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the Complete Review
the complete review - text / commentary

Homer, Odyssey I

translated and edited by
Simon Pulleyn

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Homer, Odyssey I

Title: Homer, Odyssey I
Editor: Simon Pulleyn
Genre: Text / commentary
Written: (2019)
Length: 240 pages
Original in: (ancient Greek)
Availability: Homer, Odyssey I - US
Homer, Odyssey I - UK
Homer, Odyssey I - Canada
  • Edited with an Introduction, Translation, Commentary, and Glossary by Simon Pulleyn

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Our Assessment:

A- : thorough, useful overview and introduction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
BMCR . (2019.11.34) Alexander Andrée

  From the Reviews:
  • "In short sections, the introduction offers superb guidance to a number of topics encountered in reading the epic (and extending far beyond Book I), encompassing matters of linguistic, literary, and socio-historical interest. (...) The facing-page translation makes no literary pretensions, which is good. It is downright literal -- without being unreadable -- which greatly helps translation. (...) The commentary is rich: its 144 pages make up 45 percent of the volume’s 320 pages. Philological in the full sense of the word, it allows features of language to address the text historically, linguistically, and critically." - Alexander Andrée, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Homer's Odyssey remains one of the foundational literary texts, in every sense, and continues to be widely read and studied -- and frequently translated, at least into English: recent major translations include ones by Stephen Mitchell (Simon and Schuster, 2013), Barry B. Powell (Oxford University Press, 2014), Anthony Verity (Oxford University Press, 2016), Peter Green (University of California Press, 2018), and, of course, Emily Wilson (W.W.Norton, 2017). Beyond that, there are the classic translations, from George Chapman's to E.V.Rieu's Penguin-standard to the more recent Robert Fagles.
       For readers who want to take the next step and approach this classic work in the original Greek, there are versions that provide a good entrée to that, such as the Loeb Classical Library volumes, presenting the Greek text with an English translation (by A.T.Murray, revised by George E. Dimock) facing it -- albeit with very limited supporting material beyond that --, or the W.B.Stanford Bristol Classical Press Greek text, which comes with extensive commentary. Given the challenges of the text and of Homeric Greek, many readers might, however, like and be helped by having both an English translation along with the original text and detailed commentary/annotations.
       This volume, Homer, Odyssey I, only covers -- in text and commentary -- the first book of the Odyssey (while also providing a broader introduction to the entire work, as well as its language), but makes for an excellent starter-volume, a first dip (or plunge ...) into the epic. No doubt also useful for the reader who has grappled more extensively with Homer and the Odyssey, it nevertheless seems particularly helpful for those who are engaging seriously with the Greek original for the first time (not that it sill isn't an incredible challenge ...).
       The text of the Odyssey here -- book one, in Greek and in English translation -- covers a mere twenty-eight of this volume's pages, less than a tenth of the total (if glossary and indices are included). The Commentary -- endnotes, in essence, elucidating vocabulary, meaning, usage, and references --, on the other hand, extends for 145 pages. Beyond that, there is a general Introduction to the Odyssey (sixty pages -- but with 419 footnotes (admittedly mostly page-/reference-citations)); an extensive Bibliography; a Glossary; a quick overview of relevant Technical Terms; a (general) Index; and an Index Verborum.
       Although Pulleyn does provide an English translation of book one, the focus is very much on the Greek text, so while there is a great deal of discussion -- in the Introduction and Commentary -- of readings of the Greek (including, specifically, the meaning/translation of many of the words), as well as many entries in the Bibliography of literature about the text, there is no discussion -- indeed barely any mention -- of (the full-length, commercial) English (or other) translations of the Odyssey, and certainly no rough 'guide-to' existing translations or anything of that sort. This is understandable -- focused on the Greek, there's no real place or reason for considering the English (or other) translations --, but given that the general public's exposure to debates about the Odyssey is completely dominated by reviews and discussions of (yet more new ...) translations, the almost complete non-acknowledgement of these here becomes a noticeable absence. This is probably for the best, forcing the reader to focus on the actual (Greek) text, and not on the (fall-back) English renderings. But just to be clear: readers looking for help or advice in choosing the *best* English translation to turn to won't (readily) find it here.
       Even Pulleyn's own translation is purpose-oriented: as he explains in the Preface:

I ought to say that the translation makes no pretence to literary merit; it is certainly not intended as a rival to the many freestanding translations of the entire poem that are readily available. It is designed to help the reader to construe the Greek on the facing page and to reflect, as far as possible, effects of word order and sound in the original.
       There are, of course, those of us who want exactly that in their translations; certainly it is the most appropriate approach to take here, where the point is to help illuminate and, in a sense, make 'readable' the original text, rather than to find/present an English equivalent. (The difference between this and what we usually expect from translation is worth keeping in mind.)
       Comparing the proem (lines 1-10) to other recent translations should give some sense of Pulleyn's approach:
The man — tell me, Muse, [of him] of many turns, who was very
Made to wander, after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.
Many were the people whose cities he saw, and got to know their
Many were the pains that on the sea he suffered in his spirit,
Fighting for his own life and the safe return of his comrades.
But not even so did he save them, eager though he was;
For they perished because of their own wickedness,
Fools — who consumed the oxen of Hyperion the Sun god.
So he robbed them of their day of safe return.
From some point or other, goddess daughter of Zeus, tell us also
     of those things.
       Okay, so that doesn't quite have the poetry -- or more natural feel -- of the standard English translations -- but, again: that's not the intention or purpose.
       In literary translations, the focus is much more on the English. Stephen Mitchell (2013), for example, has it:
Sing to me, Muse, of that endlessly cunning man
who was blown off course to the ends of the earth, in the years
after he plundered Troy. He passed through the cities
of many people and learned how they thought, and he suffered
many bitter hardships upon the high seas
as he tried to save his own life and bring his companions
back to their home. But however bravely he struggled,
he could not rescue them, fools that they were — their own
recklessness brought disaster upon them all;
they slaughtered and ate the cattle of Hélios,
so the sun god destroyed them and blotted out their homecoming.
Goddess, daughter of Zeus, begin now, wherever
you wish to, and tell the story again, for us.
       Meanwhile, Emily Wilson (2017), has it (arrestingly succinctly):
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God's cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.
       And then, of course, there are versions like Chapman's (1615):
The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way
Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay;
That wander'd wondrous far, when he the town
Of sacred Troy had sack’d and shiver'd down;
The cities of a world of nations,
With all their manners, minds, and fashions,
He saw and knew; at sea felt many woes,
Much care sustain'd, to save from overthrows
Himself and friends in their retreat for home.
But so their fates he could not overcome,
Though much he thirsted it. O men unwise,
They perish'd by their own impieties,
That in their hunger's rapine would not shun
The oxen of the lofty-going Sun,
Who therefore from their eyes the day bereft
Of safe return. These acts, in some part left,
Tell us, as others, deified seed of Jove.
       Of course, Pulleyn's translation differs from the others in that it is not meant to be read on its own: it is not a stand-alone translation; the commentary is a vital complement, and that and the English rendering are meant to give the reader the necessary insight into the original Greek. And so the reader finds twelve pages of commentary to go with just these first ten lines -- allowing for a 'fuller' reading, specifically of the Greek.
       So, for example, the first line describes the (unnamed) Odysseus as: πολύτροπον. Mitchell presents him as: 'endlessly cunning', while Wilson makes him simply: 'complicated'; Pulleyn's '[of him] of many turns' reads, on its face, awkwardly -- but the relevant commentary explains why he expresses it that way, as he begins by noting:
The word is plainly derived from πολύ- ('much') and τρέπω ('turn') but its meaning is nevertheless ambiguous in Greek: does it refer to Odysseus' many travels or to his versatility of mind and his cunning ? The word recurs only once (Od.10.330) in a context no more helpful as to meaning. [...] The overall ambiguity may be preserved in English by translating 'of many turns'.
       Ultimately, arguably, this isn't nearly as limiting as the choices Mitchell, Wilson, et al. (are forced to) make.
       The Commentary is not a word-by-word gloss of the text, but it is very detailed, with discussion of at least a word from almost every line (and some in their entirety), as well as some discussion of or observations about specific passages and sections, often in simple summary, such as:
178-212 Mentes answers Telemachus' question by posing as a trader in metals who knew Odysseus in the past. It is the beginning of a careful strategy to find a way into Telemachus' affection and so encourage him to action.
       Most of the entries do focus on word-meaning, and consider alternatives, including those mentioned in the literature (with references, for those eager to explore further), and compare and contrast to examples from elsewhere (mostly) in Homer. While the sheer amount of commentary might seem inordinate, Pulleyn is not, if fact, overly digressive; as throughout (i.e. also in the excellent Introduction), Pulleyn gets to the point -- and points readers to supporting and alternative claims from the literature in the references. Reading a text while relying on and referring to such extensive supporting material is never going to be particularly easy -- the reading experience will obviously never be a very smooth one --, but the Commentary is an excellent and thorough study-guide.
       A substantial part of the volume (some sixty pages) is also taken up by the Introduction, with Pulleyn managing to address a great many of the relevant aspects concerning the Odyssey thoroughly but also succinctly; it serves as an excellent introduction to the work and can be recommended on its own, even apart from the translation of and commentary on book one that follows.
       In the Introduction, Pulleyn devotes brief sections to a variety of aspects of the epic, beginning with: 'The Appeal of the Odyssey' and followed by, among others, sections on: 'Structure', 'Style', and 'Transmission'. Pulleyn considers the work as a whole here -- including its relation, in language, subject matter, and more, to the Iliad, including observations such as that the Iliad is "far more taken up with the doings of the gods than the Odyssey", or how:
The Iliad is an almost unbearably concentrated narrative of death and loss; the Odyssey is about life -- it might be complex and challenging but it is also breath-taking in the possibilities that it offers and which are exemplified in a man life Odysseus.
       For contemporary readers, Homer's use of repetition is particularly glaring, and Pulleyn addresses that (and its obvious roots in the oral tradition, the origins of the poem) at some length here. He notes the remarkable statistic that:
One one reckoning of the 27,853 verses that make up the Iliad and the Odyssey together, some 9,253 are repeated in whole or in part elsewhere. That means that approximately one-third of the poem is formulaic; two-thirds are not. This figure refers to strictly verbatim repetition. On another analysis, taking account of expressions that are similar as well as identical, these proportions are reversed.
       Pulleyn emphasizes how unusual Homer's formulaic approach is, as even imitators (e.g. Quintus Smyrnaeus' Posthomerica) might go through the motions, but: "their formulae are more like window-dressing rather than an integrated part of the fabric of their work".
       One consequence of the repetition, and something that Pulleyn grapples with throughout then in the Commentary, is:
How can we judge when the choice of word is deeply telling or when we might be making a mountain out of a cliché ?
       Fascinating, too, is the counterpart to the formulaic, the unique words -- hapax, words that appear only once --, as the 'Homeric hapaxes' (words that appear only once in Homer, but are picked up by later Greek writers) make up some two percent of the total words in Homer (about once every ten lines) and a stunning 33 per cent of the discrete items of vocabulary in the Odyssey.
       The sections in the Introduction also look to broader contexts, down to considering what understanding the Greeks of Homer's time had of, for example, physiology, as well as things like the role and perception of women or slaves. These are quick but insightful overviews; helpfully, each section also points to a few volumes of 'suggested reading' which address the relevant subject in greater detail. (So also the extensive Bibliography is an excellent resource covering an enormous amount of the literature of interest.)
       Discussion of metre and dialect and grammar -- including charts of some of the declensions of the troublesome-in-Homeric-Greek parts of 'to be' (εἰμί) and of 'to go' (εἶμι) -- are helpful reference points, but the novice (and even some more advanced readers) will probably still require some additional support (though, again, the Commentary also proves helpful in this regard as well).
       Supplementary sections -- including a (Greek) Glossary and a glossary of Technical Terms -- are also useful, completing this well-presented volume.

       Homer, Odyssey I can certainly be recommended to anyone who wants to explore this classic work more closely, and specifically to engage with the Greek text. The Introduction gives a very good overview of many aspects of the work as a whole, and while the text and Commentary then are (essentially) limited to book one of the Odyssey, they do immerse the reader fully in it, making for a great stepping stone to the rest of the work.
       Homer, Odyssey I is perhaps more tool than reading-book, but, exemplary in its presentation, highly recommended as such.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 February 2019

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Homer, Odyssey I: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Editor:

       Simon Pulleyn read and taught classics at Oxford, and has also practiced law.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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