Although we love a good superhero film in this house (and frankly we’ll settle for a mediocre one, so long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously) I have been baffled and confused by the whole superhero thing, and I’ve become not a little uneasy about what it says about the current state of political thinking.
So I was particularly intrigued by Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. It got a lot of attention, thanks to Emily Wilson being the first woman to publish a translation – and some undue criticism from the ‘men in fedoras’ (the kind of trolls on the internet who seem to think that comics and video games belong to men, and women shouldn’t trespass there – it’s fairly disappointing that this extends to classics, but no longer a surprise. Ho hum.).
The text itself is very fresh and readable, so it is justifiably a best-seller. The bonus I really appreciated is that the introduction is really interesting about the problems of translating, keeping the poetry, and making sure that you represent an ancient culture comprehensibly, but with respect for its distance from our own. She spends a long time considering the ethics of ancient Greek society, with a fascinating discussion about whether we can consider Odysseus a ‘hero.’ Modern superhero stories are full of this. ‘Am I a good man?’ asks Peter Capaldi’s Dr Who. Arrow is full of questions about who a hero is, and Supergirl is always worrying whether or not the citizens of Metropolis ‘believe in her’.
Now, one thing you may not know about me is that I once wrote my MLitt. dissertation on The Concept of the Hero in Middle English Romance, so this is pretty much my thing. I studied the British heroes, King Horn (in versions dating from (1100 to 1300, to 1530), Athelstan (1370), Coeur de Lion, 1300) Bevis of Hampton (1350 up to Shakespeare) and Guy of Warwick, and watched the evolution of the protagonist from archetypal ballad hero to noble chivalrous knight. Some of them were what we might expect, and some of them were far from endearing – especially King Richard the Lionheart, who would be up there with Hannibal Lector today. I was delighted to find a very familiar hero in Emily Wilson’s Odysseus, baffling as she finds him.
Odysseus is a hero from a society where the issues aren’t rules or values, but relationships – gift-giving and hospitality to strangers are the bonds that keep society together and create diplomatic links for trade and peaceful co-existence – as opposed to the threat from ‘pirates’ who arrive from outside and simply take what they want because they can. Love of the gods is a matter of loyal allegiance based on their ability to protect, rather than faith, and truth or goodness doesn’t come into the picture at all. Rules in societies like this are codes of behaviour, wisdom traditions like the Hebrew Proverbs, Confucius’ Analects or the Viking Havamal – pragmatic, creating protocols for handling tricky situations – feuds, broken agreements, criminal acts, rather than establishing moral values.
Socrates is the first western philosopher to see ‘good’ as a value in itself, and raised the question about whether ‘good’ is good because the gods love it, or whether the gods love ‘good’ things because they are good. A very disruptive question, suggesting that mortals might judge gods or kings, rather than simply obeying. Christianity resolved this by declaring that God himself is ‘the good’, so that ‘loving God’ means not merely keeping the rules, but becoming like God. Thus, the rules are the relationship, which were pursued by holding a balance between wisdom and love. It’s fair to say that medieval romance heroes were a bit wobbly on this in practice, but you can see the perspective there, at least up to the time of Chaucer.
What happened after that gets interesting. The humano-centric culture of the Renaissance was a lot less theological, and questions of virtue became much more ‘show don’t tell’. A hero had ethical values, certainly, but his behaviour became more polite – ‘courtly’ and ‘noble’, and questions of good taste in clothes and manners were as important as virtue and high principles. In the latest version of the Horn story, the hero is renamed Ponthus (because classical is now classy) and he doesn’t weep or throw things when he is upset, he keeps a gentlemanly stiff upper lip.
Translations of the Classics bought into this big style, and your Greek and Roman heroes were suddenly the standard role models for the European prince or courtier, and eventually of the English gentleman.
What Emily Wilson does is to remove the ‘gentlemanly’ carapace from our assumptions about classical society, and reveal its inner superhero. Odysseus becomes a recognisable as the first cousin of the Irish heroes like Finn and Cuchulainn or the Eddic Thor and Loki. More importantly, he is very like Oliver Queen or the darker versions of Batman. His reactions are personal, his emotions tempestuous and often lead to violence. His values are invested in relationships not abstractions, so his allegiances and assumptions about what he should do vary from scene to scene. And he is the hero because he doesn’t back down. He is the confused, well-meaning everyman, believing he has to be superhuman, striving to achieve impossible aims and compromised by misfortune and by his own turbulent emotions.
We know him. He is on television every day, and I fear, he has invaded our political and personal lives. How close a parallel to our own post-modern society he is can be seen in this perceptive thread Emily Wilson posted on Twitter after a recent mass shooting:
Why and how might a man slaughter large numbers of his fellow human beings? It’s a terrible topic. I don’t think there are any exact parallels in other cultures to the situation in the US right now. The shocking recent shootings have culturally & politically specific causes.
But FWIW, the Homeric poems are also deeply interested in a version of this question. Odysseus and Achilles both go on killing sprees, and slaughter not only those who have hurt them, but also bystanders: Lycaon pleading for his life, Amphinomos the suitor who tried to run away.
There are at least 3 common factors in these massacres. 1. Killer has great weapons, readily acquired (the special bow; the divine weapons made by Hephaestus, given by Thetis). “Weapons themselves can tempt a man to fight”.
Killer has been through years of war, loss of his friends & home, has already killed many people, has a huge sense of grievance & entitlement & righteous rage, & lives in a culture where men are praised and rewarded for aggression and killing.
Killer is helped, inspired and authorized by a vastly more powerful figure (a goddess, in the Homeric cases; you can apply it as you will), who has own desire for glory & attention and doesn’t care much about human life in general.
But there were no video games in archaic Greece.
After this insight, I can’t wait to see how The Iliad turns out. I can’t recommend The Odyssey too highly. Read the book, but also, if you have any interest in the Classics, or in translation as an art, I can wholeheartedly recommend you follow @EmilyRCWilson on Twitter.