Today’s book pick is from my father, Phil Prever, who not only read us The Odyssey, but he let us act it out as he read, which must have been the most annoying thing ever.
About a hundred years ago when I was a college freshman, I took a survey course in Western literature. One of the reading assignments was excerpts from Homer’s Odyssey. The book made no particular impression on me then, but I do remember a comment offered by a bright young woman during a class discussion. “The only thing remarkable about it,” she said of the Odyssey, “is that anyone could have written it so long ago.” I knew she was wrong, but I didn’t know why. Now, after reading it close to a dozen times over the decades, I know why.
The Odyssey is remarkable in many ways. On one level there are the fabulous adventures: magical encounters with the gods, brutal conflicts with hideous monsters, a terrifying visit to the land of the dead, and audiences with wise and legendary kings. These adventures make the book a wonderful read-aloud, as I believe all eight of my children will attest.
On another level, Homer probes with startling psychological depth the relations between husband and wife, father and son, and citizen and homeland. Furthermore, the Odyssey records the reintegration of a man’s soul as he is redeemed from the wreckage wrought by war and pillage by his struggles to reclaim the things in life that are most important.
Above all, the Odyssey appeals to and satisfies the desire we all have to make things right, to correct injustice, to restore the divine order in our lives. At the end we can say with Shakespeare, “Jack shall have Jill, nought shall go ill…and all shall be well.” And even more, we can look forward to the time when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
So the question is not, how could anyone have written the Odyssey so long ago but, why in almost three thousand years has no one written anything better? Since I have failed in my feeble attempts to learn Homeric Greek, I have had to read the Odyssey in translation. If you like that sort of thing, Richmond Lattimore’s version reads like it is incised on marble tablets. Robert Fitzgerald’s is airy and fast-moving, but I find that Fitzgerald’s Homer sounds an awful lot like Fitzgerald’s Virgil. Last time around I read the translation of Robert Fagles.
It was delightful, with real meat on real bones, and seemed to me to have the best of everything. I read it very slowly because I didn’t want it to end.