The Odyssey by Homer, Translated by Emily Wilson
W. W. Norton, 2018; 582 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s The Odyssey has garnered widespread and well-deserved praise. Her scholarship is deep and poetic ability vast, but I want to hold up her translation as a great read for any curious reader, not just students or scholars. More critically, reading this version of the ancient tale prods us with telling commentary on the values of our own times.
Wilson provides lucid, readable overviews about The Odyssey’s history as a text, about the debates concerning Homer as a person and author, and about the rich character of Odysseus himself. Wilson notes that he is often given an epithet beginning with “poly—meaning ‘much’ or ‘many’” (61), indicating that his character is acknowledged to be complex.
At its heart is the story of this complex man, in a post-war world, longing for home so desperately that he rejects a goddess’ offer to remain in bliss with her in order to endure one hardship after another. He sets out for home again and again. Contemporary images of jammed, rickety vessels into the Mediterranean Sea or caravans of migrants surging northward in search of refuge offer us some imaginative emotional tone for this epic.
It is also the story of the warrior’s young son growing up in the vast absence of his off-to-battle father. Again, hear the contemporary echoes? The poem begins with Telemachus and is as much his own passage into manhood as it is Odysseus’ journey home.
Wilson does an expert job orienting attention to the women, goddesses, and queens in the poem so that they are not mere window dressing for a male-tale. These are powerful characters, ones who motivate and redirect the action, including rescuing the hero. Walking with Odysseus throughout is Athena, “the goddess of technical expertise and strategic thinking” (34), one of the real stars in The Iliad since she played such a key role in the sacking of Troy. In this poem, she protects, advises, and takes care of our hero, often in disguise. Wilson’s work to re-position women and slaves in the culture, language, and story of The Odyssey has been the focus of much discussion, and it provides a critical correction.
The book is also a story of stories. Much of Odysseus’s travels are related after-the-fact and around the fire. Readers are supported in following the plot because Wilson gives brief summaries and a fine overview of the plot, including the stories within stories that form the structure. She also has created beautiful, clear poetry. It flows like water. And is as refreshing.
As we enjoy the writing, we are challenged by the values. Wilson writes that “The poem’s episodes can be seen a sequence of case studies in the concept of xenia” (24). The word means “hospitality” and “friendship,” so that when the elite traveled and were guests in others’ homes, they established a bond of “guest-friendship,” which is displayed in many scenes in the book.
Wilson explains that the cognate xenos can indicate both a “friend” and a “stranger”—the root of our word xenophobia but also the less-used opposite xenophile, “love of strangers or of unknown objects” (23). One epithet for Zeus is Xenios, “God of Strangers.” In all these words is a way of speaking about deep values, ones that not only dictate etiquette for dealing with the situation of a stranger washing up on your shores and for sending such a stranger off again, but this language points to moral commitments. Those who abide by these values are true humans and those who don’t are barbarians. This is how the book speaks powerfully into our own times.
In a late scene, Eumaeus, Odysseus’s own swineherd, does not recognize his master after his return. Of course, Odysseus remains in disguise (aided in this ruse, of course, by Athena). Nevertheless, the servant says to his still-hidden master, says,
One must honor guests
and foreigners and strangers, even those
much poorer than oneself. Zeus watches over
beggars and guests and strangers. What I have
to give is small, but I will give it gladly. (Book 14, ines 55–9)
The pleasure of such an elegantly composed work, with its surprising resonance, is remarkable, and the thematic values being explored in The Odyssey make this version an utterly contemporary book, one worth contemplating.