Fagles’s Odyssey: Divided loyalties in the first quarter

Fagles’s translation of the Odyssey is so great it hurts my brain. Granted, I am a sucker for epic poetry. I took eight years of Latin when I was in school, and I never loved anything we translated like I loved the Aeneid. It is epic. Plus I love the Greek and Roman gods. So I am reading the Odyssey right now, in the Fagles translation, which I have to say appears to be the best translation in all the land. Fagles. (Not Lattimore, Capt. Hammer). Check this out:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove–
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will – sing for our time too.

“Man of twists and turns” – Fagles, you sexy bastard.

My only problem is that I took Latin for eight years, Latin I took, not Greek. My visceral reactions are not perhaps along the exact lines that Homer intends. So when Athena says “I will send [Telemachus] off to Sparta and sandy Pylos”, I’m all, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Telemachus, no! Run! Don’t go where she sends you! Menelaus is in Sparta! Menelaus is the bad guy! Run away, run away! You can’t trust Athena! Don’t you remember how she made the snakes come out of her temple and eat up poor Laocoon and his two sons, all because he feared the Greeks et dona ferentes?”

And then Athena is all, “Hi, Telemachus. Here is a helpful sign from the gods. Here are some ideas for you of how to find your father again,” and Menelaus is all, “Hi, Telemachus. You have grown up so handsome. Your father was such a great guy. Can I interest you in some free stuff for your journey?”

I am #teamtrojans and have always been #teamtrojans and I will never be anything other than #teamtrojans. It is hard for me to remember that Homer, as a Greek, and Telemachus, as the son of Odysseus, are going to be #teamgreeks. I wish I could explain to them that, with one major exception either way (Odysseus is great; Paris is terrible), the Trojans are just better. Athena seems to think that we should be sorry that Agamemnon got killed, and okay, fair play to Homer and Fagles, the scene where Menelaus finds out his brother’s dead is rather affecting:

So Proteus said, and his story crushed my heart.
I knelt down in the sand and wept. I’d no desire
to go on living and see the rising light of day.
But once I’d had my fill of tears and writhing there,
the Old Man of the Sea who never lies continued,
“No more now, Menelaus. How long must you weep?
Withering tears, what good can come of tears?
None I know of. Strive instead to return
to your native country – hurry home at once!
Either you’ll find the murderer still alive
or Orestes will have beaten you to the kill.
You’ll be in time to share the funeral feast.”

But TOO BAD. Too bad for you, Menelaus! Too bad for you, Agamemnon! Agamemnon, if you will recall, killed his daughter in order to gain favorable weather conditions to go a-sailing off to plunder Troy, and then he pissed off his best warrior by stealing his girl, and then he put himself completely beyond the pale by taking my girl Cassandra home with him. Where she got killed, more or less in the crossfire, by Agamemnon’s justifiably angry wife. Ugh, I can’t stand Agamemnon.

(This passage was also the point at which I noticed that reading Homer was putting me in that special Greek ‘n’ Roman headspace that bears no relation at all to my normal morality. My sublessor, whose copy of the book I’m reading, wrote in the margin “Beaten you to the kill? What an odd way of working”, and when I read that, I scoffed and sneered and thought about how my sublessor plainly didn’t know how to please the gods, and how Odysseus would kick his sissy ass at an archery contest.)

But I love Odysseus. When Odysseus comes on screen (as it were) (or on an actual screen comme Sean Bean in Troy, and not to be critical, but why wasn’t that whole film about Sean Bean being Odysseus, when he was plainly the best thing about it?), I am suffused with feelings of joy and love. I trace this back to the Latin class I took as a high school freshman, the translations for which were all Hercules stories first semester, and all Odysseus stories second semester. Do you know how tedious it gets reading Hercules stories three days a week for eighteen weeks?

World: Here is an obstacle.
Hercules: I will punch it with my fists.

When we got to the second half of the book I was so relieved to be done with Hercules I embraced Odysseus with my whole heart. And so it is to this day. I know he didn’t have to sleep with Calypso (and there’s Penelope waiting at home), and I know he’s #teamgreeks and is directly responsible for the fall of Troy with all its contingent miseries (Andromache’s kid getting chucked off a mountain, Cassandra being sent home with Agamemnon, etc.), but what can I say? He’s better than Hercules.

(Better than Aeneas too. Don’t tell Virgil I said so.)

Check it out. He’s just washed up from being shipwrecked and tempest-tossed; he’s naked and “all crusted, caked with brine”, and he’s still a silver-tongued devil.

Here I am at your mercy, princess–
are you a goddess or a mortal? If one of the gods
who rules the skies up there, you’re Artemis to the life,
the daughter of mighty Zeus — I see her now — just look
at your build, your bearing, your lithe flowing grace…
But if you’re one of the mortals living here on earth,
three times blest are your father, your queenly mother,
three times over your brothers too. How often their hearts
must warm with joy to see you striding into the dances–
such a bloom of beauty. True, but he is the one
more blest than all other men alive, that man
who sways you with gifts and leads you home, his bride!
I have never laid eyes on anyone like you,
neither man nor woman…
I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me.

I am so taken with Fagles’s translation that it’s got me genuinely wondering if I read it before. I thought I had, but maybe I was thinking of someone else, someone not as good. Like Lattimore. If you have not read Homer, may I suggest you acquire Fagles’s translation and get on that right away?

Meanwhile, are you #teamtrojans or #teamgreeks, and why? I particularly want to know why if you are #teamgreeks, what with the Trojans being better and all.

44 thoughts on “Fagles’s Odyssey: Divided loyalties in the first quarter

  1. Best. Odyssey review. Ever. I laughed so hard. I have taught both The Odyssey and The Iliad, and I agree with you about Agamemnon. Odysseus is pretty bad-ass, but my favorite character in The Iliad is Hector. Noble warrior. The scene in which he scares his son while wearing a helmet and then tells the boy how one day he will be a warrior gets me so choked up. But I am not either #teamgreeks or #teamtrojans. I have not read Fagles. I have Fitzgerald’s translation and usually teach The Odyssey with an accessible translation by Stanley Lombardo.

    • Oh, I love that scene with Hector and his son. I like Hector a lot – out of the soldiers, he’s my favorite. Not counting Odysseus, I suppose.

      I’ve never even heard of the Lombardo translation! Maybe I’ll check it out and see how it compares to my lovely Fagles.

  2. LOL, this awesomeness of a post almost makes me want to read the Odyssey again. I read it thrice in college, and I wanted to slit my own throat with a rusty butter knife by the time all was said and done. BUT, this translation does seem sexy.

    • Good heavens. What rubbish translation did YOU have? And what kind of a rubbish teacher? The Odyssey’s brilliant! It would take almost no effort at all on the part of a professor to make students love it! I am shocked that you did not enjoy it. It is all archetypal and full of boats.

      • I had a pretty rubbish teacher myself, too, and were it not for your post it never would have occurred to me to reread The Odyssey. Now I find myself glancing at my TBR pile and imagining it in the stack . . . somewhere near the top . . . πŸ™‚

  3. I think maybe the translation that you’re thinking of is Fitzgerald, because the two are pretty similar. I’m permanently on Team Fitzgerald, because my father read that translation out loud to me when I was four, and then I read it again for my ninth-grade English class and fell in love with it, so for me that is the Odyssey and there will be no other. But the Fagles translation does sound very good.

    What I really love about Odysseus is how much respect he has for Penelope’s intelligence. They are by far the smartest people in the book and they know it, and that’s why Odysseus tries so hard to get back to Penelope and why Penelope waits for him for so long – there’s just nobody else who measures up. What I don’t love about Odysseus, though, is his apparent inability to think of his shipmates as human beings. He seems like somebody who’s much better on a solo mission than he is as a leader.

    My favorite line from the Odyssey is (and I’m quoting from memory so this may be a little off): “What a dear welcome thing life seems to children whose father, in the extremity, recovers after some weakening and malignant illness; his pangs are gone, the gods have delivered him. So dear and welcome to Odysseus the sight of land, of woodland, on that morning.” It’s such a wonderful and perceptive and totally unexpected comparison.

    • No no, I definitely didn’t read Fitzgerald. I remember we talked in my class about Fitzgerald and how we weren’t reading his translation because [the reason is lost from my memory]. I am all about Fagles.

      I love some of the comparisons that Homer comes up with. Actually, the massive extended similes are one of my favorite things about epic poems – sometimes they drive me crazy (especially when I have to translate them), but sometimes Homer and Virgil hit upon something precisely perfect. I love the one you mention. πŸ™‚

  4. You’ve totally made me want to read this again. I read the Fitzgerald translation the first time through and loved it to death, but everyone heaps so much praise onto Fagles that I feel like I’ve gotta give the guy a shot. Plus, I tried to read Fitzgerald’s Iliad, and it just didn’t grab me the way his Odyssey did. Sadness.

    I don’t believe I’ve ever stopped to consider which team I’m on, but I think I’m #teamtrojans. The Greeks are all nasty and/or whiney, while I remember Hector being a pretty nice guy. Achilles, though… my goodness, that dude was a total wanker! I remember being pleased with the way Brad Pitt portrayed him in Troy, because he didn’t make him noble or heroic or any of that garbage. He played him like the wanker he is, and that was refreshing.

    • I think the Iliad is just not as good. There’s isn’t the same emotional resonance (for me) as with the Odyssey and the Aeneid, of these people cast onto the seas and tired from war and trying to find home. So yes! Read the Fagles! He is a beautiful translator!

      The Greeks are terrible. I am hardcore #teamtrojans. And I would agree with you about Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Achilles, except I remember absolutely nothing about how he played it. I was blinded by the abs or something. I feel like he one time stabbed someone in the neck, and that’s basically the only thing I remember about Brad Pitt in that film.

  5. Not saying Achilles didn’t have a reason to be pissy, but the way I sometimes explain his retreat to his tent when his fellows need him is that he decided to take his ball and go home. Hector, on the other hand, hates his brother’s folly in starting the war, but he will fight for his people.

  6. Hahahaha. You’re hilarious! I was so taken by your post, and particularly because I’m in the middle of this awesome book as well.. just put it down awhile ago around the time Odysseus landed on Ithaca and awoken by himself and Athena arrives to guide him back to his home.

    I have recently read The Iliad and wonder how I could be enjoying The Odyssey a million times more than The Iliad, both translated by Fagles, which you are right, is so wonderfully done. Tell me it’s because The Iliad just describes who killed who and how while The Odyssey is an otherwise great adventure!

    This is my first reading of both, but as I came in knowing a little of the story I had some prejudices and I am definitely and always have been all for TeamTrojan. In fact, I may have enjoyed The Iliad less for knowing the end, my dear Hector killed! I squealed with delight when Achilles refused to fight for Agamemnon for a time. I loathe Agamemnon, for all the same reasons you stated. Ugh.

    But anyhow, Odysseus IS adorable and I forgive him for slaying the Trojans, I do, mostly because he is fantastic-looking and dons those strikingly lovely curls and shining eyes. I shall forge on but will be heartbroken once this tale is done.. *sigh*

    • Yup! It’s because the Iliad is just not as good, and also because it’s all about how the Greeks slaughtered my lovely Trojans and pillaged my lovely Troy. I’m going to reread the Iliad when I get home, but I do not expect it will give me as much joy as The Odyssey is. I’m glad you’re enjoying the Fagles too! Isn’t he wonderful?

      I forgive Odysseus too. He’s so clever and tricky, and I love clever people.

  7. This review was so hilarious! I haven’t read this book, and frankly, I a bit intimidated by it, but I did enjoy reading your enthusiastic reactions to it, and I have to admit that now I am thinking about trying to pick it up. I know it will probably be a really intense reading experience and that it will definitely challenge me, but you make it sound so wonderful that I think I might have to try it. Thanks for the excellent review!

    • Don’t be intimidated. It’s not that scary, honestly – I thought it was for years, and when I finally picked it up I was impressed by how accessible a story it is. Plus, it is split up into 24 books, and each book is relatively short. So you could decide that you are going to read one book; and then if you like it, you can read one more book; and so on like that. πŸ™‚

  8. Okay, look. I have a huge TBR pile and I can’t just be picking up my Fagles Odyssey for a re-read every time you make me remember how awesome it is! So, shush! πŸ˜‰

  9. I don’t like Ajax or Achilles, but I love Odysseus and am moderately fond of Patroclus…and Hector. Do I have to choose sides? Can I just be Switzerland, like Bella? πŸ˜›

    Great (and ver’ funny) review! I loved the quotes you chose and they are a solid argument for Fagles.

    • You cannot be Switzerland, there was no Switzerland in ancient times. Troy is better, you should be #teamtrojans. #TEAMTROJANS FTW

      (You know the Trojans win in the end, right? I mean taking the long view? So you might as well support their side.)

  10. Wonderful post! The Odyssey has long been a favorite book of mine, and I think it is because of the Fagles translation. I am getting a tattoo relatively soon with “Muse-sing for our time too.” See my devotion?

    I am also so team trojan. The Greeks sometimes make my head hurt. πŸ™‚

    • That is very much devotion! Where are you getting it? It sounds cool. πŸ™‚

      The Greeks always make my head hurt, apart from Odysseus. Agamemnon’s terrible.

  11. This is great, but I especially loved your dialog between Hercules and World!

    I read the Fagles in college. I remember “man of twists and turns.” And I remember laughing out loud in places. (But that was my favorite professor, so I don’t know how much was him leadings us horses to the humor, and how much was us drinking it.)

    Hey, if you are #teamtrojans, how could you not like Troy, in which the Greeks seemed so beatable? Am I the only person who thought it was hie-lare-iously appropriate casting? And actually pretty good, for what it was–which is to say, a bloated larger-than-life screen personalities playing bloated, larger-than-life epic heros?

    But not Sean Bean. Never Sean Bean. I am #teamseanbean.

    • I enjoyed Troy, even though I know it wasn’t reeeeeally that great a movie. It was also the one and only time I got carded (!) going into an R-rated movie. I seriously thought the ticket guy was joking but he glowered at me and demanded my ID and then scrutinized it with angry eyes like he thought I had forged it. I just thought Sean Bean was by far the best thing about it, and when I left I yearned and yearned for them to make a film of the Odyssey that was all Sean Bean all the time. Totally still want that to happen. I love Sean Bean.

    • Hahaha, oh mercy, he was so contemptible in that film, it was amazing. My friend who has the world’s hugest and longest-running crush on Orlando Bloom went off him after she saw Troy. For about a week, and then she forgot about it. :p

    • I went *on* him from that film. It was the first time I’d seen him act–as opposed exhibiting his profile to the camera while nocking arrows. Poor boy. Nice to know he can.

  12. Jenny– ❀ I laughed aloud, and you almost (almost) make me want to re-read my own volume.

    I have the Fagles translation sitting here in my lap. It's all marked up, and it makes me nostalgic. Not quite nostalgic enough to read it again, but… soon, I'm sure.

    • I am reading someone else’s marked-up copy, and it’s kinda fun to see what he thought of different parts of it. It’s reminding me how much of the stuff in the Odyssey isn’t necessarily known to audiences today – like, I took all these Latin classes so I know the mythology, but the guy’s written “don’t know this story” and “What’s he the god of?” in the margins.

      I am glad you love Fagles too!

      • I’ve always been a bit of a mythology geek, so that wasn’t the hard part. Remembering to focus on the text and not what I knew of other versions and re-writes was tricky though.

  13. Brilliant review and very fun! I studied Classics at university so I have a bit of a soft spot for Homer and Virgil. We used the Lattimore translations initially, but I agree the Fagles one is probably better, especially for people who are not used to the epic style – its more accessable and, dare I say it, more enjoyable?

    • Looking back, I wish I’d majored in Classics. I enjoyed getting my English degree, but I think I’d have had more fun studying Classics. Oh well.

      I think Lattimore’s probably better as a crib, but Fagles is better if you’re reading for fun. He does make the poem very accessible, and the language he uses is just lovely.

  14. Boy, I am missing something by having not read the Fagles. I love your take and completely have to read this again, thanks to you!

    I’ve never taken sides, really, except when Odysseus is “on screen.” (Just my two cents: Hector’s a goody two shoes, Achilles is a spoiled brat, Meneleus is a stooge, and Agamemnon gets what he deserves.) Odysseus is the only man among men in this crowd. And Penelope is a worthy match for him. Is there no #teamodysseus? (Not that he’s much of a team player, though; his crews are as expendible as those nameless red shirts on Star Trek.)

    My favorite scene is when Odysseus returns home and nobody but the dog recognizes him at first. What a nice detail that is.

    • I like that part too! Bless him.

      I’m surprised you don’t like Hector. I thought everyone liked Hector, what with him being a family man and everything. Though in fact it’s the Trojan women I like the best – Cassandra and Andromache and Hecuba. There aren’t any Greek women to be interested in! (Apart from Penelope, but you don’t really see her in the Iliad.)

  15. Oh, wow, this was hilarious. Clearly I cannot read your blog while in the library (at least not if I don’t want to frighten the other patrons by randomly bursting into gales of laughter). I’m so glad I found your blog πŸ™‚

    • Aw, thanks! I’m so flattered! I would blush, but I am incapable of turning any pinker than I am already on account of it is the hottest day ever and I am living in an unairconditioning third-floor apartment. :p

      • Ugh, that sounds horrible 😦 I do not function well this time of year myself, so I am full of sympathy for you.

  16. #teamtrojans all the way, especially Hector.

    I haven’t yet read Fagles, but my sister has it and also recommends it, so I’ll probably be checking it out the next time I feel the urge. I’m also such a Pamela Dean fangirl that I have Chapman’s Homer–and it is gorgeous.

    • Does Pamela Dean mention Chapman? I can’t remember her doing.

      I am in strong support of your right-minded opinion of Hector. Hector! (And Andromache!)

      • Fights like a man? oh my, I love her! I once wrote a paper about how H&A were the personification of CS Lewis’ Four Loves. I don’t have any idea what I said, though, I think I just wanted to use Lewis.

        Yeah, in the steam tunnels there is a graffito that’s the first verse of the Iliad in the original Greek, and Janet asks Robin (I think), to read it. When someone asks for it in English, he recites Chapman’s Homer. I fell in love with it.

  17. I loved reading your post! I have heard that Lattimore’s translation is the best and from your post I am getting to know that Fagles’s translation is better than Lattimore’s πŸ™‚ I will take your ‘expert-view’ on it πŸ™‚ I have a translation by Allen Mandelbaum, and the first passage in that reads :

    “Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
    the man who wandered many paths of exile
    after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
    He saw the cities–mapped the minds–of many;
    and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
    adversity–to keep his life intact,
    to bring his comrades back.”

    It is amazing to know that you studied Latin for eight years! That is awesome – Hats off to you πŸ™‚ I tried studying Ancient Greek last year, on my own, but found it extremely tough and have postponed it for a while. Am trying to learn some elementary Latin this year, and it is looking better πŸ™‚

    • Oh, I hope you like Latin! Eight years isn’t as impressive as it sounds, really – three of them were in middle school, which took very very little effort. But I just loved it. It’s so great and fun! Do come back here & tell me you (hopefully) liked it.

  18. I read this post a while ago but I guess I never responded then. This is a seriously awesome post. I have LOVED Homer and it’s obvious you’re with me on that! The Iliad is my favorite but Odyssey wasn’t bad either. I have not read Aeneid at all yet, but I’m glad to hear you are such a fan of that too.

    • I definitely am with you! The Iliad wasn’t my favorite the last time I read it, but I had to read it as an assignment for class, and as well I did not have Fagles last time. I’m planning to reread it later on this year. πŸ™‚

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