The Adventures of Odysseus and The Tale of Troy

The Book

The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy is a children’s retelling of the Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. It was written by well-known modernist and children’s author Padraic Colum and illustrated by the prolific Willy Pogany. It was published in New York City by the Macmillan Company in 1918.

The Publisher

The Macmillan company was a wealthy and respected international publishing house founded in the 19th century. In the years since it was opened, it has split into multiple brands with the Macmillan name, including the United States textbook company. From the turn of the 20th century to around World War II, it published a series of illustrated children’s books. Many of these were retellings of traditional stories and folk tales, and the team of Padraic Colum and Willy Pogany produced a good deal of these. Some, such as The King of Ireland’s Son, have since become regarded as classics of the genre.

The Author

Padraic Colum was a modernist writer from Ireland who lived from 1881 to 1972. To fund his literary career, he began to collect and rewrite traditional stories for young audiences under the Macmillan brand. While the first few were folk tales from his native Ireland, he expanded his repertoire to many cultures as the series continued. According to the dedication, he became interested in creating a children’s version of the Homeric cycle when his boys became interested in the story. This particular book was released the same year Colum’s friend James Joyce began publication of the famous modernist novel Ulysses, another retelling of the Odyssey.

The Illustrator

Willy Pogany was a Hungarian illustrator who lived from 1882 to 1955. He collaborated with Colum on multiple occasions, including providing the art for some of Colum’s best-known children’s books. For this book, he uses a bright Art Nouveau style that nonetheless recalls traditional Greek vases and sculpture as well as the neoclassicism of Romantic interpretations of the story. Pogany illustrated other books in the Ringling rare book collection, including the Rubáiyát and Sonnets From the Portuguese.

Print Run and Availability

“The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy” is still in print as of 2015. As it is currently in public domain, it has been published by a great deal of companies since its original print run. There are currently more than two dozen editions on the market. Copies of the original 1918 edition sell for prices ranging from eighteen to thirty dollars online.

Description of Cover

The cover is made with cloth over board. It is missing its dust jacket, which reprinted an illustration from the interior on the front cover  The pages are uneven in a deckled style, and several have lost small strips of their outermost edges. At some point, a library applied a thick smear of paint near the bottom of the spine and wrote the book’s call number in white. There is damage to the bottom of the spine and headband, probably sustained during its time displayed upright on a shelf. A Ringling Library identification stamp is inked horizontally on the top edge of the pages. As the library is now careful not to affect the appearance of the book in any way, this was probably done before it was placed in the rare book collection.

Padraic Colum - Back CoverPadraic Colum - SpineCropped Colum

Interior

The name Barbara Wright is written in ink on the inside cover. Under this name, the word “Discarded” is written in marker across the inside cover and first page. A map of the locations visited in the Homeric cycle is printed on the inside cover and back of the blank page before the title page. While simplified, it provides young readers with an idea of the scope of the story and its adventurous, seafaring themes.

The title page is yellowing in blotches severely, most notably around the top. This is probably a result of the acid-enhanced paper production techniques that were introduced to drive down the price of books in the late nineteenth century. The acid components lead to page disintegration over time.

 Padraic Colum - Map

Padraic Colum title page

The Macmillan seal is granted a page, with a list of Macmillan publishers in North America and the British Empire. Interestingly, this was published after the Macmillan company split into multiple different companies with the same name. The Macmillan company based in New York that published Colum’s works had no business partnerships with the one based in London.

Macmillan seal

Style and detail

It shows signs of repeated use, as several pages near the beginning are torn and somewhat loosed. The script seems stylized to look dramatic, as fits the lofty theme of the work. This retelling is dedicated to the author’s boys. The Table of Contents only lists two pages, for the respective first and second halves of the book. Color illustrations are listed, but not the black and white ones. The pages show various amounts of yellowing and wear, but the illustrations are still glossy and in good condition. The last few pages are dedicated to advertisements for other children’s books published by Macmillan, most of them also produced by the team of Colum and Pogany.

Table of ContentsTable of Contents - Illustrations

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The Text

The story is written in a much more formal and antiquated style than one would expect from a children’s book. It makes frequent use of faux-Early Modern English dialogue, including pronouns such as “thou”, “thy”, and “thee”. As with many retellings of ancient and authoritative stories, including the King James Bible, the style of the writing is reworked to sound older and less conversational than the original text. This sets an atmosphere of the distant past for the events of the story, even if the language is not as accurate in regards to connotation.

The story begins much the same as Homer’s Odyssey, with Athena visiting Odysseus’ son Telemachus. According to a summary on the dust jacket (absent in this specific copy), the use of Telemachus as a viewpoint character is meant to give the young target audience a character they can identify with. Using the same in media res technique from the Odyssey, the audience is given the events of the Iliad during the subsequent scenes of Telemachus asking his father’s war comrades for news. Afterwards, the story switches to Odysseus’ point-of-view as he endures his famous wanderings.

The use of Telemachus as an audience surrogate is done to an extent by Homer himself, who uses the character’s scenes of discussion with Nestor and Menelaus as a means of exposition as to what has occurred between the Trojan War and the present day. Indeed, the Odysseus himself does not appear in the story of Homer or Colum until Telemachus and, by extension, the reader have an understanding of his circumstances.

Colum follows Homer’s version of the myths closely and faithfully, usually only differing by inserting scenes from the narrative that Homer chose to exclude. The judgement of Paris, Odysseus’ attempt at faking insanity, and the Fall of Troy are given treatment so that younger readers less familiar with the source material than Homer’s audience may be given more context. The few removed scenes, such as the hanging of Odysseus’ unfaithful maids, were probably left out due to their gruesomeness and adult content.

The dialogue in the book, while formal and verbose, is also quite careful to make the motivation of the character speaking clear. While this serves as a good introduction for those who do not know the story, it also takes away much of the work’s power. Other translations are careful to preserve the intensity of emotion in Homer’s work, but Colum’s formal language and explanatory tone turns scenes like the raging of Achilles against Agamemnon into something dry and devoid of humanity. Perhaps the complexity of the story is such that one must first be familiar with the plot to enjoy the depths of characterization that Homer brings to its specific episodes.

The Illustrations

Pogany’s illustrations reinforce the text’s formal and faux-classical tone. In the below illustration, Penelope is seen unraveling her husband’s shawl by her suitors. Behind her is an ionic column, rendered as white as the ruins of Athens. She wears the flowing robe associated with neoclassical renditions of the story, as do the suitors gazing angrily on her work. Much like Colum’s narration, this picture makes very clear the setting and action of the scene. It provides visual clues to what a loom is, how the suitors caught Penelope, and what actions she was taking to complete her trick. Other illustrations are similar in style, and work with the text to further cement knowledge of the epic’s plot.

Penelope at the Loom

 

Final Thoughts

Published the same year as Colum’s friend James Joyce’s Ulysses, The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy can be seen as the opposite of that novel. While Joyce used Homer’s works to create an elaborate, esoteric, and unorthodox work of literature, Colum simplified them into something able to be digested by any interested reader. Homer himself, working with stories that were well-known to his audience, is middle-ground between the two as his writing works to further understanding of specific events in familiar stories. Much like the map at the beginning of the book, Colum and Pogany give young readers the tools they need to navigate and understand the Homeric cycle as they explore the stories through their literary adventures.

-Stetson Cooper

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