Odyssey of a Barbarian

Found in a Penguin Odyssey translated by the classical scholar Dr E. V. Rieu a typed signed letter from the novelist, playwright and the biographer of Aleister Crowley John Symonds to Dr Rieu. EVR’s reply is witty and good-natured…

IMG_1375Methuen and Co., Ltd.

36 Essex Street, London W.C.2

22nd September 1961

Dear Sir,

Some years ago I bought your version of THE ODYSSEY and THE ILIAD, and put them on a shelf beside my bed, intending one night to begin reading them, and thus fill a literary gap. And there they remained until the month when I took down THE ODYSSEY removed the paper wrapper, felt the fine blue cloth binding, gazed at the clear print and began reading.

Splendid and immortal yarn! But what a barbarian Odysseus is! He is like a comic-strip superman of the Daily Mirror. And then I came to Book XXII which you describe in your introduction as “the magnificent climax”. What is magnificent about it? The cruelty of Odysseus appalled me. Merciless butcher, without charity! He won’t even spare the tearful women. The horrors described on page 324 made me feel sick and I flung the book into the fireplace.

I shall now apply myself, somewhat warily, to THE ILIAD.

Yours truly,

John Symonds

(Handwritten letter response from Dr E. V. Rieu to Symonds)

The Penguin Classics,

31 Hurst Avenue, 

London N6

28th September 1961

Dear Mr. Symonds,

Thanks for your (half) kind letter of 22nd September. When you tell me that you threw my translation of ‘The Odyssey’ into the fireplace, I could console myself only with the thought that we have had a mild September. Do, please, finish ‘The Iliad’ before winter sets in.

Homer wrote about times when attempted usurpation of those was the most heinous crime of all. Personally, though I agree with you in thinking that p324 makes tough reading, I do not find it so enervating as Belsen, or even as the usual morning news. 

You will have to steel yourself against a great deal in ‘The Iliad’ – Book X is perhaps the worst. But when it comes to characters, I find it much harder to stomach the Greeks’ admiration of the brainless and brutal Achilles than their appreciation of Odysseus.

Yours sincerely,

E. V. Rieu

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