Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Odyssey

After my long struggle with the Iliad, I almost spiked the Odyssey. I'm glad I didn't. Part of the reason I enjoyed it more may have been switching versions,* but I think it had more to do with the story itself. The themes of war and vengeance and bloodshed are never dull, but I found a lot more to identify with in the Odyssey: a tired wanderer trying to get home, a faithful wife waiting for his return, a son trying to grow up into the reputation of the father he cannot even remember.

Every modern adaptation of the story I had read put the emphasis on the wanderings of Ulysses and the novelty of his adventures.** But Homer opens the story just as Ulysses is about to return home. All of his really dangerous adventures are past, and are only told as tales around the fire. Suspense was not an important value in Greek literature, perhaps because everybody already knew the plot. Homer creates ample dramatic tension without it, as Ulysses returns home in disguise and grows more and more enraged at the insolence of the suitors.

The homecoming of Ulysses is frequently contrasted with that of Agamemnon: Agamemnon's wife has taken up with someone else in his absence and they conspire to slay him just as he returns home victorious from the Trojan War. Ulysses has been driven off course many times, but he's come close enough to home to hear this tale and knows to approach carefully. Not that he wouldn't have anyway. The man is a congenital liar--he simply can't imagine giving himself away by initially telling the truth to anyone. Yet for all that he's rather a charming fellow and I can't help liking him.

And although O Brother, Where Art Thou? of course completely mangles the story, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" is the perfect soundtrack for the Odyssey.

*The only trouble was, the new version used the Latin names for the characters, whereas the other version used the Greek, so now instead of Pallas Athene guiding Odysseus, I was reading about Minerva guiding Ulysses. Rather confusing, and the Greek names are so much prettier. Pallas Athene sounds like something high and shining; Minerva sounds like a bony Yankee spinster.

**I have since found that Padraic Colum's retelling of the Odyssey better duplicates the emphasis of the original story, and in general his books of Greek legends seem to me to come closest to reflecting the way the Greeks approached their own stories.


le Duc said...

"Yet for all that . . . I can't help liking him."

Now we know why she and I are together ~

Queen of Carrots said...

What? Are you saying you're a congenital liar?

lindafay said...

My husband enjoyed Oh brother, where art thou? I still haven't figured it out. I mean, why? I liked the Odyssey just the way it was.