The Trojan Women and Other Plays
The final ancient source I read for the Trojan War reading project I’m working on this year, this collects Euripides works The Trojan Women, Hecuba, and Andromache. Strangely, I’d never read any of these before. That’s what you get with a public education.
The obvious point to make about these works is that they focus on the women left behind after the fall of Rome. Hecuba, the despairing widow of Priam and mother of murdered Polyxena and Polydorus who rages against those who killed her children. Andromache, widow of Hector, conniving to save her remaining children in the play of her name. And both these women, as well as forlorned Helen, in the Trojan Women, trying to survive in a world that has destroyed their families.
Its dark stuff — humorless stuff. Greek heroes are cruel (Odysseus, in particular appears heartless) and the fate of these women is, well, tragic. It doesn’t make for easy reading, but it’s a useful counterpoint to the heroism of the battle in the Illiad.
Hecuba Blinding Polymestor by Giuseppe Maria Crespi
Homer (trans. Robert Fagles)
The story of the heroes return from the war. The story of a son in search of his father. The story of a woman using her guile to ward off her suitors and wait for the return of her love. The story of a man through intelligence and strength, defeating his enemies and returning his family to calm.
These plot lines are the true heart of the Odyssey, and to this old man, what gives the poem its power. Odysseus is both honorable and unethical, hell bent on returning home, willing to do whatever it takes to get there. Telemachus is young, impressionable, desperate to make a name of himself. Penelope is incredible, perhaps the only person in the poem about whom one cannot say a bad word. When they finally reunite, vengeance is brought down on those who tried to destroy their family. It isn’t complicated stuff. It is elemental. It still moves.
Of course there is also the cyclops, the sirens, and Gods intervening left and right. A young me was drawn in by these magical elements, but today it’s the through line of the man trying to return to his family, and his family trying to cope with his absence that resonates with me.
Perhaps this is why we’re still reading Homer, still translating him for new audiences, each book contains multiple readings (a magical tale of adventure for some, a dark homecoming tale of revenge for others) looking forward to what will come to the fore when I read it again someday.
Odysseus taking it to the suitors
Quick note: As with my most recent reading of the Iliad, I read this in the Fagel’s translation. I found the language direct, and powerful and would recommend this one over the Lattimore I previously read.
The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
I’ve been fascinated by the story of decipherment of Linear B, the language originally found by Authur Evans on Crete and eventually deciphered by the troubled amateur Michael Ventris, for years. It was a great puzzle — a sort of black box of a language. For many years scholars knew neither thecharacters (i.e. the signs) the language (i.e. the sounds) or the meaning. It appeared at first to undecipherable. But with years and years of false starts and hard work (much of it done by the heroine of this book, the largely un-sung Alice Kobler) it was eventually determined that the language is a form of Greek. The code was broken. What did the world get from solving this mystery? Largely lists of palace goods.
But it isn’t the prize, right? It’s the hunt.
The story of Linear B has it all (ancient mysteries, amateur geniuses, crackpots) but it hasn’t gotten a real, full, popular telling until this book. Fox does an excellent job of recounting the history of the discovery and decipherment of the text. She includes just enough linguistic theory so the reader can understand what the men and women involved in this project were up against, but not so much as to bore the lay reader. Most especially, she focuses much of the book on the fascinating, and largely overlooked, Kobler who spent years and years struggling with the text while working as a professor at my alma mater, Brooklyn College. Kobler comes off as a determined, hard working, brilliant, and, at times, prickly women fighting against a culture that preferred her to view her as a secretary than as the world class philologist she was.
Her’s was not an easy life, and after reading of the hundreds of hours she spent laying the ground work for Ventris, its tragic to know she died just a few short years before his successful translation. I need to get out to Brooklyn College and see if there is any sort of dedication to her. If there isn’t, there should be.
Recommended for the enthusiast.