The Odyssey – translated by T.E. Lawrence

The Odyssey - Homer Ten years have passed since the Trojan War ended but Odysseus has still not returned home, having been held captive by the nymph Calypso, who has fallen in love with him. At home in Ithaca, his wife, Penelope, has found herself besieged by a large group of suitors who are hoping to persuade her to marry one of them. The suitors have taken over Odysseus’s palace and are helping themselves to his food and drink; his son, Telemachus, is desperate for them to leave but doesn’t have the courage to throw them out.

The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus and his journey home to Ithaca – a journey involving encounters with the one-eyed Cyclops, the witch Circe, the sea monster Scylla, and the tempting music of the Sirens. But it’s also the story of Telemachus and his quest to find out what has happened to his father; of Penelope, faithfully waiting for her husband to return; and of the Greek gods and goddesses who try to help or hinder Odysseus on his travels.

I’m so happy to have finally read The Odyssey as it was one of the least appealing books on my Classics Club list, not necessarily because I was intimidated by it (well, maybe a little bit) but because I’m just not very interested in mythology. I can’t really explain why I’m not a fan; I did enjoy reading Greek myths as a child, but since then my reading has taken me in other directions. I know that probably puts me in a minority as most people seem to love mythology and have a lot more knowledge of the subject than I do!

I’ve started to read The Odyssey before but didn’t finish it so this is the first time I’ve actually read it from beginning to end. I did already know most of the story, partly from school and partly because this is the sort of story that I think many people will have at least some familiarity with even if they’ve never read it in its entirety. There were some things I wasn’t aware of, though – for example, I was surprised by how little time is actually devoted to Odysseus’s journey. This section of the epic, in which Odysseus describes his adventures and the monsters and mythical beings he outwits, is by far the most well-known section, but it actually only takes up four of the twenty-four books that make up The Odyssey. The rest of the time is spent on the suitors, Telemachus and Penelope, and what Odysseus does after he eventually returns to Ithaca.

There are lots of different themes and ideas contained in The Odyssey – storytelling, disguise and deception, temptation, and the relationship between mortals and gods are a few that I noted and I’m sure there are others that I missed. There is also a lot of focus on hospitality. It seemed a weary traveller would be made welcome wherever they went, offered food, a bath and a bed for the night.

There are many different editions and translations of The Odyssey, some in verse and some in prose, but the book I read was the Wordsworth Classics edition pictured above from 1992 with a 1932 prose translation by T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). There was no special reason why I decided to read this version, other than that I happened to have it on my shelf (I can’t remember where I got it from). I’m not sure if you can even still buy this particular translation in this edition anymore. However, this turned out to be a perfect translation for me. I know I’ve probably missed out on a lot of the beauty of The Odyssey by reading a prose version, but I don’t get on very well with narrative poems – apart from The Epic of Gilgamesh which I loved in verse form – so reading it in prose was probably a much better choice for me personally.

I have no idea how technically accurate Lawrence’s translation might be, but all I was really hoping for was something enjoyable and reasonably easy to read, and that’s what I got. I was surprised by how exciting and readable it actually was; I wonder if the fact that Lawrence himself had such an eventful life was an influence here in helping him to convey the drama of Odysseus’s adventures in such a compelling way.

I’m sorry about the lack of insight and analysis in this post. It doesn’t seem right to just ‘review’ an epic like The Odyssey as I would any other book, but that’s what I’ve had to do as I really don’t feel that there’s much I can add to everything that’s already been said about it over the centuries. It’s actually been a lot harder to write about The Odyssey than it was to read it!

Have you read The Odyssey? If I read it again, is there a translation you would recommend?