Saturday 15 November 2014

Homeric Shaggy Dog Story

No Competition
With quite impeccable timing I am at a Homer conference in Slovenia on the day England is playing Slovenia at Wembley in the Euro 2016 qualifier. My own paper clashes with the kickoff. I have begged the conference convenor to shift things round so we can watch the match, but he is a serious intellectual who disapproves of ‘organised sport’ and says no. Slovenia being a tiny country (population: 2 Million), the conference is a sufficiently significant happening to feature on local TV. But I don’t think many Slovenian viewers will be  choosing Homer today.

'Did you remember to buy any dog food?'

Ironically the conference is all about European cooperation: it is a celebration of the translations of the Odyssey  into every official language of the European Union. The paper I shall be delivering as Wayne Rooney goes into action is about a medieval Irish version of the Odyssey called the Merugud (‘Wandering’) of Ulysses McLaertes. Seriously. It is morally an improvement on Homer’s  poem, since there are no suitors involved, not much sex and little bloodshed. 

Being an Irish version, Ulysses spends some time in a pub; since the Irish are obsessed with their hounds, the role of his dog is upgraded.There are no daft recognitions through scars or bedroom furniture: Penelope simply brings in the dog to see whether she (and it is a she) recognises her long-lost master. Delightfully, when the dog ‘heard the sound of Ulysses’ voice, she gave a pull at the chain, so that she sent the four men on their back through the house behind her, and she sprang to the breast of Ulysses and licked his face and his countenance.’ Bless.

The Irish Odysseus's dog version 1
The Irish Odysseus's dog version 2

One reason why this Irish text matters (or so I am arguing) is beecause it is the one that gave James Joyce the idea for his 1922 Ulysses, the foundational novel of both the Irish Republic and of Modernist fiction.  But it also matters because  the dog, who (unlike Homer's) gets to stay alive, is described in a detail missing from the Greek: '"Two shining white sides has she, and a light purple back and a jet-black belly, and a greenish tail," said Ulysses'. To illustrate my talk I am providing two provisional reconstructions copyright and courtesy of S. and G. Poynder respectively.

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