Rather than discuss a year I spent in Greece (how I wish) or my membership in a sorority (which sounds like a nightmare), I will tell you about the completion of an odyssey started a couple of years ago. Whatever else 2020 might have been, it also was the year in which I finally reached my goal of reading Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Not the original versions, mind you, which would have required much study as my Greek language skills are next to nonexistent, but an English translation.
But which translation? After studying “It’s All Greek to Me” in my perpetual quest to get a better handle on antiquity, I followed the author’s recommendation and asked my husband for a birthday gift—the handsome boxed set of Homer’s classics by translator Robert Fagles. And while I dove into The Iliad right away, it took me a looong time to fight my way through the chronicle of the ten-year Trojan War, even though the book only discusses the final year of the action. My capacity was limited to absorb warriors’ genealogies on both Greek and Trojan sides, understand the seemingly arbitrary interventions of different gods, and stomach one war injury after the next, variously afflicted by spears, axes, or swords. The very detailed descriptions of human carnage would make a great study for trauma surgeons, who could conceive of an operative plan to treat the afflicted. If The Iliad is not required reading for future surgeons, it should be.
The Trojan War was fought because Helen of Greece either was abducted by Paris of Troy, or followed him willingly, leaving behind her husband Menelaus. He and his brother Agamemnon organized a fleet with various Greek tribes to sail for Troy (known as Ilium—hence the “Iliad” is a poem about Ilium) to bring Helen back. Agamemnon is chosen leader of the united Greek forces and is called a hero, but he is proud, selfish, and willing to risk countless lives by insisting on having the Trojan slave Briseis, who had rightfully been “won” by Greek warrior Achilles, for himself (the standard practice of rape is never questioned), after he is asked to return his own sex slave to her father, a priest. As a result, Achilles makes the equally selfish choice to no longer do combat for the Greeks, regardless of the havoc wreaked by his decision. His mind is changed only after Patroclus, his beloved friend, is killed. Patroclus was not a warrior, but he took up arms because he could not bear watching his fellow Greeks perish. His death puts Achilles in such a rage that he finally fights and is responsible for killing Hector, son of King Priam and Troy’s best fighter. This leads to the ultimate conquest of Troy with the help of the Trojan Horse, though I was surprised to learn that this is mentioned only in passing in the sequel to The Iliad.
This sequel, The Odyssey, was easier to get through even though it also abounds in accounts of graphic violence. But not all narrative strands deal with fighting. Many deal with human scheming, lying, and conniving, to say nothing of the childish, selfish, jealous, and otherwise ludicrous doings the Olympian Gods engage in.
The Odyssey is named for Odysseus, another Greek “hero” and originator of the Trojan Horse. He also makes countless poor choices and ends up losing all his men while they attempt to reach their home island Ithaca. The return trip takes another 10 years because the protagonist offends Poseidon by blinding his son, Cyclops Polyphemus. Odysseus eventually completes his journey because of divine help bestowed by Athena. After his homecoming, he suspiciously tests the loyalty of his wife Penelope, who has remained faithful to him for 20 years, while he has enjoyed sex with both mortal women and immortal goddesses. And despite having seen so much murder and mayhem, Odysseus is not yet ready to hang up his weapons. More bloodshed follows when he and his son Telemachus kill all the suitors who have tried to win Penelope’s hand while Odysseus was absent. The enslaved women who had “lain” with the suitors (whether or not they did so voluntarily is not considered), were brutally hanged.
Just as I was finishing Fagles’s 1996 translation of The Odyssey, a friend told me about a more recent 2018 translation remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only is it the first one by a woman, Professor of classical studies Emily Wilson decided to follow Homer’s lead and present the epic poem in verse. Instead of the six-footed lines (dactylic hexameters) that were the conventional meter in archaic Greece, she employed a meter English speakers are more accustomed to from reading Shakespeare and the like—iambic pentameter, which employs five-footed lines. And all this she did by holding the poem to the same length as the original, which makes it possible to open her opus on any given page and compare chapter and line numbers to Homer’s text.
The following examples illustrate the difference between the two versions. They represent the very beginning of The Odyssey:
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.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
Many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
Fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home. (Robert Fagles)
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the sea, and how he worked
to save his life and bring his men back home. (Emily Wilson)
“I prefer the first example, “ you might exclaim, which was my initial reaction. I don’t mind effusive language and originally thought Fagles sounded more lyrical. But I changed my mind once I read passages aloud and was swept along by the sparse prose and musical rhythm of Wilson’s meter.
What did my Greek year teach me? In addition to refreshing my memory about a confusing litany of names, both human and divine, my understanding of the events surrounding the Trojan War and the subsequent fate of its protagonists was improved. I also learned that both authorship and age of these so-called Homeric poems are still debated by scholars today. Consensus exists that they arose from an oral tradition and were recited for live audiences before being written down anytime between the late eighth and late seventh centuries BCE, but who did the writing down is less clear.
It is not my intention to belittle these important touchstones of world literature, but however interesting and intriguing they might be, edifying they are not. They left me with the sense that humans have always been imperfect, bumbling, or even downright devious. The Iliad and The Odyssey don’t offer a solution to this perpetual dilemma, they simply depict our faults and frailties. And in the pantheon of Greek gods, not one is without his or her own foibles.
In addition to the works discussed, I also read the following two novels not once, but twice, as I found them very enjoyable and relatable. Both were written by Madeline Miller, also a classics scholar, and could be considered fanfiction at a very high level. They imagine the lives of some of the characters of Homer’s opus in detail and present them as more fleshed out beings.
Please share your impressions and thoughts if you have had your own version of a Greek year or are familiar with any of the books discussed here.