Samuel Butler’s Odyssey and more summer reads

Pardon me as I clear out the cobwebs…



My summer reads list is shorter than usual. Still, it does go on. After all, we’re talking about three months worth of books. So this … might take a while.



Summer reads


Ancient Greece

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Samuel Butler

Butler’s Odyssey seems so starkly Victorian that reading it reaffirmed for me the impact of a translator’s culture on the translation s/he produces.  I appreciate how reading multiple translations allows me to notice this impact as well as invites me to linger in sections I might otherwise overlook. This latest read focused my attention on the concept of nostos, i.e. “returning.”

The Odyssey revolves around nostos narratives. In Homer, nostos refers specifically to returning home from Troy by sea. But nostos also has a broader meaning. In an article in the American Journal of Philology, Anna Bonifazi notes that “a core meaning of nostos” is “surviving lethal dangers” and “being safe.” The returns—whether successful, failed, or aborted—of Odysseus, Nestor, Menelaus, Agamemnon, and Achilles all feature in The Odyssey. Odysseus’ son Telemachus also has a broader nostos narrative as he leaves Ithaca to travel to Pylos and Sparta in search of news of his father. After his travels, Telemachus succeeds in returning home despite the machinations of Penelope’s suitors.

Butler’s translation also brought to my foreground the nostos narratives of Helen and Penelope. This is not necessarily because he pays more attention to them but because I was noticing the language around them.

Summer readsIn The Odyssey, we meet Helen in book four. She has returned from Troy to Sparta, both her childhood and marital home. Telemachus arrives, hoping to hear news of his father from Menelaus. Helen describes for him her encounter with Odysseus at Troy. His exploits, she tells Telemachus, caused the Trojan women to lament. But not Helen herself, because “my heart was beginning to yearn after my home” (64). She continues, “I was unhappy about the wrong that Aphrodite had done me in taking me over there, away from my country, my little girl [her and Menelaus’ daughter, Hermione], and my lawful wedded husband, who is indeed by no means deficient either in person or understanding” (64).

Butler’s translation of this section has a distinct Victorian ring, especially as compared to other translations.

Stephen Mitchell’s reads: “I, though, rejoiced in my heart, / for I was already longing to go back home, / and I deeply regretted the madness that Aphrodite had laid on my heart when she had enticed me there / and made me abandon my people, my child, my home, / and my husband, a man as intelligent as he is handsome” (45).

For a prose comparison comparison, here is the Loeb: “my soul was glad, for already my heart was turned to go back to my home, and I groaned for the blindness that Aphrodite gave me, when she led me there from my dear native land, forsaking my child and my bridal chamber, and my husband, a man who lacked nothing, whether in wisdom or in looks” (137).

And here is Emily Wilson’s verse of the same section: “I / was glad—by then I wanted to go home. / I wished that Aphrodite had not made me / go crazy, when she took me from my country, / and made me leave my daughter and the bed / I shared with my fine, handsome, clever husband” (160).

The impact of the translator’s cultural lens on translation is endlessly fascinating. Butler’s “the wrong that Aphrodite had done me,” “lawful wedded husband,” and “by no means deficient” embody the buttoned up lingo I associate with 19th century British novels. Which is not surprising given Butler was himself a Victorian.

Because I spent more time ruminating on this passage, I also noticed what the section does not cover: the circumstances surrounding Helen’s return. Other ancient retellings I’ve read provide a range of variations. In one, Menelaus planned to murder Helen but was captivated by her beauty. In another, Helen was never at Troy at all but was hidden by Hermes in Egypt for the war’s duration. (The latter is the basis of the Euripides play “Helen.”) We know, in The Odyssey, Menelaus explains that his ships were blown off course. He traveled widely (including to Egypt) for eight years before successfully returning to Sparta. Assuming Helen traveled with him, she too would have returned safely home from Troy by sea, having survived dangers, possibly lethal ones. Presumably including her husband wanting to murder her in revenge.

While Penelope doesn’t have a typical nostos, we do see her reflecting on what it would mean for her relationship to home if Odysseus is dead: She would lose the home she has known for 20 years, whether to return to her parents (in which case “returning” doesn’t seem so desirable) or to be married off to one of the suitors. In book 19, Penelope speaks of this eventuality with Odysseus, who is disgusted as a beggar, when she sets up a competition among the suitors to determine her future husband. Penelope tells the disguised Odysseus, “the coming dawn will usher in the ill-omened day that is to sever me from the house of Odysseus” (26). Then she explains how the competition will work: Whoever can “send his arrow through all the twelve axes, him will I follow, and quit this house of my lawful husband, so goodly and so abounding in wealth. But even so, I doubt not that I shall remember it in my dreams” (260).

Here is E. V. Rieu’s prose: “The hateful day is drawing very near which is to tear me from Odysseus’ house. […] Whoever provides the handiest at stringing the bow and shoots an arrow through each of the twelve axes, with that man I will go, bidding goodbye to this house that welcomed me as a bride, this lovely house so full of all good things, this home which even in my dreams I shall never forget” (264).

And the Loeb’s: “This dawn of evil name is now approaching which will cut me off from the house of Odysseus; […] whoever shall most easily string the bow in his hands, and shoot an arrow through all twelve axes, with him will I go and forsake this house of my wedded life, a house most beautiful and filled with wealth, which, I think, Ik shall always remember, even in my dreams” (277).

This is Robert Fitzgerald’s verse: “It is a black day, this that comes. / Odysseus’ house and I are to be parted. / […] / The one who easily handles and strings the bow / and shoots through all twelve axes I shall marry / whoever he may be—then look my last / on this my first love’s beautiful brimming house. / But I’ll remember, though I dream it only” (371).

And Peter Green’s: “And another thing I will tell you, and you take it to heart: /The ill-starred day is approaching that’s to remove me ‘ from the house of Odysseus: for now I shall order a contest— / […] whoever, handling his bow, shall string it most easily / and then shoot an arrow clear through all twelve axes, / with him I’d depart, leaving this house to which I came / as a wedded wife—a fine home, and full of rich possessions! / I think I shall always remember it, even in my dreams” (307).

Her grief at being parted from the home she has known for most of her life (she would have been 15 or 16 when she married Odysseus) is stark and moving. Perhaps especially because it highlights how shifting and unstable the concept of home itself is for women of her time. I especially love Green’s translation for the way it draws attention to the back and forth: “with him I’d depart, leaving this house to which I came” (307).

I am in no way over reading this epic. I’m beginning to suspect I generally prefer prose over verse translations, which I find vaguely alarming. I was planning to read the Loeb next but may try a verse edition for comparative purposes.

Summer readsHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

For this reread, I was specifically looking for classical echoes, of which there are many. More on this soon (I hope).

Waiting for Odysseus by Clemence McLaren

This is a YA retelling of Odysseus’ journey through the eyes of four women in his life: Penelope, Circe, Athena, and Eurycleia (the slave woman who nursed him as a child and remains loyal to him during the suitors’ invasion). I loved the idea of this more than its execution.

The rest

“Barefoot in the Park” by Neil Simon

I read this play about newlyweds with nothing in common for work. It’s a bit dated but at times amusing. Of course I managed to find a connection to ancient Greece in its message about finding balance between extremes.

summer readsA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

This was a work-related reread, but I do love this companion novel to Life After Life. A God in Ruins follows Teddy—the brother of Ursula, Life After Life’s protagonist—from his childhood, through his air force service in World War II, through to his very advanced old age. I find this a deeply felt and compassionate novel.

A Time of Love and Tartan (44 Scotland Street #12) by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve written before about my love for this series. This novel brought satisfying (to me) closure on a … conflict I’ve been fervently following. I do hope this doesn’t mean it’s the final novel in the series.


We took a family vacation to Italy and Greece during the first weeks of July. And I took the opportunity to read entirely for relaxation, without a pen, pencil, notebook, sticky notes, or computer close at hand.

The Long-Lost Home (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place #6) by Maryrose Wood

I’ve been with this series since the beginning and have been waiting anxiously for this final book. It did not disappoint. Set in 19th century Britain, it follows a young governess called Penelope (ahem) who is hired to take charge of three children. The catch: The children were raised by wolves before being adopted by a man with a large estate, flighty bride, and enormous secret. Foundlings, lost-lost home, Penelope … lots of Odyssean echoes in this delightful and witty series. Funny that I’d not noticed that before.

summer readsThe Good Pilot, Peter Woodhouse by Alexander McCall Smith

After reading A Time of Love and Tartan in June, I realized how much I’d missed reading McCall Smith. The eponymous Peter Woodhouse is a dog rescued from an abusive owner then adopted by American airmen serving in Britain during World War II. The humans in the story include Val, a young woman working on a farm, and Mike, one of the American airmen. They fall in love, and the story goes on from there, following the relationships they form through and after the war.

McCall Smith’s books are more internal so may not appeal to plot-driven readers. But if you don’t mind a purposefully meandering story, this one is lovely. I especially value how it (and McCall Smith in general) confronts paradox and difficult situations with gentleness and compassion.

Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce

I think I heard about this from the booktube channel Lauren and the Books.

It tells the story of an aspiring journalist, Emmy. She accepts a job working with a dour, prudish matron (the titular Mrs. Bird) who writes an advice column. Realizing Mrs. Bird does not write back to all her readers in need, Emmy takes matters into her own hands, with mixed results. For most of the story, I found it a bit slow-moving. But more than halfway through, a plot twist I did not see coming took the story in a new direction.

summer readsMidnight at the Piazza by Tiffany Parks

I figured I should read something set in Italy, though we visited Venice rather than Rome, where this middle grade mystery takes place. Beatrice reluctantly moves to the ancient city with her father, a historian, and quickly gets swept up investigating an art theft.

summer readsThe History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner

Most of my summer was devoted to Thucydides, which I read for a work project. It is extraordinary and a must-read for its insights on human nature. I now quote him at least once a day.


Ancient Greece

summer readsThe Odyssey adapted by Geraldine McCaughrean

McCaughrean’s children’s retelling is elegantly written though overly (for my taste) romanticized. One aspect that especially troubled me is how diminished Penelope seemed. Children’s adaptations necessarily truncate the poem’s plot. But I was bothered by how Penelope’s cleverness is attributed to Odysseus rather than to her own ingenuity. This is especially so when Penelope plots to delay picking a husband.

In the original, she tells the suitors she must first weave a shroud for Laertes, Odysseus’ father. Each night, she undoes the work she completed during the day, thus extending the length of time it will take her to complete the shroud and pick a husband. In McCaughrean’s version, Penelope concocts the plot after asking herself, “What would Odysseus do if he were in my place? He wouldn’t let these bullies have their own way!” (78). I don’t recall any indication in Homer that Penelope is inspired—in this or any other moment—by Odysseus’ shrewdness. Rather, Penelope’s cleverness shows that she and Odysseus are alike and well-suited to each other.

summer readsReceptions of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature edited by Lisa Maurice

This anthology of scholarship on children’s adaptations of Greek and Roman literature was fascinating. The only downside is that it exploded my reading list, which does not bode well for my bank account.

A Visitor’s Guide to Ancient Greece by Lesley Sims

A colorful and informative children’s introduction to ancient Greece, it presents as a guide for “time tourists.” I especially value the way it neither sugarcoats nor overtly judges ancient Greece by contemporary standards. In this sense, it models how to be a historian in a fun and interesting way.

summer readsHome Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Shamsie won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction for this contemporary retelling of Antigone. She relocates the story to modern-day London and two Muslim families. I know Antigone fairly well but still found this riveting. Shamsie stays close to the original thematically and with plot and character development. Despite this, the ending utterly shocked me.

summer readsCirce by Madeline Miller

In which Circe narrates her autobiography. Her story begins from her birth and follows her through a life-changing decision. I had mixed feelings about this book. Having read a fair share of Greek mythology, I was fascinated by the way she wove Circe story around existing myths. I did, however, wonder how it reads for those who aren’t familiar with the myths.

The story arc is where I struggled with this novel. Miller’s prose is beautiful, at times mesmerizing (as I knew having read and loved her Song of Achilles). The first half of the book lacked (for my taste) sufficient direction. It read more like a who’s-who in ancient Greek myth, which was clever but fragmented. That may have been part of the point thematically, but it kept me at a distance from the character’s inner world. The novel’s second half presented a plausible and interesting scenario but also somewhat anachronistic. In the interest of remaining spoiler-free, I will leave it here.

The rest

Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad

I have been shamefully neglecting my Nook book backlist. I picked this biography up in a sale (what else is new?) some time ago (what else is new?). Several of Natalie Wood’s movies are beloved to me—Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel Without a Cause, Gypsy, Splendor in the Grass. Natasha can feel uncomfortably sensational. Finstad is also repetitive, especially around her interpretive claim. Ultimately, the book left me feeling slightly bereft but also in awe of how hard Natalie Wood worked throughout her life and appreciative of the films she left behind.

summer readsThe Greek Escape by Karen Swan

I bought this at the Athens airport on the day I was leaving. It’s my air travel ritual to buy a book at the airport, especially about the place I’m leaving from. The Greek Escape follows Chloe, a Londoner who moves to New York to escape heartbreak. It’s a romance and a mystery rolled into one. The first half dragged for me, and I wanted lots more time in Greece. However, after the mystery element was introduced, I couldn’t put it down.

So those are my summer reads summarized. If you’re still here, I’d love to hear how you spent your summer and what books you read!

2 Replies to “Samuel Butler’s Odyssey and more summer reads”

  1. Ah, two posts after such a long time! What a treat! I loved reading your recaps. We had very different summer reading experiences, but both seem very satisfying. I also love your tradition of getting a book that takes place in the place you’ve just visited, when you’re leaving. I think I might try to copy that….

    As for your comparisons of the passages from different versions of “The Odyssey”, I was fascinated, as always, and so appreciative of your sharing them. I laughed at how you find verse translations “vaguely alarming” – I think I’m sort of the opposite – based on what I’ve read (so, so little compared to you) and the versions you regularly share excerpts from, I think Ifind prose translations of “The Odyssey” vaguely jarring. But I do appreciate their clarity, which your comparisons illustrate so well. Still, I remain under Fitzgerald’s thrall.
    Thanks again for yet another delightful, thought-provoking post!

    1. Clarity—yes! That is what I so appreciate about the prose translations, especially of E. V. Rieu and the Loeb. I feel like I didn’t fully understand The Odyssey until I read them. Though I should say Emily Wilson’s verse translation is also very comprehensible … however, it leaves things out that are important to understanding the work. So it’s tough. I don’t think any single translation can do it all. Oh! I also meant to tell you that I recently found out Fitzgerald lived in a town near me! Somehow, this proximity makes me want to read his translation again, this time in full (especially because I know more about the poem now than the first time I read it).

      So many Odyssey translations, so little time…

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