The Iliad and the Odyssey

I’ve been reading The Iliad and the Odyssey by Alberto Manguel where he looks at those two epic poems and before you yawn and click away—wait! This book sure is yawn inducing from a mile away, but up close I think it’s extremely interesting.

That’s because these sorts of books are usually quite often terrible. Writing about the classics is hard—I’d say nigh on impossible—because everything has already been said them but also because everyone is trying to impress everyone else, instead of writing clearly. Just like in writing about design, there’s a stuffiness and snooty sort of writing when it comes to literary criticism that I find absolutely unbearable. I’m allergic to the stuff.

But not here! As of course, with all things Manguel, this is a book about books. What he does instead is this: yes, sure, he’s writing about two epic poems attributed to an “idea called Homer.” Yet he’s really writing about how these two stories (what eventually would form two books centuries later, once books had been invented) are loved, interpreted, fought over, and generally just how people struggled with these stories.

Even just thinking about the great expanse of time between us and these stories are baffling. Books did not exist when they formed. For hundreds of years these stories were most likely shared like songs (the original translations show us that they have a lot of repetition which is edited out in later translations). No single person wrote either the Iliad or the Odyssey and bards during that time would sing for room and board, which might explain the length of these stories, too.

My point here is that I find all of this beautiful, the idea that these poems just sort of coalesced over centuries. They were edited, rewritten, destroyed, burned, and banned. They were distorted, broken, added to, updated, expanded, uplifted, and changed.

It is an absolute wonder that these stories still survive. But they also sort of...haven’t. What we read today are not the poems that were sung; we have invented our own Iliads and Odysseys and that’s why I find this book so thoroughly exciting.

Alberto argues that although those stories might be lost in translation and to the ravages of time, there are somehow, even after all these centuries, even more stories left to find within them. Stories within stories and translations within translations. Songs within songs.