook if you want to read the epic. It will take longer than a few days if you read them at night, but its well worth to see Ian McKellan curses and narrating female parts nicely.

3 thoughts on “The Odyssey by Homer

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