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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What I’m Reading: The Odyssey

This year I’m making it a point to read through several of the classics of western civilization.  I starting with The Iliad, earlier this year, and now I've finished The Odyssey.  Next I’ll move from Homer to Virgil and read The Aeneid, and then I'll move on to Pharsalia by the Roman poet, Lucan.

Of the two works by Homer, I preferred The Iliad over The Odyssey.   This preference may, in part, be for the translations.  The translation of The Odyssey by Robert Fagles seemed less lively, less vigorous than The Iliad as translated by Stephen Mitchell, but I also think it was a matter of the story telling itself.

The Iliad was very immediate, in the gory visceral now while in The Odyssey much of the action is recounted for us at a distance, second hand.  We don’t get to experience the siren’s song, or the strange lethargy of the Lotus eaters.  We don’t see Scylla or Charybdis.  Homer has Odysseus tells us about them – and briefly at that. Homer has Odysseus give us the summary version of these exciting encounters.  All of which breaks the first rule of storytelling: show – don’t tell.

And then after his circuitous journey from Troy back to Ithaca, Odysseus has to deal with the many rude and vulgar suitors who have taken up camp in his home, trying to steal his wife.  This second half of the story neatly balances out the travelogue of the first half – but there’s a lot less happening here.  Odysseus talks and talks and talks until he finally gets around to slaughtering the suitors. 

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy reading The Odyssey; I did.  But I don’t find it quite as compelling as The Iliad.  Still, there’s a reason that it is part of our cultural heritage, why it hasn’t faded from memory.  It’s a great story.  

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