I’ve been thinking about heroes as I completed reading Dr. Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, which I’ve been reading along with the dudes at the Overdue podcast for almost a year.
Wilson, professor of classics and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a lean, mean, and exciting translation. Not only is it in iambic pentameter (and sounds the way a good poem should) but it’s also the exact number of lines as Homer’s epic, so it zips along.
It’s also more true to the reality of ancient life, circa 800 BC. Slaves are slaves, not maids or servants. Violence is rendered in sickening detail. And when Athena “poured / attractiveness” over Odysseus — twice — you can bet he’s going to have a very good day.
I knew I would love the book when Overdue hosts Andrew Cunningham and Craig Getting tagged Wilson on Twitter, so she’d know they were covering her translation. After she listened to the podcast she sent them a message, with compliments for finding the humor in the ancient tale, but also with this rebuke:
I have pronunciation guides for all the names in the glossary in the back, otherwise the meter gets totally messed up and the Muse starts quietly sobbing under her cloak (jk, she’s fine, doing well for her age).”
I finished The Odyssey in May, amid many other endings in pop culture: Game of Thrones, Veep, the Big Bang Theory, Avengers: Endgame. Endgame has remarkably fulfilling narrative arcs for two of its main characters, Iron Man and Captain America. Both Tony Stark and Steve Rogers grow as heroes. I left the movie feeling satisfied.
I did not leave The Odyssey that way. As Maryanne Wolf writes in Reader, Come Home, “I wish I could say there was a happy ending.” I think I’m unhappy because I wanted a similar emotional growth curve for Odysseus.
Odysseus starts as a trickster and a liar, and he ends that way. In the final chapter he lies to his own father, Laertes, because … because he’s Odysseus, and Odysseus lies. Sometimes he needs to lie; for example, to conceal his identity when facing danger. But sometimes, as with Laertes, it feels like he just can’t help himself. He’s “Hardened Odysseus,” and he’s our hero.
What is a hero, anyway?
Odysseus is one of the most well-known characters in the entire Western canon, with some of the best adventures ever written — with the Cyclops, the Sirens, and the dead. The epic ends with him getting to do the two things the audience has been waiting for: wreak revenge on the suitors (book 22) and reunite with his wife, Penelope (book 23).
That chapter, “The Olive Tree Bed,” is my favorite. We see Penelope — “wise Penelope,” “astute Penelope,” “cautious Penelope,” “careful Penelope,” the Penelope who “said shrewdly” — trick Odysseus, to make sure he is who he says he is. Which is a wise plan.
Despite the main characters’ obfuscation in this chapter, Wilson’s translation here is especially beautiful:
They would have wept until the rosy Dawn
began to touch the sky, but shining-eyed
Athena intervened. She held night back,
restraining golden Dawn beside the Ocean,
and would not let her yoke her swift young colts,
Shining and Bright.”
In Wilson’s discussion with Overdue, she says Odysseus is unique among heroes because the poem glorifies his “cunning and intelligence.” Wilson further explained saying this:
“It’s not necessarily courage. It’s not necessarily any of these other characteristics we think of as the hero’s characteristics. It’s his cunning and intelligence and the ability to think and scheme and lie your way out of any possibly dangerous situation. That’s the ability that he has more than any other hero in the mythic canon.”
Which brings me back to my first By Heart poetry memorization, of the end of “Ulysses” by Tennyson. In that poem Ulysses/Odysseus says, “that which we are, we are.” The man who is described this way in the first line of Wilson’s translation — “Tell me about a complicated man.” — ends the story a complicated man.
In her thorough and thoroughly fascinating introduction to her translation, Wilson describes the hero this way:
“Odysseus is a migrant, but he is also a political and military leader, a strategist, a poet, a loving husband and father, an adulterer, a homeless person, an athlete, a disabled cripple, a soldier with a traumatic past, a pirate, a thief and liar, a fugitive, a colonial invader, a home owner, a sailor, a construction worker, a mass murderer, and a war hero.”
In other words, he’s a man. He’s complicated. The fact that Homer and Wilson didn’t try to redeem him may be the most heroic act of all.
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“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro