Off Course

Ulysses Found

by Ernle Bradford
Harcourt, 256 pp., $4.75

The charting of Odysseus’s adventures is an age-old amusement. Mr. Bradford is the latest and not the least contributor to a debate which can have no end (and which from the point of view of pure reason, indeed, is a little futile). A skilled English yachtsman, he has sailed his boats into the remoter bays of the Mediterranean—no professional scholar, to be sure, but one who has read his Odyssey with lively enthusiasm and not infrequent discernment. His writing carries one along, though it is not exactly elegant, and I found this to be an enjoyable book even when I was disagreeing with it; though there are careless patches (especially in the first four chapters) and some incongruous fragments of fine writing, while the illustrations are quite inadequate. There are the usual enjoyable digs at classical scholars, a few of whose works he has read. Of course I thoroughly agree that some of them would benefit from a couple of years before the mast in the wine-dark sea—who wouldn’t?—just as I believe that Mr. Bradford himself would be the better for spending a like period in a good classical library. The trouble is that life is short, and that different kinds of persons must learn from each other, indirectly, if possible without pride. My observation has been that preoccupation with the most practical aspects of history is often occompanied by a weakness in theory. A working knowledge of sailing and the sea undoubtedly helps with certain problems of the Greek and Roman world, but it does not transform the scene quite so radically as our author suggests.

This is the route proposed for Odysseus on his long voyage home: [Troy—Thrace—C. Malea]—Jerba (the Lotus-eaters)—Favignana island, near Trapani (the Cyclopes)—Ustica, off the north coast of Sicily (Aeolus)—[nearly to Ithaca and back to Ustica]—Bonifacio, in southern Corsica (the Laestrygonians)—Cape Circeo, half-way down the west coast of Italy (Circe’s island)—the Straits of Gibraltar (entrance to Hades) and back—the Galli rocks, in the bay of Salerno (the Sirens’ island)—close to Stromboli and Strombolicchio (the Wandering Rocks)—the Strait of Messina (Scylla and Charybdis)—Taormina bay (the island of the cattle of the Sun)—[Messina strait again]—Malta/Gozo (Calypso’s island)—Corfu (Scheria)—Ithaca.

Many of these identifications are already familiar, though the combination is new. Mr. Bradford’s original contribution (apart from the freshness of his seaman’s viewpoint) lies in his claim that the courses and intervals of days indicated in the poem usually coincide exactly with his suggested route. Yet the identifications are often extremely questionable, and the arguments about courses and intervals are sometimes very strained indeed; sometimes, too, the text of Homer is not quite accurately reported. Thus it is true that Bonifacio resembles the description of the Laestrygonian harbor (which also represents, of course, an obvious sailor’s ideal), but it lies in completely the wrong direction for Odysseus’s crew to have rowed in; the Sirens lived on one island, not on two or more as the author says, which is just one more argument against taking the inconspicuous Galli…

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