In this week’s “Packet,” I want to think with you about a couple of books. I have just finished listening to the Macmillan audiobooks of Robert Fitzgerald’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Dan Stevens reads both, and though his is not exactly a “household name,” you would quickly recognize him as Matthew Crawley from the early episodes of Downtown Abbey.
Over the summer, I make the round-trip drive from our cabin in the Upper Peninsula to home in Dexter about once a month. The trip gives me six or seven hours of relatively low-traffic time on I-75, ideal for audiobooks.
After almost 3000 years, the broad outlines of the classic stories are familiar, but these are poems, and they were made for listening. The familiar “rosy-fingered dawn” and “wine-dark sea” that become painfully repetitive to a reader provide happy touchpoints to the listener. The long pedigrees of the warriors break the narrative on the page, but for the listener those details give the characters history and personality. They are like flashbacks in a film, providing some detail before an important scene. In fact, as I listened, I found the experience was cinematic. As I listened, I could gaze northward to see the dusty plain of Troy with the black-hulled ships pulled out on the beach to the far left, and off in the distance toward the right were the towers of Priam’s Troy.
Take the time, make the time, to listen to this timeless story. Then, of course, you will start to think about it.
Objectively speaking, in the Iliad, Homer relates a critical episode occurring late in a prolonged, unhappy war in the Middle East. To the critical reader, the whole plot seems based on unstable foundations. The gods are deeply involved when a coalition of Greek city-states agree to follow Agamemnon, an arrogant, power-hungry leader, into a prolonged exhaustive conflict that’s further botched when Agamemnon’s insensitive behavior alienates his most important military leader, Achilles. Moreover, Achilles turns out to have an ego and temper to rival Douglas MacArthur.
Well, I thought, it was a wonderful experience to listen to the poem. Then, I embarked upon Jean Edward Smith’s biography, Bush. Smith focuses largely on the presidency of George W. Bush and particularly his decision to go to war in Iraq. God was deeply involved in that irrational and highly personal decision. It resulted in a prolonged unhappy war in the Middle East when a coalition of Western states agreed to follow Bush, an arrogant and not particularly introspective leader, into a prolonged exhaustive conflict. And the conflict was further botched when Bush’s behavior alienated his most important military leaders (many with egos and tempers), all of whom advised an early exit.
I’m becoming increasing convinced that we humans have no new stories; all we have are the old ones with new characters.