Friday, May 16, 2014

Homer's Odyssey for Young Readers

          Great literature often has references to Greek and Roman mythology which make me wish I had a better grasp of those ancient stories. Nathaniel Hawthorne´s versions (A Wonder Book for Girls & Boys and Tanglewood Tales) have been favorites because of their beautiful language, but it has been years since I read them and the details were getting fuzzy again. Then I noticed that I had two re-tellings of The Odyssey in my Kindle archives: one by Rev. Alfred Church (1900) and one by Charles Lamb (1808). I decided to read them simultaneously since the Church version was sometimes dry and Lamb´s book was anything but. Although Lamb's is the older of the two, he uses much more accessible language and focuses on Ulysses' adventures (and less on the activities of the gods).

          Both versions were written for younger readers, though not for small children. The language of both is formal, antiquated English so it may not appeal to kids today, but those raised on the King James Bible should have little difficulty understanding most of it.

          Reverend Alfred John Church (1829-1912), was an English classical scholar who called The Odyssey one of the most loved hero tales of all time. Church's version is a more complete rendering of Homer's epic poem. But because he included more stories, he was sometimes forced to skim over details.

          Lamb, on the other hand, skips the first third of Homer's poem and gets right to Ulysses' adventures. He offers more description and more action. When describing the Cyclops, he writes, "He replied nothing, but gripping two of the nearest [men], as if they had been no more than children, he dashed their brains out against the earth, and, shocking to relate, tore in pieces their limbs, and devoured them yet warm and trembling, making a lion´s meal of them.... He, when he had made an end of his wicked supper, drained a draught of goat´s milk down his prodigious throat, and lay down and slept among the goats. (p. 7)

          I liked Lamb for daring to make moral judgments, calling the greedy sailors "covetous wretches" and the Cyclops a "cannibal." When Ulysses' men eat oxen reserved for the gods, Lamb describes the feast a "rash and sacrilegious banquet." He gives more details than Church does about Ulysses' descent into hell and of the horrible punishments being suffered there. And he emphasizes Ulysses' choosing to be faithful to his wife in spite of the repeated advances of Calypso.

          Church uses the Greek names for the gods, and Lamb uses the Roman names (Neptune for Poseidon, Jove for Zeus, etc.) No wonder it is hard to keep these stories straight!

          Although these versions are somewhat simplified, they are not completely "sanitized" for kids. There are some gory bits, some scary monsters and several women out to seduce Ulysses. Nothing rated "R", though.

          The stories and the rich language were a delight. I had a strong predilection for Lamb´s version, but ended up really liking Church´s too. Both were free for Kindle. Church has done The Iliad for Boys and Girls and The Aeneid for Boys and Girls as well!)


Farm Girl said...

I loved reading these out loud. I have read Lambs version but not Church's. I remember reading the Cyclops outloud by Lamb and the girls cringed like I did but the boys liked it. I need to get them out again. Such good stories.

Annie Kate said...

Oh, good! I've read some other kids' versions, but these seem better. Thank you for the review.