“Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.”
And, since Homer was apparently big in Rennaissance England…well, here we are. The Odyssey, the greatest story ever written in the West (allegedly), the one that most people know to some extent, even if it’s only the bit with the Cyclops. It tells the story of Odysseus, returning to his native Ithaca after the fall of Troy, a journey that takes him only a matter of ten years or so.
Here’s the thing. All those fantastical adventures – the Cyclops, Circe the witch, the journey to the Underworld and blind Tiresias – take up five books. Out of twenty-four. The rest is given over, mostly, to the business with Penelope’s suitors, who, believing Odysseus to be dead, are eating him out of house and home as well as courting his wife. We get a lot of ancient Greek cultural insights in these nineteen books, and, to be honest, one would have been enough. The Greeks are nasty to their women, nasty to their servants, nasty to their hosts, nasty to their guests. Take a look at their gods, for heavens’ sake. What can you expect of a society whose head god is married to his sister?
And, really, Odysseus is not a nice protagonist. He’s a compulsive liar, letting his friends and family believe that he is dead while standing right in front of them. He sails past Scylla and Charybdis knowing full well that at least six of his men are going to die, and deliberately concealing this information from them. He threatens his old nurse with death to prevent her from revealing his identity. You can tell me about cultural difference until you’re blue in the face, but nothing is going to convince me that Odysseus is in any way good or brave. Clever, yes. But so was Moriarty.
It would have been nice, too, to have a map of some kind. For all I knew, Ithaca could have been just off the coast of Narnia. And although this translation -by E.V. Rieu – was about as readable as translations get without wild invention, it was just a bit…colourless. That was the thing that surprised me most, I think. All those adventures, the ones we’ve remembered and retold for thousands of years, pass almost unmarked, certainly without any sense of excitement or fear. Ultimately I found that The Odyssey was disappointing and infuriating, and incredibly difficult to concentrate on for any length of time.