I'm teaching a new course this fall - Western Humanities I - and there is a set of required texts from which we can choose to build our course. We must, naturally, include one of Homer's epic poems, The Iliad or The Odyssey. Not being much for battle play-by-plays, I prefer The Odyssey, so I started there. As one of the oldest extant texts available, The Odyssey is a fitting opportunity to "start at the very beginning - a very good place to start" as we attempt to lay a foundation of textual relevance to our students. However, most of these students will not be English majors, they will not be readers, they will not be accustomed to or interested in dactylic hexamater or anything having to do with the original Greek. With that in mind, I have decided to take the risky step of NOT asking my students to read an original text translation in its entirety; instead, I ordered Simon Armitage's translation, commissioned by BBC Radio for a dramatic radio performance and later published in book form. I want them to experience the energy of the oral tradition - as it was originally intended.
This translation stays remarkably true to the original text, and the dramatic dialogue makes the story come to life. It is strong and thoughtful, and I believe it will captivate students much more than the original text. Don't worry, though, I will introduce them to fragments of a respected translation. I will make sure they understand the roots of epic poetry as poetry, but I'm excited for how this version promises to enliven the class from the very beginning. It is a beautiful but accessible version of this most classic of texts, and I highly recommend it. Accessible though it is, it doesn't try to be something it's not. As the introduction by the author reads:
It is not set in a housing estate in Salford. It does not depict the Achaeans as veterans of the Gulf War or asylum-seekers, though of course we should not be surprised if the Odyssey rings with echoes and resonances of our contemporary world. Such is the power and purpose of myth. (vi)It is these echoes and resonances that I intend to explore in the course. I'm going to use The Odyssey as the bedrock not just of Western literature but quite specifically of the course. Everything we do will serve to further plumb the Odyssey's themes of journey, home, family, disguise, and the importance of story. We will also read Plato, Ovid, Dante, and Shakespeare, but we will track the influence of Odysseus through each of these and into our contemporary Western culture. We will read a little Big Fish and watch a little O Brother and finish the class with Atwood's The Penelopiad. What do you think?