AMONG OTHERS – JO WALTON
Reviews are mixed for this oddly affecting book. SF purists will find it unsatisfying; those looking for a purely teen-tormented coming-of-age novel will find the descriptions of the best works in the SF and Fantasy genres distracting. I am always puzzled when disgruntled readers object to the intentions of a book that declares its intentions early on. Jo Walton brings to life a lovely and lonely girl contending with mysterious forces of quasi-parental and quasi-magical mystery. Yes, she is sent to boarding school, but the elements that are most central describe the refuge she has found in the best SF and Fantasy writing. She introduces the reader to a wide range of wonderful authors, each of whom has provided her sanctuary and joy.
I’ll toss a grenade into this review by suggesting that the more common experience is that readers find their way to one specific and fairly carefully defined slice of SF or fantasy. Those who read Asimov rarely read LeGuin. Those who read Tolkien rarely read Divergent or the Hunger Games. Herbert, Gibson, Stephenson,P.K. Dick, Heinlein. Those who read one may never read any of the others. Do readers entranced by Harry Potter read Game of Thrones? The Magicians, The Last Unicorn, Mists of Avalon, Dragon Rider, The Golden Compass, American Gods?
That being the case, Walton’s fondness for a plethora of books is refreshing and led me to pick up some books I’d missed along the way. Put that open-minded appreciation in a character who is Welsh, young, badly used by many around her, and gracious, and I could happily spend time in her company, even if there were not magic and mystery to keep things moving along.
I bought Volume A of The Norton Anthology of World Literature for a dollar at a local thrift store.
Volume A starts at the beginning, 1350 B.C.E., with The Great Hymn to the Aten, a hieroglyphic tribute to the sun god. The Babylonian Creation Myth brings the account of the god, Marduk, the creator god, who builds the world from the body of Tiamat. From chaos and ocean, Babylon comes into being, but, before Tiamat is defeated by Marduk, she creates monsters, including the first dragons, whose veins are filled with poison rather than blood. Hesiod in the late eighth century, B.C.E. recounts the birth of the Olympion gods and the encounters of mortals unfortunate enough to cross their paths – Prometheus and Pandora, among others. Out of chronological order, the anthology introduces, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Lucretius, the Epicurean Roman poet, and Genesis.
Dipping into literature at that distance from our contemporary imaginings is a daunting task. How do we hear translations that can but imperfectly express notions that were subtle and nuanced in their time? The cultural importance of the documents is incalculable, but the impact of language is muffled.
All of which is to say that against all odds, the first lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey knock me sideways each time I read them. Norton has chosen translations by Stanley Lombardo, a translation I had quickly discounted when I met it in its truncated form in a condensed version of the Odyssey. I am delighted to find that I judged Lombardo too quickly.
My first Iliad was the Lattimore translation, “Sing Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son, Achilles, and its devastation…”. I liked it fine, at age 13, especially as I had devoured Edith Hamilton’s Mythology at 11 and 12. I read Bullfinch later, but Hamilton’s tales of the gods still amuses me. “The Greeks did not believe the gods created the universe. it was the other way about: the universe created the gods.” Over the years, I taught The Odyssey to sophomores, hoping they might find what I had found (and still find) in the epic. I started with Lattimore, then fell in love with Robert Fitzgerald’s translation. Colleagues touted Lombardo, Graves, and Fagles, and each had its own music, but it is Fitzgerald’s voice that I hear most clearly.
I’m a great believer in opening lines. Best of times, worst of times, etc. Here are the opening lines of the Odyssey as presented by the various poets:
W.H.D. Rouse – “Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.”
Richard Lattimore – “Speak to me, Muse, of the adventurous man who wandered long after he sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.”
Robert Fagles – “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns … driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”
Stanley Lombardo – “Speak, Memory – Of the cunning hero, blow off course time and again – After he plundered Troy’s Sacred Heights.”
Robert Fitzgerald – “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud heights of Troy.”
“…that man skilled in all ways of contending”.
It isn’t easy to present Odysseus as a hero to tenth graders, mildly skeptical and keen to see flaws in those presented as paragons. This is certainly a hero with flaws; he spends years in amorous dalliance with goddesses and demi-goddesses, spins false tales, manipulates, humiliates, and gives grievous injury to a disabled foe, loses the entire company of men who set out with him from the proud heights of Troy, and clearly holds his wife to a standard other than that which he applies to himself. He’s tough, resourceful, and unyielding; on occasion cruel.
In one of the great action sequences in all literature (Book XXII), Odysseus with the help of his son, Telemachus, methodically dispatches the men who had hoped to win his waiting wife, Penelope; the floor of the great room is steaming with blood, and bodies are stacked to the rafters. Two of the suitors, Antinoos and Eurymakhos have been particularly crass, plotting the death of Telemachus as well as the supplanting of Odysseus in his own bed. Antinoos is the first to die.
“Odysseus’ arrow hit him under the chin
and punched up to the feathers through his throat.
Backward and down he went, letting his winecup fall
from his shocked hand. Like pipes his nostrils jetted
crimson runnels, a river of mortal red,
and one last kick upset his table,
knocking the bread and meat to soak in dusty blood.”
And that’s why I teach the Fitzgerald translation; what a gore-fest for tenth graders steeped in Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead! So, like the central characters in those “adventures”, Odysseus is not entirely moderate, but remains a hero nonetheless in that he faces challenges well beyond those commonly cited – ignoring sirens, escaping Calypso, defeating Circe, outwitting Polyphemus, enduring the wrath of Poseidon, dispatching suitors.
He has to find his way back, in many ways. He’s seen friends disemboweled in combat. He is a warrior leaving war. He is a king without a kingdom, a son who has lost his mother, a father who has never known his son, a husband who was without his wife for twenty years. He is a paragon of contentious self-reliance who can only come home if he asks for help.
This particular hero’s journey does not begin auspiciously. Any doubts we might have about the rationality of contemporary warfare are nothing in comparison to the assessment Odysseus must have made when Agamemnon’s emissaries arrived to enlist him in a war that would last a decade. “Odysseus, congratulations on the birth of your son today… suit up … a rancid Trojan grabbed Menelaus’ wife Helen … we’re going to Troy.”
A long and often foolish war ensued, marked by engorged ego and brutal vengeance. Wily Odysseus plays a significant part in ending the siege of Troy, but longs to return to his wife and son. Literally tempest tossed, Odysseus washes up on the shore of Skheria, home of the Phaiakians. He’s unconscious, battered, and naked.
In Campbell’s description of the monomyth, the universal hero is pulled across threshold into the quest that will define the rest of the hero’s life and, in the best circumstances, allow him/her to bring something of true importance to the culture to which the hero returns. Odysseus is forced from his home, thrown into chaos, and then … thrown into chaos again and again. He does have the guidance of a supernatural wisdom, Athena, but is often entirely on his own.
Odysseus has been held captive and has contended with chaos,has descended to the depths of Hades, but it is in tumbling to shore that he rises from the abyss and begins the transformation back to humanity. He awakens to a world he does not know; the skills that have served him well in battle and captivity are no longer appropriate to the next stages of his journey. In the course of a few moments, he has to give voice to qualities necessary to his negotiating a full life in a new world.
At the start of Book VI, “The Princess at the River”, a remarkable character, Nausikaa, daughter of Alkinoos, is moved by a dream of marriage to travel with her handmaidens to the pools in which her linen can be washed. Graceful, charming, insightful, compassionate, and lovely, Nausikaa is the embodiment of all that youth might enjoy in a well ordered kingdom. She is not a goddess to be bedded or a trial to be endured; she is the king’s daughter, a child on the brink of all that will befall a princess. Younger than his own son, Nausikaa is nonetheless a grown child in the world his son will inhabit. When Nikos Kazantsakis
ttom, dark valley,