I have studied Greek, but somehow or other I never read this book in its original Greek. A variety of English versions exist. One that I have enjoyed is the verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum, from which I drew the lyrics of an unfinished song cycle I composed in college. The original Odyssey
, however, was written by a blind poet sometime around the 8th century B.C., making it one of the oldest surviving pieces of Western literature - only surpassed, perhaps, by Homer's other epic poem, The Iliad
The Odyssey is (duh!) the story of Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses), an ancient ruler of the Greek island of Ithaca at the time of the Trojan War (which may have happened as long ago as the 12th century B.C., if ever). Troy has been sacked and burned, and the victorious Greeks are sailing home. This "man of many wiles" (so translates Mandelbaum; others style him the "man of many sorrows") - this inventor of the famous "Trojan horse" ruse (definitely a gift horse they should have looked in the mouth) - this paragon of the Greek virtue of cleverness who, for his sins, has made enemies of certain gods - tries to sail his ship and his crew back to Ithaca, but fails. Dogged by misfortune, faced by one monster or seductress or other distracting adventure after another, Odysseus loses all but his own life and ends up taking a REALLY scenic route home (e.g., by way of the Underworld).
Meanwhile, his heroic son Telemachus has another set of adventures while he searches for Dad, whose prolonged absence has emboldened the noblemen of Ithaca to court Odysseus's faithful wife Penelope. Odysseus's long-delayed return will be a day of accounting for the presumptuous suitors, who have imposed on Penelope's hospitality to the point of bankrupting her. Who knew that economic imperialism existed 3,000 years ago?
There are gods and goddesses, nymphs and monsters in this book. It has a man-eating cyclops, ship-devouring sea creatures, the irresistible song of the Sirens, and a witch who turns men into pigs. It also has athletic tournaments, romantic encounters, military engagements, religious rituals, scrutiny of the manners of men and women, ghostly visitations, physical transformations, storms and shipwrecks, poets who strum harps and sing their verses (including one who brings Odysseus to tears), curses, disguises, insults, lies, reunions, parties, jealousy, and revenge, bloody revenge. And it is all told with a poetic elegance that may seem strange at the start of Book I, but will be as familiar as an old friend by the end of Book XXIV - filled with such well-known turns of phrase as "the wine-dark sea" and "winged words."
Several movies have been based on The Odyssey, from the 1954 classic "Ulysses" starring Kirk Douglas to the quirky 2000 Coen Bros. film "O Brother, Where Art Thou" (where the Homeric tale is heavily disguised). This story is the oldest and purest example of the "quest myth" type of story that has influenced our culture's literature and theatre. It is an ancient treasure from which new things continue to be brought forth. Don't wait for a teacher to make you read this. See if the voice of Homer, singing his winged words over the strings of his harp, captivates you as it has done millions of others over the centuries.
Recommended Age: Age: 12+
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