OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend recently lent me his copy of T.E.Shaw’s translation of The Odyssey. That’s Lawrence of Arabia, by the way. It’s a prose translation, which for me at least, brought out the story, and the characters more fully than did the verse translation (Robert Fagles) I’d read previously. Whether that difference reveals more about me, or something about the different strengths of prose and poetry I’m not sure. I’d encountered a prose version before, in a coffee table book that was more to do with Mediterranean tourism than antiquity, or the wider human condition, and I’d seen Tony Robinson’s TV telling of the tale back in the nineteen eighties and found it inspiring.

An overheard snatch of a Melvyn Bragg Radio Four discussion about the meaning of being human touched on the eponymous hero, who inhabited a world – fictional or otherwise – in which not all humans were equal. In fact, reading the prose treatment of the odyssey brought home to me just how brutal, and unequal Odysseus’s world was.

It’s not just the casual mention of background slaves; the obvious inequalities of the ruling families and those of the suitors, contrasted with the conditions of the swineherd and the cowman, the handmaidens and cup bearers. The sheer numbers alone – fifty girls and women are mentioned as being ’employed’ in the household of Odysseus – indicate the sort of income gaps that we are used to in our own times. But the way in which these secondary lives are disposed of is indicative of more than an economic imbalance. These creatures, and here we have to include the suitors, are to be killed with the sort of callous disregard implied by the Chinese saying (reputedly used of the last Beijing Massacre) ‘to frighten the monkeys, kill a chicken.’ In Homer, the Gods – whether the creators of, or created by man – approve, facilitate, encourage, and take part in such killings.

Perhaps it’s my just having read Barry Lyndon, with its Cyclops like first person narrator, that has influenced my latest reading of the Odyssey, but I began to see in the description of the slaughters – especially that of the ‘bad’ housemaids, carried out with additional cruelty by Telemachus, above and beyond his father’s command to merely run them through – a spurious sort of justification for what was really the same sort of bullying selfishness as shown by Barry Lyndon.

If we take Homer’s epic as a sort of soap, rather than as a sort of history, we might feel that what Odysseus does is what Homer thought all men – or whoever he perceived his audience to be – would secretly, or perhaps overtly, wish to do: feast, be given a bath by a load of women, and bring fear and death to those they dislike, and to be praised by everyone for it afterwards. And maybe, in our darkest hearts that’s about it.

Another curiosity that Shaw’s translation piqued for me was to wonder how much of this version reflected Lawrence’s own experience of life among the Arabs, at least, as he told that in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. There was violence and feasting there too, and slavery, and contempt for human life – those tin bath sheep roasts sounded fabulous, and the taking of tea while the exploding heads, of prisoners who had been tied to planks and were being fed feet first into the ship’s boilers, popped merrily in the background is not a million miles away, however you interpret that distance, from similar atrocities being carried out today.

I’m tempted to exclaim that this makes The Odyssey ‘a book for today’, but on reflection, I think it’s merely another proof that all books are such.