Our son, now eight, can read perfectly well (in three languages) but still requires a bedtime story, which is OK because Lauren and I both enjoy reading them. Given the fact that he can now read all the cheesy pictorials he likes for himself, I’ve been enforcing Big Serious Books. So recently it’s been the Odyssey, which actually hasn’t worked out that well.

I picked the T.E. Lawrence prose translation (signed “Shaw” of course) because I’m a Lawrence cultist, and it’s not perfect, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that large parts of Homer are boring and other large parts are horrendously violent and still other large parts are sexually explicit. So maybe it wasn’t the best choice. On the other hand, it’s been good mental exercise as I have to compose real-time alternatives to unsuitable Homer.

Boring · Sometimes my internal mental commentary has a Marge-like tone: “Homie, didn’t you already say he was ‘God-like’ three times two pages ago?” Plus then there are the endless boring irrelevant voyages of Telemachus off to here and there to no particular purpose. These are fairly easily dealt with by saying “I’m gonna skip a few boring pages here”.

Sex · There are quite a few scenes along the lines of “The Nymph looked upon Odysseus’ comely limbs and said ‘Mortal, I will grant you life only if you become my bed-mate and delight me with the joys of nightly love.’” Dealt with reasonably easily by substituting “... be my husband” for the second half.

Brutish Violence · There’s not that much until Odysseus gets home among his wife’s suitors, and then there’s a lot. With detailed descriptions of exactly what happens to you when you get an arrow through the throat or a spear through the thorax from behind. Later, I said to the boy “They weren’t the nicest, but they probably didn’t deserve that” and he said “Well, they sort of did.”

What bothered me was the the obvious fact that Odysseus cut ’em down in the dining hall not so much because they were wooing his wife as because they were eating his livestock and screwing his housemaids.

Which leads me to the nastiest bit of all. After Odysseus has finally made it home and slaughtered the suitors, he quizzes his elderly ex-nanny Eurycleia as to exactly which of the house-women have been getting it on with them. She fingers twelve of fifty and he orders that they be put to work clearing up his bloody mess and then immediately put to death. OK, dealt with by slipping in “punish them” for “slaughter them with your long swords till the last life is spent and their love-passages with the suitors are wholly out of mind.”

Odysseus delegated to his son Telemachus, who said “It irks me to give any sort of clean death to women who have heaped shame on my head and my mother’s, and have wantoned with the suitors” and arranged it thus:

He made fast a dark-prowed ship’s hawser to a pillar and strained it around the great spiral of the vault, at too great a height for anyone to touch the floor with her feet. Sometimes in a shrubbery men so stretch out nets, upon which long-winged thrushes or doves alight on their way to roost: and fatal the perch proves. Exactly thus were the women’s heads all held a-row with a bight of cord drawn round each throat, to suffer their caitiff’s death. A little while they twittered with their feet—only a little. It was not long.

If you read the collected letters of T.E. Lawrence (which I recommend, a truly interesting person), you discover that he took on the Homer translation to make some money when he needed it, struggled with it, and totally hated both Odysseus and Telemachus by the time he was done. I agree, and I’ve read lots of translations.

And I hated Eurycleia too, the old bitch; all she had to do was tell a few harmless lies and those young women who’d gone with the flow might have skated through, and they’d have been truly sorry and might have become better people.

“Hold on,” you say, “this is 2,700-year-old fiction”. Well, yeah, but Homer was (despite the oral-poetry tropes) a good storyteller with a good story, and T.E. Lawrence was a good translater, and it’s impossible not to care. I wonder which of our current authors will be exciting this kind of passion around A.D. 4700?

So, sitting up with the boy on his bed as we usually do, I scanned ahead, paused, and said (thank goodness for the “dark-prowed ship” suggestion) “... put them on a ship and sent them out to sea”.

Which at the end of the day may have been cowardice. Children are entirely unsentimental and know perfectly well that this story happened a long time ago and a long way away, and maybe could have dealt with it just fine. But I retreated to the comforting lie.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Dominic Mitchell (Oct 31 2007, at 01:54)

And to think that the only greek mythology I experienced when growing up was Ulysses 31... Certainly more palatable to kids, though. :)



From: Carolyn (Oct 31 2007, at 02:33)

I have "The Essential T.E. Lawrence" compiled by Malcolm Brown. It is dog-eared. He is the first (non-living currently) person in history I'd choose to meet.

Your story-telling made me laugh! Not to worry, it's just me and the furry critters just now. :)


From: Sjoerd Visscher (Oct 31 2007, at 04:20)

And how long will it take until your son reads this article?


From: Leo Richard Comerford (Oct 31 2007, at 04:28)

If you want child-friendly retellings of myths, you should look for Roger Lancelyn Green's. I particularly recommend /Tales of the Greek Heroes/ and /Tales of Ancient Egypt/.


From: Chris Ryland (Oct 31 2007, at 09:08)

Nice work. I'm reading Homer with my high-school-aged kids as part of our home education efforts, and I've also been slightly censoring some of the more brutal stuff.

Reading Homer is great fun--human nature never changes, and he was a great psychologist as well as story-teller.


From: Karl Best (Oct 31 2007, at 09:19)

You're right about the TEL translation, Tim; it's good but not the best. I'd go with Fagles, Fitzgerald, or my favourite Lattimore. (See a list of choices at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Translations_of_Homer, my humble contribution to the corpus.) But if you're a fan of both the Odyssey and TEL then that's the one to read.

And to the earlier commenter, I agree with your recommendation of Brown's Essential TEL; a great compilation. Also look for Brown's Selected Letters and of course the Wilson authorized biography.


From: Rob (Oct 31 2007, at 09:44)

You should check out The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, it's both a novel and play, the story from Penelope's point view with the 12 maids acting as a chorus. They put Odysseus on trial at the end. Its pretty good stuff.


From: GD (Oct 31 2007, at 09:54)

You might want to leave a copy of "D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths" by Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire lying around your son's room. Here's the link from Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/DAulaires-Greek-Myths-Ingri-DAulaire/dp/0440406943/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/102-3655480-7621714?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1193849159&sr=1-1

The book has captivated many young readers. I'm not sure T.E. Lawrence's translation of the "Odyssey" has quite the same following in the 8- to 12-year-old age group.


From: John Cowan (Oct 31 2007, at 11:34)

The passage you quote under "Sex" doesn't sound that problematic to me: if he understands it, there's nothing to protect him from, and if not, there's no harm done.

If I were Odysseus, I'd resent the thefts and rapes more than the passes at my wife too, though I agree that what happens with the servants is unconscionable. Christianity and Islam have permanently changed the moral reflexes of the world, as Mary Renault said in the afterword to one of her books on ancient Greece.

On another note, I understand why you aren't committing your son's name to the Internet (though it can't be that hard to discover it, were one minded to try), but calling him "the boy" makes you sound impossibly distanced from him, as if he were some kid you hardly knew -- a point that's been bothering me but that I haven't been able to put my finger on. "Our son" (or "my son" if Lauren is out of the picture) strike me as much better because more personal.


From: Ken Hagler (Oct 31 2007, at 13:09)

I think you've just inadvertently explained the American news media.


From: Phil Hagelberg (Oct 31 2007, at 15:58)

Hilarious. At least you didn't have to trudge through the catalogue of warriors at the beginning of the Illiad what with their unlikely percentage of them that died from a spear to the nipple.

In Homer's defence, his authorship of the end of the Odyssey is questionable.

You should follow this up with the Oresteia. I'm sure his mother would love that...


From: Chris Selwyn (Oct 31 2007, at 16:10)

My son (aged 12), entirely voluntarily, read the Penguin Classics edition of The Odyssey translated by E.V.Rieu while on holiday in the Bay of Naples area this year.

I'm sure that being in the vicinity of where some of the action takes place added to the enjoyment of his reading.


From: Walter Underwood (Oct 31 2007, at 19:24)

Tolkein works quite well for reading to the early elementary set. I had no idea that Tom Bombadil rhymed until I read him out loud. There are a couple of interminable committee meetings in both The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, but those are the only slow spots. It reads so well that I suspect J. R. R. read it out loud until he got it right. The last volume gets a bit stodgy at times. I only skipped gory bits twice in the whole series.


From: Mark (Oct 31 2007, at 21:08)

Stanley Lombardo if you're reading aloud.


From: Paul (Nov 02 2007, at 14:06)

As a middle aged husband, I disagree that your translation preserves the message of original. If a nymph said anything like that to me and someone translated it as, "She wants to be your husband." I'd be disappointed as the real version sounds much more appealing.

Thank you to all the posters in this space as I've a son about the same age who I think is ready for better material that he brings back from his class library. We've the children's version of Gilgamesh that won awards a few years ago and they have been enjoyed but are not true to the original perhaps for the better and perhaps not. With the arrival of Beowolf on the screen, I was wondering if my translation, Penquin classic, would be a candidate for reading.

Is there room somewhere for a list of classic literature with a recommended reading star for the 7 - 11 year old audience? I really enjoy Tim's pointers to good music and would appreciate the same effort in a series of literature for kids. Not so much the "here is a book you should read angle" either and more of the read out loud till asleep variety.


From: Amit C (Nov 07 2007, at 07:25)

>Our son, now eight, can read perfectly well (in three languages)

And if I may ask, what the other two languages are? European, Asian?

Amit C


From: dbt (Nov 07 2007, at 13:58)

I've been encountering similar difficulties translating "Treasure Island" to a 6 year old. It's a fun mental exercise and gives you a bit more appreciation for pipelining and JIT :)

(I tend to slow down a bit as I hit difficult spots, committing a sentence to memory to read while I scan ahead for trouble.)


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