Reviews of The Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE) and related work
- Adaptation: The Odyssey (1997)
The Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE)
Read in Swedish, and later in English, specifically in Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation.
By the near-omission of slavery and the status of women from his otherwise brilliant 60-page introduction to Fagles’s translation, Bernard Knox illustrates the need for Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation. Knox nonetheless goes over the centuries of scholarship with a light touch and explains that Odysseus’s trick of introducing himself to Polyphemus as Nobody (outis for ou tis) is not just a pun but a fucking double-layered pun. The other Cyclops inquires, “If nobody’s killing you...”, using the form mê tis for the hypothetical, which sounds just like mêtis, “craft”, Odysseus’s chief weapon.
I am aware of the absurdity of rating such an influential ancient work, but in its own time it had nothing to do with a spurious “European” cultural bedrock and was probably not so unique or original as it seemed after its inspiration was lost. It was a fantasy on a historical theme, with colourful episodes that can still grip a reader: Great temptations, terrible injuries, camaraderie, etc. Slave and female characters contribute to the narrative and help elevate it above many genre fantasy works of the modern era. This is the most essential ancient epic because of its sweep and peacetime setting. It meanders, but unlike The Iliad or The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE), it is not the vainglorious story of some war or king. It is about slightly more ordinary people, with stronger sensuous elaboration. As such it contains a seed of the novel.