The Odyssey of Homer
translated by Robert Fagles, introduction and notes by Bernard Knox
Viking, 541 pp., $35.00
It is a cliché that Western literature begins with the poems of Homer. The well-informed know that the truth is rather more complex: the Iliad and Odyssey have indeed been at the root of the literature and the culture of Europe and the West, but their roots are in what we call Asia. The first great work of European literature is also the crowning achievement of the art of the Near East, and recent scholarship delights to trace the parallels with the epic of Gilgamesh, with Mesopotamia, and with the poems and hymns of the Canaanite people of Ugarit. The action of the Iliad is set at Troy, in modern Turkey; the hero of the odyssey wanders right off the map of Greece and meets exotic people, sometimes friendly and sometimes murderous, as far afield as the Hellespont in the east, Egypt in the south, and a fantastic version of Sicily in the west. The Muse of Homer was no stay-at-home.
The two poems have shown an extraordinary staying power. Already in the fifth century BCE Greek schoolboys were learning the meaning of the archaic and poetical phrases used by Homer, and there has never been a time since when the epics have not been in the school syllabus somewhere. For centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, they were read only in the Greek East, but with the revival of learning first Italians and then other Westerners mastered the language and declared a knowledge of Homer to be necessary to an educated man.
In 1914 we find undergraduates at Oxford, as they resolved to enlist for France, quoting in their letters and diaries that powerful passage in iliad Book Twelve, where the hero Sarpedon, himself soon to die, expresses in classic form the sentiment of noblesse oblige: Because we are privileged, because we have the best estates of land and the front seats and the choicest food and drink, therefore we must fight in the front rank, and kill or be killed. That sentiment of generous paganism (Christianity had nothing to do with it) struck a chord in the hearts of the public school men who felt that they must earn their privilege by being among the first to join up.
Nowadays few boys and girls have the opportunity at school to read Homer in the original. That is sad; but interest in the poems is in many ways as great as ever. The discoveries of Schliemann and other archeologists at Troy and Mycenae, the insights of Milman Parry into the ways in which bards improvise on known material and into the working of Homeric composition, the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris, and the revelation that Greek was spoken in Greece in the second millennium BCE: all this has commanded widespread public attention because of the Homeric connection. And there has never been a time when so many people were at work translating Homer into English.
All translation of poetry into another language …