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SlaughterInTheHall

Laura Miller, in a recent New Yorker essay about fantasy writer Philip Pullman, offers a striking anecdote:

Pullman refined his own storytelling gifts orally, by recounting versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey to his middle-school students. He estimates that he's told each epic at least thirty times. Indeed, he once caused a scene in a restaurant when he was retelling the Odyssey to his son Tom, then about five years old. "Every time we went out to dinner, I'd tell it to him in serialized form while we waited for our food to come," he said. "I'd just gotten to the part where Odysseus has come back home in disguise as an old beggar. Penelope has taken Odysseus's old bow down and told the suitors that she'll marry whoever can string it. They all try, but none of them can do it. Then Odysseus picks it up, and he feels it all over – to make sure it's still good, which it is – and then in one move he strings it. Of course, we know what's going to happen next – he's going to use it to kill the suitors – but just before that he plucks it just once, to hear the tone. Tom was so taken with the tension of the moment that he bit a piece out of his water glass. The waitress, who was coming toward us with our food, saw him do it, and she was so startled that she dropped her tray. There was food everywhere! It was chaos.

Guilty confession: that very passage of The Odyssey is one of my personal favorites in all of literature. I still remember reading it aloud to the family several years ago, when for a month we serialized the Robert Fagles translation at bedtime. From Book 21, "Odysseus Strings His Bow":

So they mocked, but Odysseus, mastermind in action,
once he'd handled the great bow and scanned every inch,
then, like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song—
who strains a string to a new peg with ease,
making the pliant sheep-gut fast at either end—
so with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow.
Quickly his right hand plucked the string to test its pitch
and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow's cry.
Horror swept through the suitors, faces blanching white,
and Zeus cracked the sky with a bolt, his blazing sign,
and the great man who had borne so much rejoiced at last
that the son of cunning Chronos flung that omen down for him.

Or perhaps I shouldn't feel so guilty; Robert Fagles himself clearly delights in Homer's imagery here. In an interview he observes:

In many ways one of the most moving moments in the poem for me is when Odysseus strings his bow at the end of the 21st book. The simile for stringing the bow describes the hero as 'an expert singer skilled at lyre and song' who tunes his harp to a new pitch. That means the bow, the killing instrument, is really a musical instrument at the same time. Story-telling at that point becomes action.

It's as though Homer were taking his whole narrative art and conferring it upon his hero and saying, all right, take your bow and treat it as a lyre and play a new song. With that lyre-bow Odysseus recomposes his kingdom; he rids it of discordant elements – the suitors – and establishes a new era of harmony. The storytelling image and the whole activity of heroism come together and are one and the same.

Moments later Odysseus launches his first arrow through a row of ax-handles, threading the needle in an perfect and awesome moment that glides into the incomparable bloodbath of Book 22, "Slaughter in the Hall" – better told, some 2700 years ago, than any movie or video game I've seen.

(cf. "Far from Narnia" by Laura Miller, The New Yorker, 26 Dec 2005 & 2 Jan 2006 issue, and http://www.princeton.edu/pr/news/96/q4/1114fagl.html, the 14 Nov 1996 press release of a Q&A session with Robert Fagles; cf. BarrettAndBrowning (11 Nov 2001), FoxyFables (23 Apr 2002), BurntNjal (3 Jun 2003), ...)


TopicLiterature - TopicArt - TopicLanguage - TopicPersonalHistory - Datetag20060111



(correlates: ShortRun, ToThePain, Roman Humor, ...)