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?