Friday, May 15, 2009

Greek Mythology rocks the ages!

(Note: I’ve switched with Kerry this week, who’s the usual poster for this Friday in the month. Hope I do you proud, Kerry!)

Wait! Hold up! If you read nothing else today on Guys Lit Wire, go here and read up on our book fair for needy boys, and, y’know, buy a book for a kid who doesn’t have one. Then come back all feelin’ good and stuff and read my post…

This coming Monday, May 18th, the store I work for (Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA) is hosting author Rick Riordan on his book tour for the latest Percy Jackson title, The Last Olympian. I don’t know how it is where you live, but around here, this series has been that magical “The Next Harry Potter” for awhile. It’s a great series, full of action, coming of age angst, magical beasts and beings, and, of course, save the world level heroics.

If you’re not familiar with the series, here’s the breakdown: Beginning with the first book, The Lightning Thief, the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series tells the story of Percy, a troubled kid in New York, with Dyslexia and ADD, a single mom, and endless amounts of trouble at school, in part because he always thinks his teachers are out to get him. Well, it turns out he’s right, but only because they are monsters from ancient Greek mythology in disguise. You see, Percy doesn’t know it, but he’s the son of a Greek god-you know, the Olympians-and the monsters are on the prowl to destroy any of the gods’ children, known as half-bloods.

That’s the setup, but Rick Riordan does an amazing job of building on the Greek myths, folding them into our modern setting in ways that tickle that part of your brain that, if you’re like me, was totally into mythology back in 4th or 5th grade.
However, considering how popular these books are, you probably already know about the Percy Jackson books. And, considering that The Last Olympian is the last book in this series, you’re probably left not knowing where to go for that mythology buzz you get from this series. Or maybe Riordan has piqued your interest in the Greek myths, but you don’t want to go delving into something that feels a lot like school work. What do you do now?

The question here is really, “What translations of the Greek myths aren’t written for scholars, but written for somebody who just wants the rockin’ story, the larger than life characters, and the powerful language of these tales that have been awesome enough to last thousands of years?”

There’s some interesting stuff out there. Especially on the web. One website I really like is, a place that has encyclopedic entries on lots of the gods, heroes, monsters, and minor players of Greek mythology. It even has ancient art and artifacts to give you visuals of all these legendary figures, and a searchable database of translations—from big guns like Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, to the likes of Hesiod and Apollonius of Rhodes.

But if you want to read gripping tales of legendary heroes, you have to be selective in your pick of translations. The best bang-for-your-buck, most widely-available, gripping read of a translation is Robert Fagles’ rendering of Homer. The two volumes- the Iliad and the Odyssey, are filled with readable, strong prose that moves quick like verse but avoids the sometimes obtuse way that verse can be translated. The Iliad is the book about the final years of the Greek’s siege of Troy, centering on that greatest of Greek warriors, Achilles. This is what that movie Troy was based on. But for me, the Odyssey is the better of the tales. It follows Odysseus, who spent ten years after the war trying to get home. Here’s what I love about the Odyssey: it’s hero, Odysseus? He’s not what you think when you think of heroes-he’s a devious bastard. Herakles was strong and Orpheus was lyrical, Achilles was the powerful warrior and Oedipus the lordly king. But Odysseus was nothing but a guy using all his wits, sacrificing whatever was in his way (including his own men at times) to get back home.

So, other translations of other books? When it comes to old standbys, everybody’s got their personal favorites. Robert Fitzgerald produced translations of Homer, as well as Sophocles. That's the guy who wrote the Oedipus plays. You may know of Oedipus. He’s like those athletes whose careers peak at 23—as a young man Oedipus defeated the fearsome Sphinx in a battle of wits by answering her riddle. He also defeated a king, married the queen, and ended up ruling the city of Thebes. Only, later the land falls under a curse, and he finds out it’s because that king he defeated? It was his dad. So… he married his mother and brought a curse on his people. The saga only gets more gruesome and brutal from there. It’s awesome for tragedy!

The Fitzgerald translation I like, however, is Virgil’s Aeneid. That’s the one where Aeneas, a general at the battle of Troy, leaves in defeat, only to journey, much like Odysseus, through many travails before landing on what is now Rome, thus beginning what will eventually become the Roman Empire. I’m not as big on Virgil, however. I just don’t find it as entertaining a saga as the Odyssey.

Actually, my favorite, most entertaining classic book is Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. Why? Well, first off, it’s like a catalog of almost all the Greek myths. It’s got everything, from the ridiculous (Odysseus and Ajax argue over Achilles’ armor, in which both heroes agree that Odysseus is a silver-tongued con man) to the sublime (Polyphemous the cyclops attempts to woo a beautiful young river goddess, only to lose to a young prince, who he then takes vengeance upon by eating the lad—I mean, you can’t make this stuff up!) to the tragic (the tale of Cadmus and his children is heartbreaking). But the other reason I like Ovid is that he doesn’t hold any false reverence for these tales, the gods, or their offspring. He portrays the gods as the lusty, petty deities they are. The heroes are shortsighted, and at times doofus-y, if I can coin a term.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still lots of fascinating heroics and awesome tales of battle and intrigue, but it feels much more real because the characters have as many foibles as the rest of us. A recent translation by poet Charles Martin gets lots of love, but something about it was just too light for my taste. I prefer my old Horace Gregory translation. It’s a bit more muscular and punchy, which, in this case, I like.

Okay, if you’ve stuck it out this far, let me lay another one on you-not a classic, but a modern tweaking of ancient myth, much in the same vein as the Riordan books. Marvel Comics’ The Incredible Hercules is awesome. It’s awesome in the way that every comic I loved as a teenager was awesome, and it’s awesome in the way I now get geeky over references to Greek mythology. Just a pure pleasure of a superhero comic, something I’m finding harder and harder to find nowadays-but that’s a topic for another post.

Suffice it to say, if you like good-old four-color two-fisted comics, this one is hard to beat. Hercules punches his way through any problem, and there’s lots of rollicking good fun in there, as he faces off against his half-brother Ares, his stepmother Hera, still holding a grudge 3000 years later, Amazons, alien pantheons of gods… Just great, great stuff.

Titles Listed:
Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series

Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer’s Illiad and the Odyssey (in one volume, although you can get them separately)

Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid

Horace Gregory’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (this link is to both an out-of-print and current edition because the old edition is a solid book and will hold up over time. I’ve found that, while cheap, Signet editions published in the last decade completely fall apart. It’s like they use post-it glue)

Incredible Hercules, by Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak (multiple volumes here. Start with the World War Hulk book, it’s the first volume)


Sherrie Petersen said...

My nine-year-old son and I blasted through these books. They are SO good! I'm glad to have found this site because it's always good to hear about boy books.

Kristopher said...


I tried to finally sit down and read the Odyssey earlier this year, but just couldn't get trough it. I'll have to try Robert Fagles' translation.

Patty H. said...

My son (11 year old) loved these! Cool covers, too.

Becker said...

I had our teen web person add these to our If You Like Percy Jackson list on our teen web site--thanks for the recommendations!

Anonymous said...

I don't remember what the translation was, but the Odyssey we had to read in high school was terrible. Several years ago, while packing for a move, I came across the book and figured I needed to give it another go. It was still as bad as I remembered: it felt old and staid, and more interested in being "important" than interesting and readable.

I should have also added the caveate to my post that I'm a little geeky about this, and not in a greek classics kind of way, but in a "hey, these stories are cool!" kind of way. Which means I'm happy to skip around to the "cool part."

Laina said...

I'm probably not the target audience for these being sixteen and female, but I like these!! I actually bought one (a rarity for me because my town doesn't have a bookstore so it's a bit expensive to buy books, honestly).