Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Odyssey: Poetry and Graphic Novel

Book Review

The Odyssey by Homer and graphic novel by Gareth Hinds

Somehow my education never included any Greek reading. I am still completely unfamiliar with Greek myths, with the only exception being the tidbits I picked up through astronomy. That still didn't include full stories or much general knowledge of the Greek gods.

Now I do acknowledge that I did not have a very strong liberal arts exposure. I was focused on the physical sciences. That was fine then, because I was on a mission and didn't have much time or interest for things outside of my mission.

Now, I have time. And I'm on a different mission. Now, I'm on a mission to fill in perceived gaps in my literary education.

Greek mythology is one of those gaps.

So, for many years now, I have wanted to read The Iliad and The Odyssey. I started The Iliad earlier this year.

And I struggled. I read a bit and then put it down. Put it down for too long. When I would pick it up again, I had to go back and reread most of the brief bit I had read before. I was continually losing the flow of what I had read. And then, suddenly, my library renewals of the book were up.

Okay, not actually suddenly, but they were gone. I had to return the book. Our library gives us 3 weeks to borrow a book and 2 renewals. That makes for nine weeks.

I didn't get very far in nine weeks with The Iliad. So, I bought a copy at the local used book store.

I haven't opened that book since.

It was proving difficult to get through. And I was trying to stick to my guns about reading it before I started reading The Odyssey, since The Iliad describes events taking place before the events in The Odyssey.

But then I went to my daughter's Back-to-School Night. This is where we get to meet teachers and find out what our children will be doing in school for the current year.

This is good, since we are now in the realm of the teenager. This particular realm consists of a product of my loins who has forgotten how to use her vocals chords for normal, calm, illuminating, straight forward information exchange. Timely. Did I include timely? That's forgotten now too.

Anyways, it was during Back-to-School Night that I learned that they would be reading the major books of The Odyssey this year. I'm not sure what "major" books means, specifically, but in any case, I now had a very real incentive to start reading The Odyssey sooner, rather than later.

And that's just what I did.

The Odyssey

I started reading this and found immediately that it was reading easier than The Iliad. This helped me, since the narrative isn't always straightforward.

The other thing that helped me was a schedule. I decided that I needed to get through the book in a timely manner. Timely, for two reasons. One, I knew I was likely to be able to keep the book only nine weeks, with renewals, if no one else requested it. Two, my daughter would be reading it sometime during the school year, and it would be nice if I were able to finish it before she started. I didn't know when they would start, but knowing that it would take me awhile to read it, I wanted to get started anyways.

I asked a friend at work if she wanted to read it with me. We could keep each other on track and compare our impressions as we went along. She agreed.

So, we set a schedule of two books a week. We quickly realized that three books a week wouldn't be too hard and adjusted accordingly. Three books of The Odyssey each week. Some weeks were harder than others, simply due to other activities and demands. But the schedule worked. We kept to it and finished as expected.

And I even finished before my daughter started it in school. Hurray.

The reading is easier than The Iliad partly due to repetition. Apparently, it is believed that the story was handed down orally for a very long time, and repetition made this oral tradition possible. Particular characters in the story are always presented the same or in similar ways each time. It becomes more obvious when the story has one character tell another character to do something, and then shortly thereafter, the character does that something, told in exactly the same way, with the same words as when given the instruction to do so. Repetition is probably the original memory enhancer.

Once I accepted the repetition, instead of being annoyed by it, the reading became even easier.

Just keep reading, just keep reading.

I did learn about the stories of the cyclops and others that have made their way into popular culture. I wasn't familiar with many of the stories, probably due to my sparse liberal arts exposure. So, reading this was good for me. It has certainly broadened my horizons. Historical, mythical horizons, at least.

The Greek names and their pronunciation was an education in and of themselves. Luckily, my translation had a pronunciation guide in the back. I didn't look up the pronunciation of every name, but I did try to learn how to say the names that reoccured most often. Having not been exposed to Greek pronunciation before, I struggled for some time, but got better at it towards the end of the book. I even started guessing at a pronunciation before looking it up. This was a good learning exercise for me.

I had been hoping that I would learn more about the Greek gods and goddesses and their relationships to each other, but this didn't really come as part of this story. There was only the briefest discussion of relationships and how the gods influence each other. Zeus, Kronos, Athena all get mentioned, but only through brief mentions. There never is a comprehensive narrative of the gods. Maybe this is good, since it keeps things moving, but I didn't get a larger sense of the gods and their connections to each other.

The Odyssey Graphic Novel by Gareth Hinds

Shortly after starting to read The Odyssey, I discovered that a graphic novel exists of it. I immediately set about trying to get my hands on a copy. And I was successful!

This proved to be helpful. I could see a representation of the mythical story that I was also reading. I tried to read the graphic novel, book by book, after reading the poetry version. Towards the end, my graphic novel reading slipped farther and farther behind the poetry, but I did manage to read all the poetry before reading the graphic version.

In one case, the written description of Athena taking on the appearance of man was worded in the poetry such that I didn't get it. It was a bit too vague for me to catch. My friend pointed this out when we discussed it. When I went to the graphic version, I saw Athena presented in a different form. This forced me to compare the written translation with the graphic presentation. Only then did I figure it out.

There is a fair amount of fighting and violence in The Odyssey. When reading the poetry, it was easy enough for me to read quickly through it and not dwell on it. It was more difficult to breeze through these parts of the graphic novel. The depictions were more graphic than my eyes or brain needed. This may prove to be good for some people, but I didn't need it.

There are also graphic depictions of adult situations that I didn't need to see or have help visualizing. This is not what I would label a "children's book". No, not for children. It isn't rated R either, but I might put it at PG-13 equivalent. The artwork this very good, but the artist chooses to to make things more real than necessary. Certainly, if it were drawn differently, this could become a PG book. But such as it is, it is not.

I'm glad I spent the time and effort needed to read The Odyssey. It certainly fills a gap in my literary experience. I am also glad to have the graphic novel available. I think having both is ideal. Without the poetry, the graphic novel isn't able to provide the background and relationship information. Without the graphic depiction, I would have remained imagining the story in a more nebulous, less Greek, fashion. I highly recommend reading both together. If the reader is 13 years old or older.

I'm not sure if I am more or less well prepared to read The Iliad now. Either way, The Iliad will wait a bit longer.

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