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.