I’ve mentioned Homer several times. He’s a guy who is well represented in the book sections of flea markets and rummage sales — and well he should be. “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” make great reading.
You have to find a translation you like, because some of the old ones by Victorian scholars make Homer sound like a blowhard.
Whenever a translator is putting more emphasis on creating what he or she considers an artistic poem in English, you end up with a dumb poem that gives you zero understanding of the original.
Every educated person in the Greek and Roman worlds knew these works by heart, so it’s rather unlikely that a modern writer is going to improve or elucidate it by reworking it in his or her own poetic style.
And if you monkey with the original to make an artsy poem in English, you wind up obscuring everything that makes the original great. I like a translation that’s just as literal as it can possibly be, even if it makes awkward English. For Homer, W.D. Rouse’s translation is the one I recommend. Fortunately, these works are used in schools all over the place, so they turn up all the time at rummage sales.
Even Caligula, the emperor I referred to, the guy you don’t want as a wedding guest, was known to quote whole passages of Homer and all his guests quoted passages right back. He (Homer, that is) had, and still has, enormous appeal to the widest possible variety of people. He was the Ernie Pyle of the ancient world.
I think one reason for this wide appeal was that Homer, like Ernie, knew how to use homey details. When we hear about the Cyclops tending his sheep, he’s putting the rams in this pen and the ewes in this pen, and then he’s letting them out to graze and so on. Homer clearly knew a lot about raising sheep. He knew a lot about raising horses and making weapons and armor. He describes the threshing of wheat and the dances on the threshing floor. And he clearly had a mariner’s knowledge of the moods of the sea and the ports of the Mediterranean.
When he returned victorious from the sack of Troy, the Great King Agamemnon was murdered by his wife in the bath, or maybe her boyfriend, I forget. Anyway, when Odysseus finally makes it back to Ithaca after twenty years, he wants to check out the lay of the land, so to speak. Who does he go to? Who does he know he can trust? The swineherd, of course. And in that scene we see that Homer knew all about raising pigs, too.
I think this was important for Homer and his predecessors — for he drew on a poetic tradition of about six centuries, give or take a decade or two here or there — because it had something for everyone who gathered in the villages to hear him.
I also like the kind of wink that Homer gives you whenever the gods and goddesses intervene in the affairs of humans. He always gives the discerning reader a perfectly natural explanation. Like when the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena, visits Odysseus’ son Telemachus in the form of a wise old friend and helps him make up his mind, or when Hermes, God of Information and Commerce, takes the form of a fellow traveler and warns Odysseus about the witchcraft of Circe and gives him a root or somethings to eat to make him immune to her powers.
I guess the classic example is when Paris, Helen’s boyfriend, is fighting Menelaus, her husband, and getting the worst of it. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and a buddy of Paris’, snatches him up and deposits him back in his nice cozy bed in his dad’s palace inside the fabled walls of Troy.
It’s not like he took off and ran, Homer seems to be saying. He wanted to stay and kick the shit out of Menelaus or die trying. He just kind of got swept up by a goddess and ended up inside the city walls. Don’t you hate it when that happens?