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The Old Beggar and the Sea

I cannot say anything about Homer’s “Odyssey” that hasn’t been said before, so I’m going to take a personal angle on this one. I’m going to try to describe why I loved “The Iliad” even in high school but have never gotten around to its sequel until now. To sum up, I think I loved “The Iliad” because of its war but I skipped past “Odyssey” because I was afraid of women. For me at 17, the entire subject of women and sex and love was just baffling: embarrassing, hurtful and unscale-able.

Now, I don’t have clear memories of setting aside “The Odyssey” in high school, or of muddling through it as I did all through often with difficult reads. Perhaps all the goddesses and mortal women met by Odysseus on his homeward journey intimidated me, or the premise of coming home to a lost love just struck me as a boring “homefront” tale compared to the siege of Troy. All I clearly remember is that “The Odyssey” didn’t light my fire.

And I loved “The Iliad” to an extent that even surprised me, given that I had always loved reading about World War II, the American Civil War, etc. I read Richmond Lattimore’s translation. I always remember the spelling of “Hektor”. I remember that there were no chapter titles, and that I memorized the chapter numbers according to what happened in each: who fell in chapter 14, who faced off in 17, or never faced off, that type of thing.

I’ve always remembered how my boy Hektor was done right by Lattimore, who explains in his introduction that Homer is playing the game from two sides. Homer must build up Hektor as a worthy opponent, so he tells us constantly about how near-invincible Hektor is, but he’s careful not to show Hektor beating in single combat any one of the principle Greek heroes like Aias, Agamemnon or Odysseus. In Lattimore’s view, Homer —

has so industriously diminished his Goliath for the sake of others that we sense deception, and feel that Hektor ‘really was‘ greater than Patroklos or any other Achaian except Achilleus. For this Hektor, Homer’s Hektor, who brags outrageously, who sometimes hangs back when the going is worst, who bolts from Achilleus, is still the hero who forever captures the affection and admiration of the modern reader, far more strongly than his conqueror has ever done. Such are the accidental triumphs of Homer.

See, I still get righteously excited talking about The Iliad!

Over the years I did learn the basic story of “The Odyssey” and even read some chapters from it, like the descent into Hades, and the reunion of Father and Son. Back in 1997 when Hallmark Entertainment put out a television adaptation of “The Odyssey” starring Armand Assante and Isabella Rossellini, I bought Ian McKellen’s audiotape reading of “The Odyssey”, which used the new translation by Robert Fagles. It’s the only time I’ve ever tried listening to an audio book, and it just didn’t work for me; I stopped after just a few chapters.

Fagles’ translation is beautiful, as every Homeric knows, but the translation I’ve chosen now is the recent one by Emily Wilson. What’s attracted me most is that this translation aims for a poetic but uncomplicated language, because Homer’s original style was not so high-flown as we might assume. As she explains in her introduction, Homer —

is not bombastic or grandiloquent. The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption. Homer’s language is markedly rhythmical, but it is not difficult or ostentatious. The Odyssey relies on coordinated, not subordinated syntax (“and then this, and then this, and then this,” rather than “although this, because of that, when this, which was this, on account of that”)….

[S]tylistic pomposity is entirely un-Homeric. I also hope to invite readers to respond more actively with the text. Impressive displays of rhetoric and linguistic force are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourage deeper modes of engagement. A consistently elevated style can make it harder for readers to keep track of what is at stake in the story.

That’s some righteous argument that I can get behind; and at the most basic level, I’ve been enjoying and appreciating Wilson’s English. It’s poetic, but you don’t perspire trying to understand the meaning.

I’m halfway through. Odysseus has been keeping company with Calypso, Charybdis, Circe, Scylla and Cyclops, but he’s escaped them all. He’s left Hades behind, after a haunting meeting with the shade of his mother. Disguised as a beggar he will soon go back to his family in Ithaca, where his son Telemachus has been tangling with the termites who threaten to eat up their home. Penelope is gamely hanging on, with the help-and-not-help of Athena.

By the way, Athena shines here; my 10-year-old daughter is getting a kick out of a few short passages I’ve been reading to her.

But maybe the standout passage for me is the appearance of Helen of Sparta, née Troy. I’m not terribly familiar with all the back-myth, and some of this can still hit me as new. Back from Troy, Helen is apparently happy in her old home. She welcomes Odysseus’ son to her house and knows him instantly. They begin telling stories of the Trojan War, and her husband recounts what she had done when the Trojan Horse was rolled into Troy. Turning to her, Menelaus tells how Helen approached the Horse —

Three times you went around the hollow belly,
touching the hiding place, and calling on
us Greeks by name; you put on different voices
for each man’s wife. Then I and Diomedes
and good Odysseus, inside the horse,
heard you call out to us, and we two wanted
to go out, or to answer from in there.
Odysseus prevented us from going.
Then all the other sons of the Achaeans
were quiet; Anticlus still wished to answer.
Odysseus’ hands clamped shut his mouth
and saved us all. He held him there like that,
until Athena led you far away.

Book IV, “What the Sea God Said,” 277-289

Helen is an unparalleled master of disguises, if she can successfully mimic so many voices. And she’s acting here like a kind of Siren, speaking in the voices of many.

And why does she do this? Surely it’s a ruse to lure the Greeks out. But if it’s a ruse, no one in the reunion scene back in Sparta expresses disapproval about it.

And if it’s a ploy, it works better than it should, because Helen is presenting all these wives as if they had just been taken to Troy — willing or unwilling. She’s essentially making every man in the Horse feel like he has his own Helen within the city.

Intriguing, wicked and mischievous.

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