The Odyssey - Homer (Translated by E. V. Rieu)

The Odyssey
Translated by E. V. Rieu
Penguin Classics
ISBN: 0140449116 (Amazon link)

I'll admit I struggled a bit to get through The Iliad, but I was keen to go on and read the The Odyssey and The Aeneid as well. Partly this was for the very silly reason that I wanted to see whose idea the Trojan horse was. I don't know why, but out of all the colourful nonsense in classical myth, the Horse annoys me [1]. It just seems like a ridiculous premise, neither realistic enough to be believed as historical, nor satisfyingly fantastic enough to be mythological. For some reason, it's probably also the most familiar classical story to most people, perhaps tied with Jason and the Golden Fleece when it comes to the gold standard of popular recognition: Technicolour (tm) remakes and appearances in cartoons. Anyway, turns out Homer is the primary culprit after all, though there must be yet more to come from later authors, as the Horse in the Odyssey gets just a passing mention [2].

I choose E. V. Rieu's translation using the highly scientific method of (a) seeing what editions my favourite local bookshop had and (b) reading page 70 of each. Okay, so I'm talking about a sample set of two here, but still, at least I tried to make an informed choice! Turns out to have been a good choice too, Rieu's translation probably horrifies those who can read the original Greek, but as English prose it's highly readable and enjoyably idiomatic (eg Poseidon promises Odysseus a "bellyful of trouble").

Much of the story itself was of course very familiar, partly through exposure in childhood storybooks and Ray Harryhausen films, and partly as some of it is recycled from, or recycled by?, the story of Jason. What I had never come across though, bizarrely, is the frame story, the central tale of Odysseus trying to get home to his beloved Penelope. I'll admit a modern bemusement at the set-up with the suitors, but then, I have much the same problem with relatively modern classics like, say, Pride & Prejudice as well. Marriage customs, they do vary. However, armed with the explicatory preface, I happily accepted the situation and settled back to admire the genius of Homer. Because I'm quite convinced that the generations who have gone before me and lauded this as one of the first and finest novels were quite right. The mythological episodes, heavy on squabbling gods, vicious monsters and strange happenings, are all secondary to the ever-growing tension around Odysseus' return to his wife. The use of multiple flashback to break the framing story up and to inject additional significance into each piece you're shown is cruelly brilliant. Okay, so the actual ending is a little anti-climactic, and apparently often argued over when it comes to what should or shouldn't be there, but this was a superb, exciting read. I didn't expect that. I expected a powerful story, and colourful, memorable episodes, but I expected the reading experience to be like The Iliad, struggling past the stiff, heavily translated writing and alien formalisms to get the juicy story hidden behind. I didn't expect reading The Odyssey to culminate in sitting up until 4:30am to find out how it ended.

I don't even feel the need to explain that The Odyssey is more accessible than you might think. This was a great read. Recommended. Obviously.

[1] Given that I'm working, very slowly, through Robert Grave's The Greek Myths: Volume One, I'm aware quite how colourfully fantastic, and at times downright ridiculous without explanation, these myths can be. Regardless of that, the Horse still bugs me.

[2] Update: I read The Aeneid next, so I now know Virgil added many of the embellishments I had been wondering about.

Posted: Sun - May 23, 2004 at 11:41 PM