Fagles’s Odyssey: Stories I know in the second quarter

Books seven through twelve of the Odyssey contain a lot of the stories I remember from my Latin II class: The Cyclops, the cattle of the sun, the Lotus-eaters, Scylla and Charybdis. Odysseus is washed up on the shores of Phaeacia and comes to the court of King Alcinous, who welcomes him warmly (his wife Arete slightly less warmly, as she suspects him of deception) and offers him transport back to Ithaca. As Alcinous offers Odysseus hospitality in his hall, he notices that Odysseus weeps when he hears the bard sing of Troy, and he asks him to tell them all the things that have befallen him. Odysseus agreeably tells him the woeful story of all the misery he has suffered since the fall of Troy.

For some reason I had it in my head that Odysseus had been criticized for not caring about losing his comrades. I don’t know why I thought this! It seems to me he cares every time. He’s cautious about sending his people into danger; when useless Eurylochus refuses to go back to Circe’s lair because he’s too chicken, Odysseus lets him stay by the ship (faithful Achates would never have pulled that kind of crap). After meeting a companion of his in the underworld, he promises to go back to Circe’s island to give his friend a proper burial. Each time he loses a comrade or a ship, he speaks of grieving for them, and he weeps when he remembers all the people he has lost in and since the Trojan War. Poor dude.

Am I defensive? Perhaps a smidge. My sublessor, whose book this is, has written lots of uncomplimentary notes in the margins about Odysseus: Full of himself; HUBRIS; I like these “heroes” less and less; I’ll bet he loves the sound of his own voice. I do not appreciate these little asides. Odysseus is not full of himself – or, well, okay, he is a little bit, but with good reason! – and if he does have a tiny little hubrissy fit after he gets away from Polyphemus, I think that’s perfectly fair! The dude did just eat two of his crew members, and if Odysseus hadn’t outwitted him, he’d have eaten the rest of them too.

Oh, check it out, also. When Odysseus has gotten Polyphemus drunk and told him that his name is “Nobody”, he stabs out his eye with a burning piece of wood. Polyphemus starts hollering, and his friends come to see what’s going on.

“What, Polyphemus, what in the world’s the trouble?
Roaring out in the godsent night to rob us of our sleep.
Surely no one’s rustling your flocks against your will–
surely no one’s trying to kill you now by fraud or force!” [shout the other Cyclopses]

Nobody, friends,”–Polyphemus bellowed back from his cave–
“Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force!”

“If you’re alone,” his friends boomed back at once,
“and nobody’s trying to overpower you now–look,
it must be a plague sent here by mighty Zeus
and there’s no escape from that.
You’d better pray to your father, Lord Poseidon.”

FUN FACT: Odysseus gives his name as ou tis, not anybody, and this is the name Polyphemus uses to shout to his friends. In their response, however, they use the word me tis, no one, which sounds the same as metis, cunning. I mean, well-played Homer, eh? Odysseus’s cunning is overpowering Polyphemus! Sadly this delightful play on words is untranslatable. But I am glad that Fagles mentions it in a note.

The scene where Odysseus visits the Underworld is excellent. For one thing, Tiresias (and others) drinking the blood of the sacrificed animals before they can talk to Odysseus is a creepy image. For another, I always like it when people get to go to the Underworld and still come out alive – Hercules, Orpheus (sad!), Aeneas. Now my undying favorite is Aeneas’s visit, for reasons that I will reveal to you when I inevitably read Fagles’s Aeneid, but Odysseus has a pretty good trip there too. He runs into his mother, and cries to hear of how unhappy his family is in his absence. In a particularly striking moment, he also sees Achilles, who you will recall was willing to die young as long as his name could be remembered. In the Underworld he’s singing a different tune:

No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man–
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive–
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.

I don’t remember this scene at all, but it casts a rather sad light over everything Achilles was striving for in the Iliad. You have to think that Milton had this in mind when he has his Satan say it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Not according to Achilles, dude. I’d feel sorry for him if he hadn’t killed Hector and then been a complete tool about it.

Odysseus still can’t get home:

but mine
lies low and away, the farthest out to sea,
rearing into the western dusk
while the others face the east and breaking day.
Mine is a rugged land, good for raising sons–
and I myself, I know no sweeter sight on earth
than a man’s own native country.

In case I haven’t convinced you yet about Fagles:

Go forth once more, you must…
carry your well-planed oar until you come
to a race of people who know nothing of the sea,
whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all
to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars,
wings that make ships fly.

It’s sexy, no?

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18 thoughts on “Fagles’s Odyssey: Stories I know in the second quarter

  1. I love your choice of words–I’d also feel sorry for Achilles if he hadn’t killed Hector and then been a complete tool about it! But maybe we’re supposed to think he’s been rehabilitated…

  2. Ok, your reviews have really inspired me. I am going to order The Odyssey (Falges translation of course) I am really super psyched about trying this now, which is funny, because previously I would have run screaming from it. I am not really a refined reader, so this will be a very new experience for me. Thanks for your unabashed praise for this book and these wonderful reviews! I am off to explore this now!

    • I’m so excited that you’re going to try it! It’s really a wonderful story–rereading it reminds me that there’s a reason it’s this incredibly archetypal story for the whole Western world. I hope you like it! The best way to read it, I’ve found, is one or two books at a time, as they’re each fairly short and thus not that intimidating.

  3. Great quotes!

    I just remembered that I actually cried when Aeneas went to the underworld when I read the Aeneid in college. And the only reason I remembered is because my eyes started watering while I was reading your mention of the scene in your review. Memory is weird.

    Do you suppose that is the difference between ancient Greeks and 17th century Englishmen. That they can see the coolness of wanting to rule in hell? (And such a much worse hell.)

    • Cried, really? I remember cackling in satisfaction, but part of that was my Latin teacher disliking Aeneas and going on at length about how annoying he was (she called him “Whiny-ass”). So when he ran into Dido and everything, we all found it very satisfying.

      I suppose it makes a difference that the Greeks’s version of hell was just sort of dreary–at least that’s how I always felt about it. Who’d want to rule over such a dreary grey place? At least fire and brimstone is interesting.

    • Maybe I didn’t cry. Memory is also unreliable. But my tear ducts told me I did. Clearly due for a re-read.

      Greek hell. Yes. Dreary but kind of fascinatingly drear, to me. As I read your reply, it occurred to me that Diana Wynne Jones has done a spin on it a couple of times. The bleached out land in Deep Secret felt that way (hopefully I’ll get some thoughts together for DWJ week), and the place where Jamie is dictating Homeward Bounders. That always gave me chills. I love Jamie! I love Diana Wynne Jones! Maybe that book is my favorite of hers.

      Come to think of it, my favorite Narnia book was always The Silver Chair. Lewis sets up Greek and Christian hell side by side. When you-know-what happens and everything busts loose, it’s like hades transforms to a happy-interesting-fiery place. He must have shared your preference for fire and brimstone. Oh, and the Great Divorce. Very hades.

      Burning hurts, but isn’t it strange that medieval Westerners should have fixated on that particular infrequently-experienced torment? Especially Northern Europeans, who knew what it was to be in perpetual grey cold places.

  4. I did not know about the metis. That is very clever. This will be the first year of my high school teaching career that I will not teach Odyssey—I’m not teaching 9th grade—I need to pass this fact on to my colleagues. I feel sure they don’t know either. Something is always lost in translation. I always tell students that any translation is necessarily an interpretation.

    Also, I love teaching the scene when Odysseus encounters Achilles in Hades. My students generally haven’t read The Iliad, so I tell them about Achilles and fame—his choices, etc. I always found it so poignant that he didn’t find what he wanted in fame.

    • Oh, will you miss teaching it? Or are you kind of ready for a break? It must be great fun to teach the Odyssey–I wish we’d had to read it in high school, but I don’t think I ever even read excerpts from it.

  5. That has to be the most awesome helpful footnote ever! What a pity that the double meaning is untranslatable. And I should re-read The Odyssey. And read the Aeneid, which I never have. (I know, I know.)

    • No, no, it’s fine, lots of people haven’t read the Aeneid. I am partial to it because of being #teamtrojans and a Latin geek, but I know that it doesn’t have the same cultural resonance as Homer’s poems do. But you should read it all the same, I’d love to hear what you’d think of it. 🙂

  6. My sympathies have always been with the Trojans, because of reading the Aeneid – fides Achetes, pius Aeneus – what’s not to love? Did my College Boards (ancestor of SATs) in Latin, which required sight reading from, I believe, Book 6 – anyway, A’s less-than-noble treatment of Dido. And spent one glorious summer reading the entire Fagles translation of the Odyssey, aloud, to a student who was ill, and needed to prepare for her coming school year. Reading the entire thing *aloud* was one of the best experiences of my reading life. And if you want to have a frivolous-but-worthy read – get hold of Reginald Hill’s ‘Arms and the Women’- enormously enjoyable playing with the possible fates of our two heroes.

    • I’m trying to remember if we had to do a sight-reading for the Latin AP test. I think we probably did–I kind of enjoyed sight reading, back in the day when my Latin skills were fresh. :p

      Oh, I bet reading the Odyssey aloud was great! I feel a little guilty reading Homer silently, when I know his poems were all oral tradition and meant to be read aloud.

  7. My writing is literally a world away from Greece, but I think you’re right about Odysseus caring; I have learned just a smidgen of Homeric Greek, and when you read it in the orignial, Odysseus’ anguish speaks out with even more intensity.

  8. I’d feel sorry for him if he hadn’t killed Hector and then been a complete tool about it.

    Hahahahahaha, no sympathy for tools!

    There are so many amazing and untranslatable in-jokes in Homer; I really ought to try my hand at the Odyssey; we stuck with the Iliad when I took Classical Greek.

    • I’m equal parts jealous you took classical Greek, and hate-myself-y for not taking classical Greek my own self. Sigh. I realize I could teach it to myself with a good textbook and some time, but I am lazy and presently like Latin better. Don’t you hate it when you wish information resided in your brain, but you don’t want to take the necessary steps to put it there? It is like when you really, really want a cookie but you don’t want to get up from your comfy sofa to get one.

  9. Odysseus does get a bad rap for not caring. The ability to soldier on despite all events and obstacles is such a big part of his character, it could hardly be otherwise. And what’s he supposed to do? He’s just trying to get home. It’s not like he can turn back each time things don’t go his way.

    So looking forward to this translation! I may have to get to this in August. Good summer reading!

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