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?