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According to an interview the The Paris Review, when Robert Fagles began his translation of The Iliad, a friend urged him to read Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War first. Foote cited Homer as his model, so it was only fitting that the first and most famous war story in Western history should be seen through the lens of Foote’s history. But it would be difficult to imagine a similar contemporary refractor for Homer’s Odyssey. In contrast to the tragic Iliad, the Odyssey is a comedy, an epic of challenges overcome and triumphs won. It enjoys the same relationship to literature as Plato’s dialogues do to philosophy. We don’t approach it in light of other stories—we see other stories by its light.
No matter how often modern authors do it, returning to the Odyssey for inspiration is always a stroke of genius. James Joyce’s unread masterpiece Ulysses, for example, adapts the episodes of Homer’s poem to a story of modern alienation—and in spite of Joyce’s virtuosity, we can’t help feeling that the source is better.
Young Telemachus, the longsuffering Penelope, and clever Odysseus himself provide a domestic context that is absent in Homer’s other epic. We long to see the father reunited with the son, and when it happens and the two of them drive off Penelope’s houseful of suitors, something more than a home is restored: all the death and separation of that far-off Trojan War are finally healed. The Odyssey is the quintessential story of coming home.
by J. Mark Bertrand