Achilles


I recently attended a college drama production of Achilles at Sparta. Very nice production and it brought me face to face with my first love in literature.

Sure, in high school everyone had to read Homer. I think I first read it in the sixth grade. Okay, granted, it wasn’t in the classic poetic form, but I found it fascinating. It was high adventure, it was a literary video game where most everyone dies. I loved it.
By the time high school demanded a critical read, I was visiting an old friend. One difficulty, I had never heard Zeus being pronounced. I assumed it was “Zee-us”. My English teacher was vastly amused.
I loved the Achilles/Hector conflict and all the ramifications of honor and dishonor. Years later I reflected on battle glory brought about by the “face that launched a thousand ships”. Yeah, right!
While I might ponder Homer in a future post, I thought I might mention a book that had a huge impact on me.
In the sixties most people knew about Zorba the Greek. A great movie, what people may not know is that it was first a book written by Nikos Kazantkakis. A great writer world class by any standard, but clearly the most important living Greek writer.
It is a natural thing that if you were a Greek writer, you might think about Homer, the first Western literary genius. Nikos was obsessed about Homer.
Finally he began thinking about Odysseus and what he might have done after successfully deposing of the suitors trying to marry Penelope.
Homer doesn’t do an epilogue. We have no idea, but Nikos proposed a fascinating concept. He suggested that it would not have taken long for Ody to get bored with life on the tiny island of Ithaca, and that he would set off on some sort of adventure.
He had plenty of disaffected youth who heard all the stories but didn’t have the experience. They signed up in droves to be led by the famous Odysseus.
For his part, the plan was to go back to Egypt and discover the headwaters of the Nile. It could have been the Amazon but that was on an unknown continent. It didn’t really matter to him. He knew there were cool things out there that would test his cleverness, skill and endurance.
So they packed up and went.
The English translation is a great read, but it is difficult. Nikos titled it “The Odyssey, a Modern Sequel”. It is written in the classic Greek poetic meter, which gets s little awkward in the translation. It probably takes muddling through a couple of chapters/books before you get the hang of it.
I really encourage it to be read.
One small sample of what I remember. It has been at least thirty years so I may might not have all the details, but here goes.
Odysseus and his crew, which naturally included a shipwright, were in the middle of an African Savannah. The Nile had cataracts so they went inland to go around them.
They were running low on food, even though they knew there was plenty of food to gather, and game to hunt. Odysseus, the clever, was above that.
He called his shipwright forward and gave him a plan to build a huge idol. They chopped the wood and construction began immediately.
My first thought was, certainly it took longer to chop and build, than it would have to gather and hunt?
But Odysseus would have found it boring. He hid his crew while they were building the idol, but finally it was ready. Still keeping the crew hidden, he told them to watch.
Soon the people of the Savannah were surrounding the idol, taking it all in. They left and quickly returned with baskets of food.
Odysseus told the men to wait until dark, then leaving some crumbs behind they gathered all the food. Odysseus said, one more day.
Sure enough, the people back and left even more food. Odysseus said to wait and gather one more time, only he warned them of what they might see. He reminded them
that they had built this idol in order to collect food.
The third day the people came with even more food. But this time they also brought their sick, their blind, and their lame. Odysseus and his crew watched the sick being healed, the lame began walking, and the blind could now see.
The crew was amazed, but more than that the shipwright was now convinced that he had created God, so he left the crew to become chief priest of the idol.
Odysseus just shook his head sadly.
This is just one of the many stories that has stayed with me from that first reading.