Fagles’s Odyssey: Divided loyalties in the first quarter

Fagles’s translation of the Odyssey is so great it hurts my brain. Granted, I am a sucker for epic poetry. I took eight years of Latin when I was in school, and I never loved anything we translated like I loved the Aeneid. It is epic. Plus I love the Greek and Roman gods. So I am reading the Odyssey right now, in the Fagles translation, which I have to say appears to be the best translation in all the land. Fagles. (Not Lattimore, Capt. Hammer). Check this out:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove–
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will – sing for our time too.

“Man of twists and turns” – Fagles, you sexy bastard.

My only problem is that I took Latin for eight years, Latin I took, not Greek. My visceral reactions are not perhaps along the exact lines that Homer intends. So when Athena says “I will send [Telemachus] off to Sparta and sandy Pylos”, I’m all, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Telemachus, no! Run! Don’t go where she sends you! Menelaus is in Sparta! Menelaus is the bad guy! Run away, run away! You can’t trust Athena! Don’t you remember how she made the snakes come out of her temple and eat up poor Laocoon and his two sons, all because he feared the Greeks et dona ferentes?”

And then Athena is all, “Hi, Telemachus. Here is a helpful sign from the gods. Here are some ideas for you of how to find your father again,” and Menelaus is all, “Hi, Telemachus. You have grown up so handsome. Your father was such a great guy. Can I interest you in some free stuff for your journey?”

I am #teamtrojans and have always been #teamtrojans and I will never be anything other than #teamtrojans. It is hard for me to remember that Homer, as a Greek, and Telemachus, as the son of Odysseus, are going to be #teamgreeks. I wish I could explain to them that, with one major exception either way (Odysseus is great; Paris is terrible), the Trojans are just better. Athena seems to think that we should be sorry that Agamemnon got killed, and okay, fair play to Homer and Fagles, the scene where Menelaus finds out his brother’s dead is rather affecting:

So Proteus said, and his story crushed my heart.
I knelt down in the sand and wept. I’d no desire
to go on living and see the rising light of day.
But once I’d had my fill of tears and writhing there,
the Old Man of the Sea who never lies continued,
“No more now, Menelaus. How long must you weep?
Withering tears, what good can come of tears?
None I know of. Strive instead to return
to your native country – hurry home at once!
Either you’ll find the murderer still alive
or Orestes will have beaten you to the kill.
You’ll be in time to share the funeral feast.”

But TOO BAD. Too bad for you, Menelaus! Too bad for you, Agamemnon! Agamemnon, if you will recall, killed his daughter in order to gain favorable weather conditions to go a-sailing off to plunder Troy, and then he pissed off his best warrior by stealing his girl, and then he put himself completely beyond the pale by taking my girl Cassandra home with him. Where she got killed, more or less in the crossfire, by Agamemnon’s justifiably angry wife. Ugh, I can’t stand Agamemnon.

(This passage was also the point at which I noticed that reading Homer was putting me in that special Greek ‘n’ Roman headspace that bears no relation at all to my normal morality. My sublessor, whose copy of the book I’m reading, wrote in the margin “Beaten you to the kill? What an odd way of working”, and when I read that, I scoffed and sneered and thought about how my sublessor plainly didn’t know how to please the gods, and how Odysseus would kick his sissy ass at an archery contest.)

But I love Odysseus. When Odysseus comes on screen (as it were) (or on an actual screen comme Sean Bean in Troy, and not to be critical, but why wasn’t that whole film about Sean Bean being Odysseus, when he was plainly the best thing about it?), I am suffused with feelings of joy and love. I trace this back to the Latin class I took as a high school freshman, the translations for which were all Hercules stories first semester, and all Odysseus stories second semester. Do you know how tedious it gets reading Hercules stories three days a week for eighteen weeks?

World: Here is an obstacle.
Hercules: I will punch it with my fists.

When we got to the second half of the book I was so relieved to be done with Hercules I embraced Odysseus with my whole heart. And so it is to this day. I know he didn’t have to sleep with Calypso (and there’s Penelope waiting at home), and I know he’s #teamgreeks and is directly responsible for the fall of Troy with all its contingent miseries (Andromache’s kid getting chucked off a mountain, Cassandra being sent home with Agamemnon, etc.), but what can I say? He’s better than Hercules.

(Better than Aeneas too. Don’t tell Virgil I said so.)

Check it out. He’s just washed up from being shipwrecked and tempest-tossed; he’s naked and “all crusted, caked with brine”, and he’s still a silver-tongued devil.

Here I am at your mercy, princess–
are you a goddess or a mortal? If one of the gods
who rules the skies up there, you’re Artemis to the life,
the daughter of mighty Zeus — I see her now — just look
at your build, your bearing, your lithe flowing grace…
But if you’re one of the mortals living here on earth,
three times blest are your father, your queenly mother,
three times over your brothers too. How often their hearts
must warm with joy to see you striding into the dances–
such a bloom of beauty. True, but he is the one
more blest than all other men alive, that man
who sways you with gifts and leads you home, his bride!
I have never laid eyes on anyone like you,
neither man nor woman…
I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me.

I am so taken with Fagles’s translation that it’s got me genuinely wondering if I read it before. I thought I had, but maybe I was thinking of someone else, someone not as good. Like Lattimore. If you have not read Homer, may I suggest you acquire Fagles’s translation and get on that right away?

Meanwhile, are you #teamtrojans or #teamgreeks, and why? I particularly want to know why if you are #teamgreeks, what with the Trojans being better and all.

Milton in May: Week 1

I did a class on Milton when I was at university.  The professor was this tiny, enthusiastic woman, clearly in love with Milton and excited for us to be in love with him, too.  She would charge up and down the classroom gesticulating wildly and drawing stick-figure pictures of important scenes on the chalkboard.  I have her in my head like a soundtrack when I read Paradise Lost.  It was the best class I took at university, and the single piece of literature I most enjoyed reading and learning about.  So hopefully I will not sound like an idiot when I write about it this month for Rebecca’s Milton in May reading project.

If there was one thing my tiny Milton professor was determined we students would all leave the class understanding, it was that Milton was not of the Devil’s party without knowing it.  But you can see why Blake would think so.  Paradise Lost is about stories, and Satan tells a compelling story, a seductive story, the story with himself as the proud, brave, warrior hero, down but not out, preparing himself to fight another day.

To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall….   Here at least
We shall be free; th’Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce,
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.

He’s Achilles, refusing to bend knee to Agamemnon!  He’s Aeneas, defeated in battle but setting out to found a new, greater kingdom!  When you come from the Iliad and the Aeneid, Satan’s rhetoric is pretty convincing.  He’s the first character we meet, the first voice we hear, and there’s something stirring and admirable (to me, anyway) about confronting impossible circumstances with an unflinching determination to manage them.  “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” says Satan.

Except, of course, he’s lying.  And Milton’s not just paying lip service to the idea of Satan’s wickedness and deceit; he shows it to us over and over.  As soon as Satan gets in front of his troops, he’s singing a different tune.  “Who here / Will envy whom the highest place exposes / Formost to stand against the Thunders aim?” he asks them.  Not so much of this better to reign in Hell business now, eh?  Satan utterly lacks integrity; the stories he’s telling will change whenever he needs something new.

Like, check it out, this bit’s funny.  In Book 2, Satan’s volunteered to go scope out the new world God’s invented for Man, when he gets to the gates of Hell and finds them guarded by Sin and Death.  Sin, who is all covered in snakes and hellhounds, tells him how she was born out of his head when he first conceived of rebellion, and that they subsequently had sex and produced a gruesome son, Death, who promptly raped her to produce the hellhounds that are perpetually curling up in her womb and eating their way back out again.  It is a nasty piece of imagery.

Dear Daughter [says Satan], since thou claim’st me for thy Sire,
And my fair Son here showst me, the dear pledge
Of dalliance had with thee in Heav’n…
I come no enemie, but to set free
From out this dark and dismal house of pain,
Both him and thee.

Uh, sure, dude.  You’re her knight in shining armor.  We’ve seen these two, Sin and Death, they’re not dear or fair, and Satan was all set to bash them to bits five minutes ago.  It’s a sham!  If Sin were our friend we’d be telling her this guy’s bad news.  But she’s picking up what he’s putting down:

Thou art my Father, thou my Author, thou
My being gav’st me; whom should I obey
But thee, whom follow?  Thou wilt bring me soon
To that new world of light and bliss, among
The Gods who live at ease, where I shall reign
At thy right hand voluptuous, as beseems
Thy daughter and thy darling, without end.

(Ew.)

I have to say, I’m finding Satan far less appealing this time through.  Not sure if this is down to my tiny Milton professor, or the years that have gone by since I last read Paradise Lost, or the fact that I like God better now than I did then, or what.  I still feel sort of fond of Satan, if only for the swooping grandeur of his rhetoric and his trickster-god manipulation of the other denizens of Hell; but I am finding him fundamentally shabby, after all.  The best plan he can come up with is to annoy God by wreaking havoc on something lovely and innocent that God’s created; even framed as guerrilla warfare against a tyrant God, that’s not a terrible admirably aim.

The character of God, on the other hand, is coming off rather better than when I was in college.  At least part of the time: Milton’s always good on free will.

I made [Satan] just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all th’Ethereal Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

Elegant antithesis there, eh, with God repeating stood and fell four times apiece in four lines?  The problem is that wholly good characters are boring, and God and Jesus are too good to be interesting.  Which they’d have to be, of course!  Milton believes in them!  I like them on the subject of freedom, but far less on the subject of their boundless mercy and goodness, and the ambrosial fragrance and new joy ineffable that fill’d all Heav’n every time they talk.  I’d rather read about hellhounds gnawing through Sin’s uterine walls.

Except when I wouldn’t – Milton can be very effective.  Here’s another good bit from the heaven scene.  We have already seen Satan ask his demons who will risk the danger of going up to check out Eden, and they all stand silent.  In a parallel scene, God tells the angels that when mankind sins, they have to die.  Dye hee, or Justice must, says God (good line, eh?), unless someone will pay the price, and die in man’s place.  The angels are as silent as the demons were, and then Jesus speaks up.  Is it just because of the Aslan echoes that I find this passage kind of moving (and wouldn’t CS Lewis be thrilled then)?

Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life
I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
Account mee man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glorie next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly dye,
Well pleas’d, on me let Death wreck all his rage.

Milton is such a gorgeous writer.  Shame about all the crazy thoughts inside his 17th century head.