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Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hitsby Jack Murnighan
(c. 900 b.c.)
Because the gods of irony still rule the firmament, Homer happens to be the name of both the pater familias Simpson, cartoon mainstay of the living room box, and the acknowledged father of Western literature, oft called greatest writer of all time. Origins are a funny thing, of course, and while we point all our literature back to Homer, we neither know the exact time when he wrote (most modern scholars think between the 10th and 8th century b.c.) nor even whether the same person necessarily wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey (the latter of which is sometimes argued to have been written by a woman). Then there's the fact that this other guy named Hesiod might be even older than Homer and wrote a book called the Theogony where, among other things, the world is created and the gods come to be--one from hacked-off genitals floating in the ocean. You can see why most people prefer to leave him out of the conversation... .
But somehow or other, Western literature got itself going, whether by Homer, Hesiod, or someone else long forgotten or never recorded. As founding stories for a whole civilization go, however, The Iliad and Odyssey are pretty well suited, at least at first blush. Each appears to be a supremely heroic tale with a super-macho protagonist--Achilles in The Iliad, Odysseus in The Odyssey--offing his fair share of flunkies and weenie men. Most founding myths are based on just such triumphs at someone else's expense. The only problem is that anyone who reads The Iliad or The Odyssey closely will see that the heroes themselves are barely responsible for their actions; the gods interfere with nearly everything, handing out victories and failures whimsically and petulantly like demented children throwing bread to geese. It's a bit sad and bracing, actually, to find out that Achilles the great warrior really wins his battles less because of the strength of his arm or the trueness of his spear and more because higher forces come to his aid. In what many people think is the greatest tale of heroism and unmitigated studliness, it turns out that humans are just Cabbage Patch Kids tossed around by bratty, vindictive gods that hardly deserve the name.
That said, The Iliad is still as riveting and potent as anything you'll ever read. The story is familiar: scads of Greek troops have sailed to Troy (a possibly fictitious city in what is now Turkey) to take back Helen, the West's first great beauty, whom the fair-haired Trojan prettyboy Paris swiped away from her husband, the trollish Greek prince Menelaus. But the siege isn't going so well; it's already lasted ten years and the Greeks' best fighter, Achilles, is pouting in his ship because he wasn't given the slave girl he wanted. We follow the give-and-take of the battle until Achilles finally gets off his petulant heinie, and then the proverbial hits the proverbial.
The Iliad is action at its best, and whoever Homer was, he knew how to tell a story. Its taut dialogue and vivid narration make The Iliad unfold in your mind in Hollywood Technicolor (and it's a lot better than the big-screen Troy, the blockfizzler adaptation from 2004). When you think about The Iliad that way, you won't believe how much it reads like a screenplay: set piece after set piece, great characters, killer action, and the approaching thunderstorm tension as we wait for Achilles to pick up his weapon. But to make sure you feel all the bone-jarring power of Western literature's first masterpiece, I'll give you some selling points.
Here are a few surefire ways to love The Iliad:
1. Because you hear the sound of drums, the relentless booming drums of war, pounding pounding pounding. The poem itself has incredible rhythm (even in translation; see "Best Line" on page 8), and once you let yourself slide into its cadence, you can feel the battle building, the battle raging, the concatenated roar of the wounded dying beneath your feet. As you read, imagine the scene, imagine all those years of unsuccessful assault, of a city surrounded and assailed by an enormous unyielding force, day after day after day. No one goes anywhere; they just keep fighting. The drama only builds ("Here in the night that will break our army or else will preserve it") and everywhere there are bodies "lying along the ground, to delight no longer their wives, but the vultures." This is a war poem, and you have to feel it from within.
2. For the gore. How many world-class books contain scenes with decapitated heads still speaking; decapitated heads being bowled; pierced-through hearts still beating and shaking the spears that transfix them; spears stabbing through eyes, cheeks, tongues, teeth, jaws, and genitals; spears going in one ear and out the other; brains, entrails, eyeballs, noses, and blood strewn across the ground; eyes mounted on spears; men trying to hold in their spilling entrails; marrow gushing from neck bones; and other such delights?
3. For the macho taunts, as when an effeminate archer (i.e., not a hand-to-hand warrior) is mocked: "Foul fighter, lovely in your locks, eyer of young girls... Now you have scratched my foot and even boast of this" or when the Greeks are heckled: "Wretches... was it your fate then far from your friends and the land of your fathers, to glut with your shining fat the running dogs?" There are a couple dozen such disses to savor.
4. For the riveting monologues, like the Greek leader Agamemnon's renunciation speech to his soldiers and its trenchant "This shall be a thing of shame." Or that of Hector, the great Trojan hope, berating Paris: "Stand up against warlike Menelaus?... .The lyre would not help you then, nor the favors of Aphrodite, nor your locks, when you rolled in the dust." These are two early ones, but as The Iliad progresses, the speeches get more and more blistering.
5. For the similes: the incredible description in Book II of the Greek warriors streaming from the ships like bees from a stone; the same men as grain, shifting from one sentiment to another; the sound of the battle being joined like rivers crashing into one another, etc. Keep an eye out for long sentences that begin with "as"; these are Homer's great similes, the moments when he really swings his stylistic ax.
There are also a few other things to keep in mind:
1. Don't get confused by the multiple names for everything: Ilion = Troy; Paris = Alexandros; Danaans = Achaians = Greeks; Achilles = Aiakides; etc. Good editions will have a glossary in the back to help with the confusion.
2. Enjoy the word repetition--or at least don't let it drive you crazy. Athena will be referred to as "grey-eyed" and Hera as "ox-eyed" about nine trillion times. That's just the way they did it back then; think of it as the Homeric tic. Bummer for Hera.
3. Read the Lattimore translation, even though he spells the names funny. Many have translated The Iliad, but no one has rendered the stark supreme majesty of its language like Lattimore.
Now that we've got that all sorted out, you should have no trouble relishing the origin and apex of virility lit. Hollywood can send out its Stallone and Schwarzenegger myths of all-meat masculinity, but if you want it rough, tough, and literate, Homer has the first and last word.
The Buzz: It was all for a woman--no surprise there, right? When the Trojan prince Paris decided to leave Greece with a rather pleasant souvenir, namely Helen, he kind of ticked off a few folks. This is why Helen--who we call Helen of Troy though she was originally Helen of Sparta--is referred to as "the face that launched a thousand ships"; because of her, the Greeks sent their entire fleet in pursuit. Historians now tell us that if this invasion actually took place--and it might have--the Greeks didn't have anywhere near that many vessels to assail Troy's walls. Still. Her cuckolded husband and his homeboys came to get her back, didn't take no for an answer, and thus we have our story.
What People Don't Know (But Should): We all have heard how Troy fell: the Greeks left the Trojans a "present" of a giant wooden horse that they allowed into the city--the only problem was that it was filled with Greek soldiers who then opened the gates. But none of that actually happens in The Iliad, and it's only briefly alluded to in The Odyssey (we know the story from later retellings, especially in The Aeneid a millennium later). No, The Iliad is Achilles' tale, culminating in his eventual mano a mano encounter with Hector--good stuff. Pretty amazing though that the hero can wait almost three-quarters of the book before he straps on his armor. Yes, he's literature's great tough guy, but he sure had a bee in his bonnet about not getting that slave girl.
Best Line: As mentioned, note the rhythm and buildup in this quote (and, yes, Lattimore spells Hector with a "k"): "But the Trojans, gathered into a pack, like a flame, like a storm cloud, came on after Hektor the son of Priam, raging relentless, roaring and crying as one, and their hopes ran high of capturing the ships of the Achaians, and killing the best men beside them, all of them" (XIII, 39-43).
What's Sexy: Instead of going to fight Menelaus when he's challenged, ladies' man Paris asks Helen to go to bed with him, saying that he was never as turned on as then. (I guess when the hubbie comes back to eighty-six you and take back his wife, that can be something of an aphrodisiac.) There's also an impressive sex scene between Zeus and Hera, making it clear how much it helps one's game to be all powerful: Zeus first causes crocuses and hyacinths to grow so high and thick as to make a bed, then he "drew about them a golden wonderful cloud, and from it a glimmering dew descended" (XIV, 349-50). Oh my...
Quirky Fact: In Plato's dialogue Ion, the title character is what was called a rhapsode, a traveling performer who could recite the entirety of The Iliad or The Odyssey from memory. That's about a few days of recitation to memorize--and rhapsodes could start up from any point in the story. A lot of people use this to argue that, with the rise of technology, our ability to remember things has faded. But thinking of how many rock songs most of us can sing, I'm more convinced that there was simply less to keep in one's brain back then, and today we just don't realize how much we know.
What to Skip: By and large The Iliad makes for a brisk, white-knuckle read, but there are a few passages that lag. Don't worry if you jump ahead at II, 494-759 (a list of warriors and where they came from) and IX, 529-99 (story of an unrelated side battle). You won't miss anything.
(c. 900 b.c.)
So you've just composed the poem that 2800 years later will still be considered the greatest action story ever; where do you go from there? It's hard not to feel for Homer--talk about being set up for a sophomore slump. But assuming he is the one who wrote The Odyssey, Greece's greatest poet triumphed again his second time around, managing to come up with one of the better follow-up plots this side of The Empire Strikes Back.
Having already chronicled the ultra-manly warrior Achilles, this time Homer gives us a hero of a very different stripe. Odysseus is studly, sure, but he's more famous for being finagling and wily (he is sometimes called Polytropos--a Greek way of saying "he of the honeyed tongue"). The Odyssey tells of Odysseus' struggle to get back from Troy to his home in Ithaca (Greece, not upstate New York). It's the archetypal tale of wandering, of trials and tribulations, detours and deferrals, menacing sea monsters and horndog goddesses who just won't let him out of their bowers of bliss. We follow the crafty one (called Ulysses by the Romans, giving Joyce his title), who, having already spent ten years away from his wife and son in the sacking of Troy, loses another ten being buffeted around isles mythic and real, all because he managed to tick off the sea god Poseidon--clearly not a good idea when you're trying to sail back to your fatherland.
All the while, dozens of suitors are assailing Odysseus' wife, Penelope, and more or less turning Odysseus' house into a Cornell frat: eating up his livestock, guzzling down his cellar, and being insolent and cavalier in the extreme. But their day is coming; oh, is it coming. Time and again we're told that there will be some serious reckoning when the big O gets back; in fact, one of the great joys of The Odyssey is reading the various lines describing what the suitors are in for ("If they ever see that man return to Ithaca, they will pray they are nimbler on their feet"; "They do not know the black fate that is near them, to destroy them in a single day," etc.). As with Achilles' wrath in The Iliad, we know there's an ass-whupping on the horizon, but Homer makes us wait, letting the bloodthirsty anticipation build and build in the minds of what's now almost three millennia of readers. In Achilles' tale, it takes him a full 17 books (of 24) before he goes and puts the smackdown on the Trojans; in The Odyssey, it takes Odysseus 21 books (again out of 24) before he makes it home and begins waxing those pesky suitors. In both cases, even though the grim results have long since been announced, we still turn Homer's pages, getting more and more antsy for the "heroes" to show us their chops.
Beyond salivating for the suitors' comeuppance, the other key to enjoying The Odyssey is to read it like you're watching a movie. Like its big brother, The Iliad, it's exceptionally cinematic (it has been adapted, in part or whole, numerous times. The best--though the connections are pretty thin--is the Coen brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou?). Although Odysseus is forever recounting his tribulations, he's a pretty efficient storyteller; the dialogue tends toward the spare and the action speedy, so it's important that you let the reel run on your cerebral scrim as you read. To get the most out of The Odyssey, you really have to imagine the suitors sloshing honeyed wine and gnawing sheep joints, not knowing Odysseus is coming home to settle the bill; you have to see the alluring nymph Calypso and her fair braids and smell the citron and cedar in the air; you have to imagine the bewitching enchantress Circe and her handmaidens bathing and oiling poor Odysseus; you have to shudder as Cyclops splatters the heads of Odysseus' men on the ground then devours them whole, bones and all; and you have to visualize Odysseus in Hades, the land of the dead, pouring out a pool of blood to attract the spirits of the deceased so they will come and speak to him. Translations and historical texts use language that typically has less force than things written in our time and mother tongues, so it's that much more important to help them along by visualizing. That said, the plot of The Odyssey is eminently palpable, so it should make for easy mental staging (maybe imagine Christian Bale as Se-or Honey-Tongue; I think he's got the right combo of machismo and seeming wiliness, plus the dubious likability I'm about to tell you about...).
The tough part about The Odyssey is that Odysseus comes off much of the time as an annoying blowhard, always bragging but rarely accomplishing anything without help from his protectress, Athena, the goddess of war. Even his supposed craftiness and cunning tends to play out in pretty lame ways. But that's the thing with these Greeks: their gods weren't especially heroic or moral, so how could their mortals be? To me the best way to enjoy The Odyssey is to minimize the role of Odysseus; let him simply be the central figure who sets the action in motion, and let the action be the story. As you'll see in "The Buzz" below, the important parts of the story have little to do with him. He is the title character of one of the most famous tales in world history, but he might also be among literature's most disappointing heroes.
The Buzz: Many of Odysseus' adventures aren't particularly interesting in themselves, but they are iconic. Here's the list of the significant gods and monsters he comes across and what you need to know about them:
Aeolus: God of winds. Gives a bag filled with breezes to Odysseus; his men think it will have gold in it and open it prematurely, blowing them off course. It's a classic parable of greed.
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