A Literary Three-Way: About a Boy? (I)

In eleventh-grade English class, we studied “Oedipus Rex” and I fell in love with the idea that a story so old could still be compelling.

But the idea of reading these classic texts outside a classroom seemed unthinkable. You know how some books become all-the-more intimidating the longer you leave them unread?

That’s how it was for me and The Odyssey; the slick trade paperback that I bought more than twenty years ago was untouched until Vasilly recommended Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel based on Homer’s epic poem.

Hinds actually recommends one translation of Homer’s work in particular, that of Robert Fitzgerald, closely followed by his admiration for Robert Fagles’ (for their balance between readability and poetry).

I gather that the translation I read is popular academically and tends towards the readable rather than the poetic, which was perhaps a decent starting point for me but, in fact, I started with Hind’s work, reading Book I in his version and then returning to Homer, alternating.

Hinds’ version is only 250 pages long, so obviously he had to summarize a lot. Easing myself into the tale, I was grateful for the simplicity his version offers.

For instance, in Book IV, when one character shares his sorrow over the loss of Odysseus, Hinds describes it like this:

“One man I miss above all others. He did more for our cause, suffered more on the sea than any other, and we know not whether he is alive or dead.”

Homer’s The Odyssey Trans. Richard Lattimore (1965) Penguin Books, 1991

Lattimore’s translation of Homer’s description is definitely more verbose:

“But none of all these, sorry as I am, do I grieve so much
as for one, who makes hateful for me my food and my sleep, when I
remember, since no one of the Achaians labored as much
as Odysseus labored and achieved, and for him the end was
grief for him, and for me a sorrow that is never forgotten
for his sake, how he is gone so long, and we knew nothing
of whether he is alive or dead.”

It’s not as though there’s anything of great significance left out in Hinds’ version in such an instance.

I can certainly imagine reading only Hinds’ version and not feeling, in the end, as though I’d missed out.

But of course you can’t fit every aspect of an epic narrative tale into a graphic novel with far fewer pages.

When you’re reading the two versions alongside, you realize that some things get left out.

For instance, readers of either Hinds’ version or Homer’s will recognize from the first book that if Athene hadn’t gotten the proverbial ball rolling, by asking Zeus if there wasn’t something that could be done for Odysseus, there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell.

And, to keep things interesting, Athene regularly appears in the narrative in disguise, and frequently alters someone’s mind or actions unbeknownst to them. (Many times there are visual clues in Hinds version, but not always.)

In Homer’s version of Book VI, readers learn that Athene sneakily adopted the form of a woman known to Nausicaa in order to pursuade Nausicaa to journey to the place where Athene knew Odysseus was resting. There are lots of preparations to be made and the group spends a chunk of time on them before Odysseus awakens and approaches.

In Hinds’ version, readers see Odysseus being wakened by the sound of Nausicaa and her maids. He is literally peering through the leaves at them.

Now this is a very minor detail in the overarching story about Odysseus’ adventures; readers can understand why Hinds’ would have opted to set this element aside. And certainly readers of Hinds’ version, too, have plenty of opportunity to see Athene’s tricks (even later in this same segment).

But, on the other hand, it goes directly to motive. What makes Nausicaa make the choices that she has made? Or, more accurately, who has directed those choices?

Wouldn’t you rather read the pictures?!

But, also on the other hand, I was sometimes relieved that things had been left out of Hinds’ version, for instance, the big lie that Odysseus tells to the swineherd because he is not ready to be recognized as his true self yet. (He sure does go on about it!)

Also, sometimes Hinds adds a detail that I found especially touching, for instance, the way that Athene strokes the brow of Odysseus’ loyal dog, after he has died, and gathers him into her arms (whereas in Homer’s tale nothing more is said of it after the “doom of dark death now closed over the dog”).

And sometimes he takes twice as many pages to illustrate one of the books, because of the dramatic potential that segment has to offer (like the scenes with Polyphemos, the Cyclops), whereas a segment of the same length, which is less dramatic, might be drawn in as little as four pages.

I found myself more often comparing Hinds’ version to Homer’s. But it’s important to remember that these were oral tales.

Homer’s version of this story is just that, too: a version.

And sometimes things that seem like a pretty big deal were left out of that version too.

For instance, this single passage comprises only a few lines in Lattimore’s translation of Book XXII:

“…so their heads were all in a line, and each had her neck caught
fast in a noose, so that heir death would be most pitiful.
They struggled with their feet for a little, not for very long.”

There’s a bit of lead up, but it’s over pretty quickly for these maids.

Click image for the Challenge Site

It’s clear that nobody involved in the decision about their fate seems to doubt their guilt. But what they’ve done is not entirely clear either.

“The story as told in The Odyssey doesn’t hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.”

The third piece in my Odyssey puzzle will settle into place another Sunday with notes on my re-reading of Margaret Atwood’s version of this classic tale.

When were you (or are you now?) bitten by the mythology bug?

Have you been reading in bunches?

When is the last time that you read something that scared you?




  1. Cheryl @ Tales of the Marvelous April 13, 2012 at 11:05 pm - Reply

    This sounds like a really clever way to tackle an intimidating book! Now if I could just find a graphic novel of Lord of the Rings…

    Anyway, really interesting to hear how the two mediums handled the story differently!

    • Buried In Print April 14, 2012 at 2:24 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Cheryl. It made all the difference, really! As for the graphic novel of LoTR, maybe one of the movie companions could substitute?! *grins, ducks, runs*

  2. Nathalie April 13, 2012 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    P.S. Rosemary Sutcliffe, of the Eagle of the Ninth fame, also did retellings of The Iliad and the Odyssey. That’s also on the tbr list with the kids. There are several versions. The ones I picked up are cheap paperbacks with no illustrations, but I see that there are illustrated versions available.

    • Buried In Print April 14, 2012 at 2:22 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Nathalie. I’ve requested one version from the library today. (They are The Wanderings of Odysseus: The Story of the Odyssey and The Black Ships before Troy: The Story of the Iliad, if anyone else wants to obsessively follow up.) Did you read a lot of Sutcliffe growing up? I have a few on my shelves, but I never made it through them as a girl; I’ve been thinking about making an event out of them at some point, diving into the past with both feet. She must have gotten this outstanding reputation for a reason, I know.

  3. Nathalie April 13, 2012 at 9:05 pm - Reply

    I bought the Hinds not long ago because I adored his illustrations for his Beowulf. I find his Odyssey less compelling. Beowulf is so deliciously dark, no blue sea, just grey and stormy skies above. I recommend it highly. You could read it with Seamus Heaney’s translation as another along-side reading. Still, am glad to own it, since we are on a Greek myth binge here, reading rapidly through the Percy Jacksons and cleaning the palate with various tellings of the myths between books.

    • Buried In Print April 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm - Reply

      You do certainly get a sense of the sun-and-sea of the Greek Islands from his colour set, but I can see the appeal of the contrasting style you’ve fallen for. The pair would be lovely (although I would have to buy the translation first, because these projects don’t lend themselves to library loan periods, or else I just read old stories reeeeaaaalllly slowly); I’d also like to re-read John Gardner’s Grendel too. The Jackson books are addictive; I’m impressed that you’re squeezing ANYthing else in!

  4. Vasilly April 11, 2012 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    Where have I been that I missed you posting so many things?! Yes, I am definitely bitten by the mythology bug. I just finished reading Alcestis by Katharine Beutner and now I want to read The Odyssey and The Iliad. Penelopaid is such a great read. I can’t wait to see if it holds up in your re-read.

    Have you read The Olympians series by George O’Connor? I think you would like it.

    • Buried In Print April 12, 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

      Vasilly – I’m posting more often to get caught up on some lingering bookchat and to make room for OUaT posts: sorry! You already added the Beutner book to my TBR ages ago, and I’ve just added the George O’Connor series (thanks!). Every time I’ve re-read an Atwood book, I’ve been doubly impressed, so my expectations for this one are pretty high!

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