When one thinks about the Classics, Homer is usually among the first names that comes up. Sadly, of course, if you say “Homer” to most people, they will immediately think of a yellow cartoon character with an affinity for Duff Beer – but that’s fine, the original probably wouldn’t do much for them anyway.
Homer, as we know, it the name given to the person who compiled two of the great masterpieces of Classical Antiquity: The Iliad and The Odyssey. There has been much speculation regarding whether he was a historical figure or not, but we won’t get into that, now, as there are much more interesting things to discuss, especially with regards to which version of Homer should be read by anyone with truly “Classically Educated” pretentions and also the question of if any other work has had such a direct-line, continuous descent to modern times.
The first point is extremely interesting. Assuming one doesn’t read ancient Greek (and yes, we should all read ancient Greek or at least change the name of this blog, as it used to be one of the requirements), and that your language of preference is English, there are many options available to you. The first is to go with a prose translation. This is the quick, easy way of becoming immersed in the glorious tapestry that is the mythology of the Trojan war. It is a much more accessible way to to get a clear grasp on events, and is the best option for casual readers.
And by casual readers, we mean wimps.
A true Homeric enthusiast will insist on a verse translation, and there are many, many available – from great poets to men and women that no one has ever heard of. Poetic translations are evaluated on a number of criteria, the most important of which is fidelity to the original – and the tradeoffs: is it more important to be faithful to the meter or the rhyme or the meaning? Hard to do, I imagine – plus, you need to be able to read ancient Greek. Here’s a decent primer, if you’re looking into one of these. They are not for wimps…
But they’re not for the true, died-in-the-wool elitist, either.
For he who must have bragging rights, there is only one option. Chapman’s Homer. This 1000 page block of epic poetry in Elizabethan English is the true test of an advanced reader (OK, OK, we’ll get into Finnegan’s Wake at some other point) who is not content with reading The Odyssey and The Iliad, but needs to read it in the first English translation, the one that influenced many of the great writers in the English language. The challenge here, especially in The Iliad, is to avoid being drawn into the language, rhythm and rhyme and losing track of what is actually going on. The Odyssey is much easier to digest, for some reason – possibly because it has more action and less talking (despite the battlefield setting of The Iliad).
It is a long, difficult read, but it is worth it. After reading it, you will not feel a need to read another translation (unless you are a scholar, of course), as you will have ultimate bragging rights among people who’ve read this (and what is academia other than knowing more than the guy sitting next to you?).
This one gets our vote.
But what to do next? Homer’s odyssey didn’t end with Homer. There are a few books that come after that are direct-line descendants of the ones he actually (or mythologically) wrote. In chronological order, they are:
– The Aenid. This is the poem that made Virgil a household name (well, if your household is composed of literate individuals). There are several editions available, and it’s a significant piece of Roman mythology.
– The Divine Comedy. Clearly, Dante’s household was a literate one, as he had not only heard of Virgil, but chose him as his muse. Even the deeply classically educated among you won’t be able to decipher the sneaky attacks on Dante’s contemporaries and political enemies in this one, but just chuckle at the fact that they’re still being tormented centuries later. Most people never get past Inferno, which is clearly the best bit, but to earn respect, you’d best go through the whole thing. This edition is recommended because it is a) cheap, b) contains illustrations by Gustave Doré, c) looks great on a shelf and d) is translated by Longfellow.
– Ulysses. If you’ve read it, you will have nearly supreme street cred among people who hardly ever go out into a street. The only ones who will be able to look down their noses at you are the ones who claim to have understood Finnegan’s Wake, and you really don’t need to worry about them as whatever drug they’re on that gave them that illusion will soon finish them off.
– No credit is given for knowing the name of Bart’s teacher.
Tough guys and gals, of course, don’t even need this post. They pick up the original Greek, in manuscript form, and end up looking like the picture above. We salute you.
Anyway, that is our Homeric lesson for the day. We’d love to hear your experiences and recommendations. We’d also love for you to tell us that we’re elitist jerks (this is a very validating thing to us). Comments are all welcome!
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