TV series review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 2, Part 1 (2014)

Posted in TV Series reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2014 by Mistlake

Agents of Shield season 2 1

Agents of Shield season 2 5

Created by: Joss Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, based on the comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Starring: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Eliabeth Henstridge, B.J. Britt, Ruth Negga, Adrian Pasdar, Kyle MacLachlan, Nick Blood, Henry Simmons, Reed Diamond, Simon Kassianides, Adrienne Palicki.

This review contains spoilers.

With S.H.I.E.L.D. in ruins, its new director Phil Coulson (Gregg) struggles to rebuild the organisation while fighting the strange form of hypergraphia which is a side effect to his alien resurrection. He and his team must also combat the power of evil organisation Hydra, newly allied with a totally insane scientist (MacLachlan) who may just be Skye’s (Bennet) long lost father.

Coulson is not alone in having risen from the dead; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pulled a similar trick in the middle of its first season, casting off the feebleness of the first ten episodes to emerge as the show it should have been from the beginning. So far, the second season has managed to go one step further, eschewing the lackluster stand-alone episodes that peppered even the latter parts of the premiere season, instead going for a strong, ongoing narrative closely tied to the larger Marvel Comics Universe.

In place of pointless namedropping we find meaningful connections, and this season weaves a satisfying and creative web of mystery whose strands consists of carefully chosen and tastefully “reimagined” characters, relationships and events from Marvel’s vast mythos. The show’s creators start out strong, in the very first episode throwing The Absorbing Man at us, one of Marvel’s cooler super villains, as if they want to assure us that this time there will be no frustrating avoidance of all the interesting characters available. And they’re as good as their word – to avoid spoiling things too much, MacLachlan’s character turns out to be someone very interesting indeed to Marvel fans, and we finally get most of the solution to the initially rather tepid mystery surrounding Skye’s background. Well judged episode after well judged episode leads us to a mid-season finale which will be exciting enough for most viewers and a positive nerdgasm for old Marvel fans like me.

The characters, though some of them are still somewhat tedious, are developing too, growing more nuanced and giving the actors a better chance to shine, but improved as the main cast is, not one of them – not even Gregg – can hold a candle to Kyle MacLachlan. I’ve always liked him, but I never even suspected he could pull out this level of intensity. By turns touching, funny and tremendously creepy, he steals the entire show to the point where you want him to be in every scene. It doesn’t hurt that he has a good part to play, nor that he is one of the primary driving forces behind this season’s tantalizing story.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn’t be a Marvel property without plenty of action and spectacle, and it delivers in that department too, with some truly impressive effects work, a few brutal fights and a budget that is either increased or better utilised this season.

Much improved on every level, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is now a vital part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is cleverly being used to foreshadow upcoming movies (The Inhumans, anyone?). It’s a great thrill ride with an exciting narrative, something I could never have dreamed when I forced myself through the first half of the initial season.

Rating: 8 of 10.

 Agents of Shield season 2 4

LUCY LAWLESS, NICK BLOOD, WILMER CALDERON, HENRY SIMMONS, CHLOE BENNET, PATTON OSWALT

Agents of Shield season 2 2

Agents of Shield season 2 6

 

TV series review: Gotham, the first part of season 1 (2014)

Posted in TV Series reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2014 by Mistlake

Gotham 1

Gotham 2

Gotham 3

Created by: Bruno Heller, based on characters created by Bob Kane. Starring: Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue, Robin Lord Taylor, Sean Pertwee, David Mazouz, Camren Bicondova, Erin Richards, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cory Michael Smith, John Doman, David Zayas, Richard Kind, Carol Kane, Nicholas D’Agosto.

Given the increasing length of these god-awful mid-season hiatuses, it’s kind of useless to wait around to write a review of a complete TV show season these days, so I’ll just go ahead and review the first half for now.

Once more, we see the parents of future Batman Bruce Wayne (Mazouz) get murdered in an alleyway , only this time the story picks up immediately afterwards, as honest police detective Jim Gordon (McKenzie) begins investigating the slaying while tackling Gotham City’s immense corruption and the sudden proliferation of ever more bizarre criminals.

Creatively speaking, prequels are a tricky proposition, since the opportunity for suspense and surprises is significantly diminished when we already know what will happen to the characters in the future. Another creative impediment for shows like this one is the desire – on the part of marketing departments rather than writers and producers – to use name recognition to sell a product, whether or not said product has anything beyond that name to recommend it. As other shows of this kind has shown (such as Hannibal, Fargo, Smallville and Bates Motel, to name a few), results may vary, but on the surface of it Gotham sounds like a particularly poor idea. Batman without Batman? It has been tried before, in the short-lived TV series Birds of Prey and, arguably, in The Dark Knight Rises, but since Gotham is both a prequel and a desperate brand recognition ploy, it should feel even more seriously hemmed in by the limitations innate in its foundation.

It’s good to see, then, that Gotham’s first ten episodes show great promise. For an American network show about a comic book world, it’s rather mature in content and themes (although grown men still sound like upset kindergarteners). It can also count a deliciously retro 1940s – 1950s look among its best assets, although the noirish images are somewhat undercut by the misplaced use of modern heavy metal.

The stories and characters are more of a mixed bag. Although most of the stand-alone episodes tie into the overall arc, which is something I personally enjoy, they tend to fit into the “villain of the week” format that was wearing thin decades ago: a weird bad guy appears and commits a heinous deed, which is followed by the title card, after which the story plods along well-trodden paths until the bad guy is disposed of at the end of the episode. But like I said, these stories are usually connected to the greater scheme of things, and they’re accompanied by several longer-running subplots developing each week, so as a whole, Gotham holds up and never gets too tedious or predictable. Still, it could use greater variety in its somewhat repetitive setups.

Far and away the most interesting element, and the one that got me hooked, is a certain Oswald Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin, exquisitely and excitingly played by Robin Lord Taylor. Here, the Penguin is a sniveling little brownnose serving the Gotham mob families, but underneath his timid façade he is a psychopathic genius, scheming his ruthless way up through the ranks. This character and his story almost seem like they’ve been created by a different writing team; while the rest of the show has tolerable scripting (albeit limping in the logic department from time to time), the Penguin’s adventures are constantly fresh, surprising and crackling with energy.

At the other end of the spectrum we find Fish Mooney (Pinkett Smith), a midlevel manager in the world of organised crime. First of all, this character is repeatedly used as a shameless expedient to uncreatively get past plot obstacles: “Let’s talk to Fish, she’ll tell us what we need to know”, says Gordon’s corrupt partner, and so the need for clues and detective work is eliminated. Secondly, and even worse, Pinkett Smith can’t act her way out of a wide open door. She compensates for this by doing whatever is a non-actor’s equivalent to overacting: she mugs and poses a lot, and uses her voice in ways no actual person uses theirs. Happily, Fish isn’t part of the established Batman mythos, so hopefully she’ll ham it up for the fishes before the season is out.

Back on the good side of things, the relationship between Alfred (Pertwee) and Bruce (the extremely talented young Mazouz) seems like it’s going interesting places, and Cat (Bicondova as a teenage Cat Woman) shows some promise too. The lack of backstory and emotional weight for nominal main character Jim Gordon is a shortcoming, but McKenzie can act, and more meat will hopefully be added to the role as the show progresses.

There’s enough good action, occasionally splendid ideas and nods to the DC Comics universe (including an interesting interpretation of Harvey Dent) to make Gotham a much more fascinating series than one would think, and by and large it’s doing a better job than most shows do in their infancy.

Rating: 7 of 10.

Gotham 4

Gotham 5

Gotham 6

Gotham 7

TV series review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 1 (2013 – 2014)

Posted in TV Series reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2014 by Mistlake

Agents of Shield 1

Agents of Shield 4

Created by: Joss Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, based on the comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Starring: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Eliabeth Henstridge, J. August Richards, B.J. Britt, Ruth Negga, Bill Paxton, Adrian Pasdar, Saffron Burrows, Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter MacNichol, Brad Dourif.

This review contains minor spoilers.

International intelligence organisation S.H.I.E.L.D gives agent Phil Coulson (who supposedly died in The Avengers) and his team the mission to fly around the world and contain and when necessary combat the rising number of superhuman individuals and alien artifacts.

The mid-season hiatus is an abomination in the eyes of television viewers everywhere, but in the case of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. it turned out to be a blessing. Set in the same Marvel Cinematic Universe as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk, this show looked like a sterling idea: a chance to take a good look at this crazy world of marvels from the perspective of professional but un-super powered human beings. But something went horribly wrong.

The first ten episodes sport a largely bland cast of characters in a series of stories that are painful in their amateurish writing, uninspired premises and complete lack of Marvel Comics characters aside from one pointless cameo by Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury and endless, embarrassing name-dropping of the members of The Avengers. It’s like the show’s creators were told that under no circumstances could they use any characters or concepts from the source material.

The bad writing is an even worse problem, though, particularly in the way the season’s arcs are not only dull, but also fail to develop in any way; Coulson’s (Gregg) resurrection and the mystery of Skye’s (Bennet) parentage are mentioned in almost every episode, but only to repeat the skimpy, previously established facts. Ten episodes forming a seemingly hopeless mess and a wasted opportunity, then, triumphantly capped off by the limpest mid-season finale I’ve ever witnessed.

But then there occurred the three month hiatus, and clearly some serious damage control went on during that time, because when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned, my eyes popped open and my churlishly pursed lips cracked open into a wide grin: every single one of the show’s issues had been addressed during the interval.

Proper Marvel characters started appearing, ones that are perfect for this series: secondary characters who are unlikely to star in the big Marvel movies, but who are interesting enough to warrant a spot in the limelight: Blackout, Lorelei, the Hulk’s enemy Glenn Talbot (Pasdar, superbly channeling the comic book version’s obstinacy), the Howling Commandos and last but not least the cyborg Deathlok (Richards). Also, we get a second visit from Nick Fury, and it’s everything that the first one was not.

Even better, the stories and arcs suddenly feel inspired and alive, as does the show’s interrelation with the movies (notably Captain America: The Winter Soldier). All of this gives us some really strong material, as well as several massive changes and surprises, one of the latter being among the most jaw-droppingly awesome revelations I’ve seen in a TV show.

Even the characters have been kicked up a notch, most unexpectedly the team’s scientists Fitz (De Caestecker) and Simmons (Henstridge), who started out as unbearable caricatures, but are now developing into proper and increasingly interesting people. I’d also like to mention Brett Dalton’s performance as hurting-people-specialist Ward; many viewers seem to have missed just how good he is, possibly because he’s being subtle on a show that’s anything but. I especially like his underplayed, wry sense of comedy timing. Clark Gregg, always a great actor, also benefits from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pulling itself up by the bootstraps, as he finally gets emotional material worthy of his talents.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. went from being a horrible pile of misguided crap to a lovely bit of must-see television, all within the space of a single season. Let’s applaud the show’s creators, who had the good sense to listen to the fans’ complaints. The show still has its problems (the Blackout episode could have used a better script, for instance), but so does any show in its first season, and I’m just happy that this one has arrived at the point where it should have been in the first place. And from what I’ve seen so far of the second season, things keep evolving in a satisfying fashion.

Rating: There is no way I can give this split-personality season a single rating, so I’ll give the first ten episodes 3 out of 10, and the last twelve episodes 8 out of 10.

 

P.S. I want to thank Patrik for inadvertently making me give Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a second chance. When he was going on about how good it was, I thought “Is his taste really that poor?” and went to check out the remaining episodes to see if he had gone insane or something.

Agents of Shield 2

Agents of Shield 6

Agents of Shield 3

Agents of Shield 5

Book review: Sophocles – Philoctetes

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2014 by Mistlake

Philoctetes 2

Philoctetes 3

Towards the end of the Trojan war, Odysseus and Neoptolomos (the son of Achilles) arrive at the island of Lemnos for the purpose of retrieving Herakles’ bow, which the gods have decreed is essential for a Greek victory at Troy. The problem is that the bow is in the possession of Philoctetes, a Greek hero who was rather tactlessly dumped on the island because of his stinkily infected foot, and who has been living there alone for nine years, carefully nursing his grudge against Odysseus and the other Greeks.

This review contains a spoiler or two.

As far as I understand Greek tragedies, Philoctetes really isn’t one, but it’s usually labeled as such, and who am I to quarrel with authorities on the subject? It’s an interesting play either way, and rather different from others of its era and country of origin. There’s more theme than story – the tale basically revolves around Neoptolomos being persuaded by Odysseus to forego his habitual honesty and trick the innocent and noble Philoctetes into relinquishing his bow and return to Troy with them.

Thematically, there’s a lot more going on, what with the usual Greek obsession with honour and duty. Neoptolomos’ problem is this: if he gets the bow he will win honour and renown in war, but is that really worth anything if the means for it have been gained by dishonourable actions? It’s not like Philoctetes is a villain or a bad person, after all – he’s a persistent, dutiful and proud hero who has been treated inexcusably, and all he wants is for someone to bring him and his pus-stinking old foot back home. It is fascinating to see just how conflicted Neoptolomos becomes when faced with Philoctetes’ plight, torn as he is between his desire for glory and his equally keen desire to do the right thing.

While Philoctetes and Neoptolomos are basically on the same page, divided only by their differing needs, Odysseus is presented as an unpardonable douchebag, eagerly promoting deceit and ignoble behaviour, which is a far cry from his cunning but ultimately heroic portrayal in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Philoctetes is a man of firm, positively obstinate principle, whereas Odysseus is just as unyielding in his certainty that the ends justify the means no matter what, which leaves Neoptolomos in anguish, wavering between the two standpoints.

I hope the above makes it clear that Philoctetes is ever so cleverly thought out in terms of theme and didactic purpose, which is a great asset, but the climax is unfortunately less impressive. Just as things start coming to a head and, meanwhile, we begin to see a possible agreement between Neoptolomos and Philoctetes, up pops a deus ex machina ending that takes the decisions out of the hands of these mortals, giving us a cheap fake ending instead of a proper, satisfying resolution.

Philoctetes is a deeply fascinating play psychologically and ethically, but it stumbles on the finishing line and doesn’t force the characters to make the hard decisions I, as a reader, had been looking forward to seeing. Not the best thing Sophocles wrote, but deep flaws aside, still an impressive work.

Rating: 7 of 10.

Philoctetes 1

Philoctetes 4

Book review: Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2014 by Mistlake

Great Expectations 1

Great Expectations 3

Great Expectations 4

Little Philip Pirrip, better known as Pip, is being brought up ”by hand” by his mean-spirited sister and her kindly blacksmith husband Joe, when a chance encounter with an escaped convict and an odd request by the tragically eccentric Miss Havisham change his life, investing it with ”great expectations” far beyond those of being an apprentice at Joe’s forge.

I was never much of a Dickens fan: I liked A Christmas Carol, but Oliver Twist left me cold, and I was content to leave well enough alone. But recently I got it into my head to give Dickens another chance, and I’m happy I did. Great Expectations is indeed great, and in my case probably all the better for my going into it with no expectations.

The folksy Dickensian humour is present through much of the book, and that’s one aspect of his writing I could take or leave, which also goes for that “boohoohoo” Victorian sentimentality that made it so hard for me to stomach Oliver Twist, but both the comedy and the pathetic pathos take background roles in Great Expectations. Here Dickens serves up a much darker brew starring a deliciously convoluted story, a great many surprises and a level of elegant writing that simply isn’t seen in modern fiction.

The darkness is strangely pervasive for an author mostly known for his warmth, humour and social conscience. Miss Havisham’s eerie existence in a dilapidated mansion is positively Gothic, as is her monomaniacal rearing of little girl Estella into a fine young psychopath. The life of convict Magwitch is no picnic either, and then there’s the really nasty stuff, including domestic abuse in various flavours and an uncommonly disagreeable suicide by conflagration. Perhaps above all, there’s a dark streak permeating Pip himself, who is also the narrator: he is not a nice boy or – subsequently – man, nor is he intended to be. This gritty side of Dickens is very welcome to these eyes, and makes the novel feel more like adult fiction than did those of his books that I had previously read.

Another Dickens trademark is of course the colourful characters, with which Great Expectations is brimming. Miss Havisham is probably the most famous one, but I’d like to give a shout-out to lawyer Jaggers, among whose many strange habits can be found his conviction that one should always behave as if one is in court and never admit to anything, no matter how trivial. Equally fascinating and entertaining is Jaggers’ head clerk Wemmick, a dry and boring man who turns out to lead a charmingly whimsical life in his free time.

The story brings Pip through many changes in fortune and state of mind, and Dickens lives up to his credo “let them laugh, let them cry and let them wait”: many of the novel’s mysteries are tantalizingly dangled before the reader time and time again before at long last being expertly resolved. That’s a good way to write a page-turner, which is what Great Expectations is: exciting, pleasurably frustrating and always with fresh means of entertainment up its sleeve.

What may, for some readers, cause the pages to turn somewhat more slowly, is Dickens’ literary style, which is of a kind we – as I mentioned earlier – are unaccustomed to these days. I find it glorious in its paradoxical florid dryness. It’s a verbose stream that combines melodramatic emotions with a beautiful matter-of-fact precision which I’d wager is unique to the English temperament of the 19th Century. Nowadays most fiction is written in a colloquial style, and I don’t mind that, but personally I prefer the exquisite phrasings of Dickens and his contemporaries.

Dramatic revelations, cliffhanging suspense, angry (though highly civilised – Dickens was English, after all) criticism of the British judicial system, and enough eye-popping characters and Gothic chills to fill half a dozen lesser novels – these are a few of the delights that make Great Expectations such an outstanding reading experience. But at the heart of it all are prime examples of what all novels should have, but too many do not: a captivating story and great prose.

Rating: 9 of 10.

Great Expectations 6

Great Expectations 2

A somewhat different interpretation of the story.

A somewhat different interpretation of the story.

Book review: Christopher Lee – Lord of Misrule

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2014 by Mistlake

Lord of Misrule 1

Lord of Misrule 3

Lord of Misrule 2

The autobiography of character actor and – although he’s ambivalent about the term – cult movie star Sir Christopher Lee.

Originally published in shorter form as Tall, Dark and Gruesome in 1977, Lord of Misrule is a considerably expanded and revised version which brings us up to and including the time of the Lord of the Rings films.

It’s not too much to say that in interviews, Christopher Lee often seems smug and at times overbearing, which makes his autobiography all the more of a revelation. Here we meet a man who admits to often being a bundle of nerves, and who grew up self-conscious about his uncommon height and his “foreignness” (on his mother’s side he’s a member of the illustrious Italian noble family of Carandini). Through a mixture of grit, talent and luck (his mother knew a lot of useful people) he succeeded in becoming an actor, and a star at that, but he remains humble about it – which appears oddly out of character for him – and often amused at the long and winding road he’s travelled, and the many potholes in that road.

Amusement is also something the reader is bound to experience, for Lee writes in a mostly lighthearted and exceptionally witty style that speaks much of his intelligence and general classiness. However, his class doesn’t get in the way of some tastefully lewd recollections and a few instances of humorously coarse language (even though the latter only occurs when he is quoting someone else). In the quiet of his study he evidently felt relaxed enough to let go of the sternly magisterial persona he adopts in public, and shows us a softer and more candid side that’s instantly likeable, with a strain of self-deprecating humour and sense of his own shortcomings that is as entertaining as it is unexpected. At the same time he shows justified pride in his greatest accomplishments, from his service in World War II to his performances in fine films like The Wicker Man, Jinnah, Rasputin and The Man With the Golden Gun, and onwards to his surprise singing career starting in his seventies. And yes, towards the end of the book he does speak at some length about Dracula.

The only real drawback to this extremely engrossing autobiography has to do with the balancing of certain elements. While Lee writes in depth about some of his films, including the ones mentioned above as well as for example Airport ’77 and of course Lord of the Rings (and some of his less satisfying movies too), others get short shrift, the space that should have been allotted to them instead taken up by … golfing anecdotes. Sir Christopher loves his golf to the extent that if the law were suddenly to accept bigamy, he would probably take his bag of golf clubs as his second wife. There is nothing wrong with golf, I suppose, and some of the stories are funny and interesting enough, but there are several whole chapters devoted to the game, and it does get to be a bit much after a while if you don’t share his passion.

More stories about movies would have been welcome, and although there’s quite a bit in Lord of Misrule about actors closely associated with Lee through friendship and careers, like Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and of course Peter Cushing, there could have been more of that too.

But I’m not about to protest against being regaled with grand stories from a life tremendously well lived, and one so rich in experience. It feels like one gets to know the man in a way I would have previously thought highly unlikely, and despite toning down a few of his taller tales (he tends to exaggerate in interviews), you can only marvel at the people he has met, the work he has done, the things he has experienced, and the peculiar hobbies he has indulged in – such as bicycling round the Swedish countryside, joining local amateur singing societies as an impromptu extra member.

Lord of Misrule, for all its odd omissions and all its golf courses, is one of the more fascinating autobiographies I’ve read, and it’s about a most intriguing person of a kind they simply don’t make anymore.

Rating: 8 of 10.

Lord of Misrule 4

Lord of Misrule 5

Lord of Misrule 6

Lord of Misrule 7

05_Flatbed_1 OCTOBER

Lord of Misrule 9

Book review: Homer – The Odyssey

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2014 by Mistlake

Odyssey 1

Odyssey 2

It’s been ten years since the end of the Trojan War, and king Odysseus has still not returned to his island of Ithaca. Assuming that he’s dead, scores of suitors have assembled at his home in order to win the hand and vast riches of Odysseus’ queen Penelope. In the process they’re consuming all the food and wine the estate can muster, and in general behaving like arrogant swine. What they don’t know is that Odysseus is very much alive, but has been seriously delayed by many an adventure. He is not pleased with the news that reaches him from Ithaca, and plans on dusting off his old mass murder skills.

Most of what I have to say about Greek epics as such is contained in my rambling overview of The Iliad, so here I’ll just focus on The Odyssey and its points of comparison with The Iliad. This review contains a spoiler or two.

At first glance, The Odyssey seems of a piece with The Iliad, but it’s actually quite different. It’s a proper continuation of the story, yes, but where The Iliad is insanely intense with brief interludes of mellowness, The Odyssey is quite the other way around. People eat and drink and give each other disproportionate riches at the drop of a hat, when they’re not telling meandering stories about their heritage and the experiences of their youth.

Every now and then there’s violence and horror, like when Odysseus tells the most famous story in the book, the one about the man-eating Cyclops Polyphemus, or when Odysseus and his son Telemachos roll up their sleeves and set to work on the suitors. There are other thrilling sequences, such as the expertly suspenseful one where our hero loses his ship in a raging storm, but on the whole, The Odyssey is curiously relaxed for a heroic epic. We get far more of Ancient Greek-style courtly manners, friendly chats and gossip (“Oh, did you hear that king Agamemnon was murdered by his bitch of a wife?”) than of heavy duty javelin-flinging and decapitations.

The Odyssey is certainly more varied than The Iliad, in which there’s more or less constant butchery from first to last, and contains much of beauty and more of sin. I wouldn’t call it an idyll, and even less so since most of the characters – including Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachos – are continually grieving and suffering, but there’s still a soft light hovering over many of the events and the strange, primitive but beautiful world in which they take place. I guess it’s as close to a pastoral romance as war-fixated Ancient Greece could get.

Apart from Pallas Athena, who must have a titanic crush on Odyssey given how much she helps him, the major gods are a far less prominent presence in The Odyssey than in The Iliad, but the former contains more of other fantasy components. There’s the Cyclops, other giants, Circe and her transformative magic, the Sirens and so on, and this no doubt contributes to the lofty fairy-tale nature of the poem, placing it firmly in an age that had a hazy mythical sparkle even in classical Greece. The islands are still there, some of the cities too, but there’s no denying that The Odyssey is set in a fairy tale land, and a beautiful and magical one at that.

Even so, the reader learns a lot about actual Bronze Age Greece, and these little details of everyday life are all the more captivating for being mentioned in passing, as if everyone is expected to take them for granted (as I suppose original audiences did). I found myself intrigued, for instance, by the description of Penelope unlocking a door, for the archaic but intricate locking mechanism is unlike anything we have today, and thus both brings home the antiquity of the tale and gives life to the fact that there were real people with real lives (and real locks) alive during that distant era, something which is usually quite difficult to fully take in.

There are human qualities to The Odyssey, then, and not only in the shape of day to day particulars. The Iliad is filled to the brim with characters, hundreds of them, and you have to be really obsessed to keep track of them all. The Odyssey, on the other hand, has far fewer characters and spends much more time with each one, from lowly swineherd Eumaios right up to Odysseus himself, and where the people populating The Iliad are largely archetypes, here we acquaint ourselves on more intimate terms with men and women who come towards us out of their “types”, emerging as engaging human beings. Penelope may be impossibly chaste and faithful (the perfect role model wife from an old Greek perspective), but she’s also pragmatic and clever, and has much of the cunning associated with Odysseus himself.

He, on his part, is of course the classic epic hero in many ways, but he’s weighed down by longing, remorse and worry, making us feel his age and the tribulations he’s been through even though he’s described physically as still being a prime specimen of manhood. Another fascinating trait of his is how easily he makes up stories off the top of his head – he is in fact an inveterate liar and has much of the trickster about him, to the point where I started wondering about the Cyclops, Sirens and so on – we only hear those stories from his own mouth while he’s, as it were, singing for his supper at king Alcinous’ court. Did any of those fantastical adventures ever really occur? At one single point later on in the story does Odysseus think to himself briefly about the Cyclops, but still one wonders.

The Odyssey is an odd mixture of high fantasy, rural idyll and Clint Eastwood revenge Western, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a gorgeous work of art that sings from the page, and in all its frothy liveliness it’s still as fresh as a rose roughly 2,500 years after it was set down in writing.

I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the immense influence The Odyssey has had on world literature and art, not least in the fantasy genre, but three people and books inspired by it should be mentioned: Virgil’s The Aeneid, Eyvind Johnson’s Return to Ithaca and of course James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Rating: 9 of 10.

Odyssey 3

Odyssey 4

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 247 other followers

%d bloggers like this: