Translated by Robert Fagles
This book is a masterpiece.
Obviously, The Odyssey is one of Western civilization’s greatest works of literature, so that helps.
Add to this is the fact that the translator of this edition, Robert Fagles, is a magician. Fagles has also produced a magnificent Iliad, a stunning translation of Aeschylus’s Orestia, and — my personal favorite — a heartbreaking version the three Theban Plays. I’m running out of accolades to pour on Fagles’s translations, but they truly are among the best things I have ever read, so I’m not thinking twice about it.
As with the Iliad and the Theban plays, this book comes with a (hefty) introduction by Bernard Knox — it’s essential reading. I’m not terribly fond of introductions, usually, but Knox’s are superb: a perfect mix of scholarship, lucid writing, and erudition. Even though the introduction is over sixty pages, skipping it would be a huge mistake.
I’ve never read all the way through The Odyssey until just now, and I’m glad I waited, especially since I enjoyed the reverse allusions I experienced from having read Joyce’s Ulysses first. As a result, the theme of fathers and sons seeking one another came to the forefront: not just in the epic relationship between Telemachus and Odysseus, but also in smaller instances throughout the story. Especially killer was Odysseus’s visit to the underworld, where he meets Agamemnon and Achilles, both of whom are eager for news about their sons. Odysseus is able to give Achilles a glowing review of his son Neoptolemus, who (quite brutally) finished his father’s work at Troy, and the king of warriors responds joyfully, prancing through the underworld bursting with pride. On the other hand, Odysseus cannot give Agamemnon any news of his son Orestes, which leads to a heartbreakingly ironic set of lines: the reader knows that Orestes has revenged his father’s ignoble death in glorious fashion, because Homer has relayed the story early in The Odyssey, when Telemachus visits Menelaus — but Odysseus has been traveling for years, and the news hasn’t reached him. Odysseus, the long-traveled, is unable to give Agamemnon the news that would save him from an eternity of wallowing despair in Hades.
Fagles’s translation is easily readable — the going is nearly as fast as fine prose — and full of color. For example, here’s Athena’s response to Odysseus’s concern about the suitors that await him in Ithaca:
Those men who court your wife and waste your goods?
I have a feeling some will splatter your ample floors
with all their blood and brains. (13:451-53)
Isn’t that great?
In sum: The Odyssey is one of greatest works of all time, Bernard Knox’s introduction enables the reader to savor it to the fullest, and Robert Fagles’s translation is simple, tight, and a joy to read. I couldn’t be more pleased with having read it.