No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, January 06, 2013

2012/54: The Odyssey -- Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

And the ship like a four-horse team careering down the plain,

all breaking as one with the whiplash cracking smartly,

leaping with hoofs high to run the course in no time —

so the stern hove high and plunged with the seething rollers

crashing dark in her wake as on she surged unwavering
[Book XIII, lines 93-7]
I'm not sure I'd ever read The Odyssey from start to finish before: Robert Fagles' translation sings, and made the reading much more enjoyable than it might've been if I'd stuck to one of the older versions available for free on the web! I found myself reading the Odyssey as a gripping narrative of a long journey home, with timeless metaphors and some shrewd observations on human nature. And hindsight kicked in a great deal, making me realise that I'd been exposed to innumerable Odyssey-references in popular culture. (One scribble in my notebook wonders if Zelazny was referencing the Odyssey in the first Amber series.)

The Greek and Roman Mythology course offered by the University of Pennsylvania via Coursera was extremely good. Professor Peter Struck's video lectures were engaging (plus, a great incentive, the weekly quizzes referred back to the lectures :)]. I became thoroughly engaged with the source material (not just the Odyssey, but assorted tragedies, Hesiod's Theogony, a couple of Homeric Hymns, and some Vergil to round it off) and also with the theoretical tools presented in the course: structuralism, functionalism, myth and ritual, euhemerism and Freudianism.

Below is my first essay.

A Structuralist Interpretation of Odysseus' Conversation with Achilles

In book XI of the Odyssey, Odysseus journeys to the underworld to consult with the ghost of the seer Tiresias. Whilst there, he encounters many other ghosts, whose speech and behaviour illustrate the opposition between life and death.

Odysseus' exchange with the ghost of Achilles [Fagles, p. 265] crystallises this opposition. "There's not a man in the world more blest than you," Odysseus tells his fallen comrade. Achilles was honoured as a god during his lifetime, and mourned by his comrades when he died. Now, says Odysseus, "you lord it over the dead in all your power".

But Achilles argues, passionately and bitterly, that he'd "rather slave on earth for another man ... than rule down here over all the breathless dead". This is a reversal of his stance in the Iliad, when he spoke of his desire for a short life and a glorious death. The glory and fame he won at Troy do not compensate for the loss of city, family and identity that death entails. Odysseus, who bemoans that he has "never once set foot on native ground", may have lost these things temporarily, but Achilles' loss is permanent.

Achilles' first words to Odysseus reinforced the latter's kinship ties: "royal son of Laertes". Later, Achilles questions Odysseus about his father Peleus and his son Neoptolemus. He wants to know whether his son became a champion, and yearns to protect his aged father from "all those men who abuse the king with force and wrest away his honor". Achilles is helpless and ignorant, while Odysseus hopes (the gods willing) to be reunited with his own father and son. Indeed, Odysseus will eventually reinstate his own father's honour and laud Telemachus' passage to manhood -- options that are no longer available to the dead Achilles.

The dead are powerless and ignorant: they cannot even speak unless given blood by the living. Yet it is death that makes Achilles appreciate the life and the opportunities that he has lost.

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