The classics can be intimidating, especially a work like Homer’s The Odyssey. You know you should read the book, but unless you are obliged to study it in a high school or college class, this epic poem will probably remain on your list of books to read someday, perhaps when you are retired.
In a feat that has earned her a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” Emily Wilson has recently provided a first-rate English translation of The Odyssey. Wilson manages to keep her translation to the exact number of lines as the original Greek text, put every line into iambic pentameter, like the five “short-long” beats per line in Shakespeare’s plays, and use clear and relatable language that makes a 3,000-year epic feels oddly close to home. In this audio version, Claire Danes (Homeland) makes Wilson’s translation even more approachable, reading with great clarity and never tripping over Greek names and places.
The story begins, as an epic requires, in the middle of the plot. Penelope waits in Ithaca for the return of her husband Odysseus, who triumphed years before at the battle of Troy. As Odysseus is presumed dead, multiple suitors have barged into Penelope’s home seeking her hand. Telemachus, her son, tries ineffectually to control the situation. Meanwhile, the nymph Calypso has imprisoned Odysseus offering eternal life as a god if he stays with her—but Odysseus still longs for Penelope and his homeland. What follows is the tale of how Odysseus came to Calypso’s island after many a trial and tribulation, such as his fight with Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant, or his temptation by the Sirens’ singing. Ultimately, Odysseus makes his way to Ithaca, and there he must contend with his rivals and win back control of his estate.
While Odysseus’ contact with Zeus, Athena, and all the capricious Greek gods of Mount Olympus might stand in complete contrast to biblical stories of God’s provision, I couldn’t help but sense the Mediterranean that joins the Bible and The Odyssey. As I listened, I thought of Paul’s journeys across the sea and the storms he encountered. Odysseus’ tales reminded me of David’s battles and his clever slaying of the giant Goliath. At the same time, The Odyssey informs the epic tales that form the basis of so much of contemporary popular culture, from Frodo’s journeys in The Lord of the Rings to the superheroes and demi-gods of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In short, a classic such as The Odyssey provides a backdrop to understanding Western civilization, classic and contemporary, and to appreciating the place of Christianity’s own epic story.
The audiobook also includes Wilson’s illuminating introduction that provides many keys to understanding and appreciating the work. Lasting more than 13 hours, the recording is perfect for a long drive. (It was perfect for a trip I took recently from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Marquette and back.) In audio form, this classic tale might well succeed in drawing in high schoolers and middle schoolers into the adventures of crafty Odysseus and his beleaguered son Telemachus. (Brilliance Audio, Audible)