Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Book Review: The Odyssey

The wet weather over the weekend was a perfect excuse to put my feet up and read The Odyssey. Not in the original Greek of course, and not just a translation, but a retelling for the "young adult" market by Barbara Leonie Picard.

It was a gripping though surprising read. I'd heard so much about Odysseus's journey, of the battles with one eyed monsters, witches, sirens and the six armed Scylla that I thought the wanderings would be the meat of the book with the return a neat way of wrapping up the story at the end.

But I discovered that the odyssey (as we use the word) is only about a third, with another third describing life in his home just before his return, as his son reaches manhood, and the final third the unification of the family.

For this is not a book about travel, it is a story of return, of home and the gap that is left by a traveller. The emotions of Odysseus together with those of his wife, son and friends are crystal clear even after 3,000 years, and that makes it all the more real.

The text by Barbara Leonie Picard is wonderful. You get a real sense of life back in 1,188 BC for the farming and fishing communities of Greece, when each island had its king. Small details catch the imagination -  the affection that Odysseus's son Telemachus's old nurse shows towards him, Telemachus's wonder at his first journey by chariot on his way to meet his father's old friend and the legendary Helen, and one of the evil suitors for the fair Penelope tossing the dice from hand to hand, unable to reply to her taunts.

My only complaint is that she re-structured the story into chronological order. In Homer's original the order is 1. Life at home reaching a crisis, 2. The story of Odysseus's travels and 3. The return and death of the suitors.

However the Picard text has this in order 2-1-3, which is less interesting and it seems a bit ironic that modern audiences are thought to have difficulty with use of flash backs - or indeed the multiple layers of flash backs that Homer used to such skill. For in that order you are initially like Telemarchus uncertain as to what has happened to his father, and we can see the threat to him and his mother from the uninvited guests.

It was particularly interesting to read after Travelling Heroes, reviewed earlier, which gives a historian's analysis of these stories and what they say about the ancient Greek's world view.

A classic story, well worth reading in one form or other (translation of the original here) and the Picard book is great - apart of course from that re-structuring.

One question remains unanswered: what on earth did Odysseus say to his wife about where he'd been for the last ten years? "See I spent a year with this beautiful woman called Circe who was in love with me..... but you must understand she was a witch, so had no choice ..... then five years with a nymph called Calypso who was also in love with me..... but honest I had no choice! She was an immortal!"


Tillerman said...

I like the Cream's version best. Especially Clapton's use of the wah-wah pedal.

JP said...

Purple fish flashback!

(before my time of course)

O Docker said...

She's not an immortal, she's a very naughty girl.