The Odyssey

Homer

The Odyssey by Homer
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The crafty hero of The Iliad is in the last leg of his long ten year journey home, but it not only his story that Homer relates to the reader in this sequel to the first war epic in literature. The Odyssey describes the Odysseus’ return to Ithaca after twenty years along with the emergence of his son Telemachus as a new hero while his faithful wife Penelope staves off suitors who are crowding their home and eating their wealth daily.

Although the poem is named after his father, Telemachus’ “arc” begins first as the reader learns about the situation on Ithaca around Odysseus’ home and the search he begins for information on his father’s whereabouts. Then we shift to Odysseus on a beach longing to return home when he is informed his long sojourn is about to end and he sets off on a raft and eventually arrives among the Phaeacians, who he relates the previous ten years of his life to before they take him back home. On Ithaca, Odysseus and his son eventually meet and begin planning their revenge on the Penelope’s suitors that results in slaughter and a long-awaited family reunion with Penelope.

First and foremost The Odyssey is about coming home, in both Telemachus’ and Odysseus’ arcs there are tales of successful homecomings, unsuccessful homecomings, and homecoming that never happen of heroes from The Iliad. Going hand-in-hand with homecomings is the wanderings of other heroes whose adventures are not as exciting or as long as Odysseus’. Interwoven throughout the poem with homecomings and wanderings is the relationship between guests and hosts along with the difference between good and bad for both that has long reaching consequences. And finally throughout Odysseus’ long journey there are tests everywhere of all types for him to overcome or fail, but the most important are Penelope’s both physical and intimate.

Even though it is a sequel, The Odyssey is in complete contrast to The Iliad as instead of epic battle this poem focuses on a hero overcoming everything even the gods to return home. Suddenly the poet who gave readers a first-hand account of war shows his readers the importance of returning from war from the perspective of warriors and their families. Although they are completely different, The Odyssey in fact compliments The Iliad as well as completing it which means if you read one you have to read the other.

The Iliad

HomerThe Iliad by Homer
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The wrath of Achilles not only begins the oldest piece of Western literature, but is also its premise. The Iliad has been the basis of numerous clichés in literature, but at its root it is a story of a war that for centuries was told orally before being put down by Homer in which the great heroes of Greece fought for honor and glory that the men of Homer’s day could only imagine achieving.

The story of the Trojan War is well known and most people who have not read The Iliad assume they know what happens, but in fact at the end of the poem the city of Troy still stands and a wooden horse has not been mentioned. The Iliad tells of several weeks in the last year of the war that revolve around the dishonorable actions of Agamemnon that leads to Achilles refusing to fight with the rest of the Greeks and the disaster it causes in the resulting engagements against the Trojans. But then Achilles allows his friend Patroclus to lead his men into battle to save the Greek ships from being put to the torch only for Patroclus to advance to the walls of Troy and be slain by Hector. The wrath of Achilles turns from Agamemnon to Hector and the Trojans, leading to the death of Troy’s greatest warrior and the poem ending with his funeral.

Although the actions of Achilles and Hector take prominence, there are several other notable “storylines” one doesn’t know unless you’ve read epic. First and foremost is Diomedes, the second greatest fighter amongst the Greeks but oftentimes overlooked when it comes to adaptations especially to other important individuals like Odysseus, Menelaus, and the pivotal Patroclus. The second is how much the Olympians and other minor deities are thought to influence the events during this stretch of the war and how both mortals and immortals had to bow to Fate in all circumstances. The third is how ‘nationalistic’ the epic is in the Greek perspective because even though Hector is acknowledged the greatest mortal-born warrior in the war on both sides, as a Trojan he has to have moments of cowardice that none of the Greek heroes are allowed to exhibit and his most famous kill is enabled by Apollo instead of all by himself. And yet, even though Homer writes The Iliad as a triumphant Greek narrative the sections that have Hector’s flaws almost seem hollow as if Homer and his audience both subconsciously know that his epic is not the heroic wrath of Achilles but the tragic death of Hector.

The Iliad is the ultimate classic literature and no matter your reading tastes one must read it to have a better appreciation for all of literature as a whole. Although the it was first written over 2500 years ago, it shows the duality of heroic feats and complete tragedy that is war.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 3 of 3)

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 3The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 3 by Edward Gibbon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The finale volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 49 through 71 of the author’s vast magnum opus. Beginning with the Iconoclast controversy in correlation with rise of the Vatican and Holy Roman Empire in the 8th century and ending with a description of the causes and progression of the decay of the city of Roman in the 15th century, Gibbon relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments in both Europe and the Middle East ultimately led to the end of Byzantine Empire with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and the state of the city of Roman at time of the Roman Empire’s complete end.

The majority of the 22 chapters deal with the rise of Islam and the resultant political and martial effects that would ultimately determine the fate of the Byzantine Empire. Although beginning with the Iconoclastic controversy that began the schism of the Christian church as the bishop of Rome rose to power in the West, Gibbon used those developments to launch into how Islam rose in Arabia then spread across not only areas once under Roman control but also their long-time Persian rivals in the aftermath of the reconquests of Heraclius. While detailing the internal struggle within the Caliphate period, Gibbon reveals how Emperors attempted to combat this new faith and military force to increasing little effect has time went on.

The thorough retelling of the numerous political changes throughout Asia that affect the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire shifted the focus away from the ‘Roman’ world to locations as far east as China, but revolutions of people in these areas would play into the fortunes of Constantinople. Also playing into fate of Byzantine was the barbarian Christian West that the Emperors called for aid not only from kings but the Pope as well. Unfortunately the resulting Crusades and mercenary arms that went East would inflict a mortal wound to the Empire in 1204 thus beginning a centuries long death spiral that only lasted as long as it did because of internal revolutions with the growing Ottoman Empire until 1453. This dreary recounting of the end of Byzantium is mirrored by Gibbon in his recounting of the history of the city of Rome itself throughout the Middle Ages until the fall of the New Rome in the East.

This finale volume of Gibbon’s life consuming work revealed the struggle of the Eastern Empire of Byzantium to continue against a succession of Islamic powers and its ultimate demise thus completing the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet in retelling the eventual fall of Constantinople, Gibbon paints a huge picture for the reader about how events both near and far away from the Bosporus affected the fortunes for both good and ill of the New Rome. And in recounting the history of the city of Rome throughout the Middle Ages, a reader sheds a tear with Gibbon about the loss of the monuments of both Republic and Empire due to the necessity or vanity of the people of Rome after for the fall of the Western Empire.

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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 2 of 3)

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2 by Edward Gibbon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 27 through 48 of the author’s vast magnum opus. Beginning with the reign of Gratian and ending with the reconquests of Heraclius in 628 A.D., Gibbons relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments that saw the ultimate split of the Roman Empire, the fall of the West, and the continuance of Roman tradition in the East centered in Constantinople before glancing at the lives of the next 60 emperors of Byzantium over the next 600 years.

The deterioration of the Rome picks up with the reign of Gratian and his eventual overthrow leading to the unification of the Empire under Theodosius the Great before its finale split with the inheritance of his sons and then their successors over the next 50+ years. Throughout the era of House of Theodosius, the various barbarian tribes made inroads into the Western Empire which included two sacks of Rome itself by the Visigoths and Vandals, as the long ineffectual reign of Honorius and his successors allowed the Empire to slip out of their fingers. In the vacuum arose the genesis of future European states such as England, France, and Spain while Italy declined in population and political cohesion as the Pope began to fill not only a religious but political role.

The Eastern Emperors in Constantinople, unlike their family and colleagues in the West, were able to keep their domain intact through military force or bribes to turn away. The bureaucratic framework established by Constantine and reformed by Theodosius was used to keep the Eastern Empire thriving against barbarian incursion and Persian invasions while creating a link to the Roman past even as the eternal city fell from its greatness. Yet as the Eastern Emperors kept alive the Roman imperial tradition while continually orienting it more towards Greek cultural heritage, the internal conflicts of Christianity became a hindrance to social and imperial stability leading to rebellions of either a local or statewide nature or allowing foreign powers to invade.

This middle volume of Gibbon’s monumental work is divided in two, the first focusing on the fall of the Western Empire and the second on how the Eastern Empire survived through various struggles and for a brief time seemed on the verge of reestablishing the whole imperium. Yet throughout, Gibbon weaves not only the history of Rome but also the events of nomadic peoples as far away at China, the theological controversies within Christianity, and the numerous other treads to create a daunting, yet compete look of how Rome fell but yet continued.

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Don Quixote

Don QuixoteDon Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

The first true novel, Don Quixote, has impacted not only the literary world but culture and society the globe over for over 500 years. The masterpiece of Miguel de Cervantes blends fantasy, romance, sarcasm, and parody in such an amazing way that it has captured the imagination of generations over and over again no matter where they lived. The adventures, or misadventures, of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza have made them icons for beyond anything Cervantes might have thought possible.

The narrative of the events of the knight-errant Don Quixote’s three sallies is widely known, though more so those in Part I than those of Part II. However, while the adventures of the windmills and the battle of the wineskins and Sancho’s blanketing are the best known it the events in Part II that truly show the modern narrative arc that Cervantes was only beginning to display in Part I. While Quixote and Sancho’s hilarious misadventures are just as funny in Part II as in Part I, through the challenges for Bachelor Carrasco to snap Quixote out of his madness and the machinations of the Duke and Duchess for their entertainment at their expense a narrative arc is plainly seen and can be compared to novels of today very easily.

Although the central narrative of Don Quixote is without question a wonderful read, the overall book—mainly Part I—does have some issues that way enjoyment. Large sections of Part I contain stories within the story that do no concern either central character but secondary or tertiary characters that only briefly interact with Quixote and Sancho. Throughout Part II, Cervantes’ rage at another author who published a fake sequel is brought up again and again throughout the narrative arc that just lessened the reading experience.

The cultural footprint of Don Quixote today is so wide spread that everyone knows particular scenes that occur in the book, mainly the charge towards the windmills. Yet Cervantes’ masterpiece is so much more than one scene as it parodies the literary culture of Spain at the time in various entertaining ways that still hold up half a millennium later. Although reading this novel does take time, it is time well spent follow the famous knight-errant Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza.

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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 1 of 3)

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by Edward Gibbon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers the first 26 chapters of the author’s epic historical work. Beginning with the death of Domitian and ending with Theodosius I’s treaty with the Goths and early reign, Gibbon’s spans nearly 300 years of political, social, and religious history on how the great empire of antiquity slowly began to fade from the its greatest heights.

The history of the decline of Rome actually begins by showing the nearly century long period of rule of the “Five Good Emperors” as Gibbon shows the growth of absolute power of the Principate was governed by able and intelligent men. With succession of Commodus Gibbon illustrated what the power of the Principate would do for an individual who was a corrupt and tyrannical ruler. Gibbon’s then examines the political and military fallout of the death of Commodus with the declaration of five emperors in less than a year and rise of the Severan dynasty by conquest. Gibbon reveals underlining causes of era of the ‘Barracks Emperors’ and what historians call, “the Crisis of the Third Century”.

With the ascension of Diocletian and through him the rise of the House of Constantine, Gibbon explores the political and bureaucratic reforms began and developed that would eventually divide the empire in his view. After Constantine’s rise to sole emperor, Gibbon then delves into the early history of Christianity before its adoption by the founder of Constantinople. Beginning with Constantine, the last half of this particular volume as the history and theological developments of Christianity as a central narrative as one of the contributing factors of the decline of the Roman Empire.

Although the description above might make one pause at starting the heavy work, Gibbon’s style and prose make history come alive with every word and gives the reader a sense of the grand scale of historical forces while not overwhelming them. While every reader will have their own verdict on if Gibbon’s arguments and interruptions of history are correct, each avid history lover will find this opening volume of Gibbon’s magnum opus an engaging beginning in examining how one of the foundation stones of Western Civilization came to its political end while passing on its laws and culture to Europe.

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The Moonstone

The Moonstone The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

The worst of all events occurs at a young woman’s birthday party, it is neither murder nor theft but scandal! While Victorian readers might have seen the stunning narrative of The Moonstone in those terms, Wilkie Collins’ classic to us today is one of the first detective novels that paved the way for so many others with innovations in structure that keep the reader engaged.

As the reader quickly expects the titular diamond is present throughout the novel whether physically or in the minds of all those who relate their portion of the events before and after it’s theft on the night of Rachel Verinder’s birthday. The main narrator of the story is the Verinder family butler, Gabriel Betteredge, who gives a complete account of the events leading up the theft and those when the criminal case suddenly ends. Betteredge’s point-of-view makes a return during the second part of the book in which numerous other characters detail events that subsequently happened over the next two years. Collins’ builds the readers expectations to a fever pitch throughout Betteredge’s account until suddenly the narrative takes the first of many twists until the reader is once again eagerly is turning the page to see what’s going to happen next until the culprit and location of the fabulous gem is firmly established.

Given the era in which The Moonstone was written, many Victorian ideas and social norms are obviously in the narrative. However, unlike some other authors of the time Collins takes them both seriously and satirically to the enjoyment of the reader. Some of the best writing in the book is the character of Ms. Clack, an holier-than-thou spinster written so over-the-top that readers will quickly have a smile on their face as they go over her account. Although subtitled as a “Romance”, The Moonstone shouldn’t be seen as the forerunner of that modern genre. While a few star-crossed romances are in the novel, it is the mystery and the various types of detection that are the main focus of the narrative.

When I picked up this book and saw it was one of the first true detective novels, I wondered what I was getting. Upon finishing The Moonstone I can relate that all my apprehensions of stilted prose and mannerisms were quickly erased from my mind as the narrative and Collins’ style overwhelmed me. If you are a fan of mystery or detective novels, get this book and be happily surprised like I was.

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