Thursday, September 13, 2018

Review - Stories from the Iliad and Odyssey by G. Chandon

Short review: A prose translation of Homer's two epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Translated to French
Then translated to English
With some Roman gods

Full review: Stories from the Iliad and Odyssey is an English prose translation of a French prose interpretation of the two famous ancient Greek poems by Homer. While the original poems were decidedly adult in nature, the versions presented in this book are aimed at younger readers, presumably to serve as an introduction of sorts to the classic works. Both poems have had chunks cut out of the narrative in this translation, although the basic stories remain unchanged. Several full-color plates depicting events from the stories are interspersed through the book.

The Iliad section comes first. It is, of course, the story of a brief period near the end of the ten year siege of Troy by the Greeks, culminating with the showdown between the Trojan hero Hector and the Greek hero Achilles. Due to the frequent interference of the Gods in the war, one of the oddities of this translation becomes quickly apparent: while the names of the heroes are all Greek, the various deities are referred to using their Romanized names. Consequently, the book refers to Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ajax on the one hand, and Jupiter, Mars, and Venus on the other. For some readers this may not be as jarring as it was to me, but every time I read about Minerva showing her concern for Patrocles, it just seemed to so odd to me that it pulled me out of the story a bit. Some of the better bits of Homeric imagery are left out of this version: for example the description of the various contingents of the Greek and Trojan armies is omitted, as well as the scene following Patrocles' death in which Achilles is made into a glowing tower of light by Athena to frighten the Trojans. In short, just about anything that is not directly related to the main storyline is left out, which reduces the poem to a fairly simple narrative. Simplifying the narrative probably makes the book more accessible to younger readers, but it does have the unfortunate side effect of eliminating a fair amount of interesting elements from the story.

The Odyssey follows the Iliad in the book, and like the first section, this portion is dramatically simplified. The basic structure of Ulysses' voyage is kept intact - his encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus, his visit with Aeolas, his struggles with the enchantress Circe and a couple of his seafaring travails - including Scylla, Charybdis, and the Sirens. However, many of Ulysses' adventures are simply removed from the story - he and his men do not run afoul of Helios by eating his sacred cattle, he never journeys to the land of the dead, and so on. Some of the scenes were probably excised from both poems because they didn't show the heroes in a light that would be appealing to the sensibilities of 20th century readers - the scene in which the twelve servant girls in Ithaca who slept with the unruly suitors are hanged is removed, as are a couple of instances in both stories in which the heroes behave in what would best be described as a piratical or particularly bloodthirsty manner (although those scenes that are necessary for the story in which the heroes do this have been left in). While I understand the need to truncate the tale to make it palatable to the intended younger audience, I think that this shortening process is unfortunate as Ulysses' resulting journey seems far too short and much too straightforward.

Despite both poems being shortened in this translation, this remains a decent introduction to Homer for a young reader. One note that must be made is that the language is somewhat stilted. This is probably a byproduct of the fact that it is the translation of a translation, and it was written in a time period in which formal and stylized language was expected. Even so, there isn't anything in this version that should be too difficult for a pre-adolescent reader to grasp, understand, and enjoy. While someone who has already been exposed to a more complete version of these poems, this may seem annoyingly incomplete, but for a reader for whom this is their first encounter with Homer, this version, being in prose, is probably a good place to start.

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