Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Car Epics

I guess it's been quite a while since I put up a post about the joys of listening to poetry on the car stereo while stuck in Auckland traffic. Since then I've been branching out a bit and checking out the recordings I like the most.

All of which is a preliminary to sharing my own - very subjective - list of best recordings of epics for such purposes (see also the supplementary list above):

1 - Homer: The Iliad (c. 850 BC)

a) translated by William Cowper (1791)
read by Anton Lesser
Naxos AudioBooks, 1995
3 CDs (abridged)

A bit too stilted and mannered for me - traditional verse translations don't work as well as prose when it comes to audiobooks, I think.

b) translated by Robert Fagles (1990)
read by Derek Jacobi
Penguin Audiobooks, 1993
6 cassettes (abridged)

A brilliantly vivid version in modern verse, read in a rather mannered way by (I, Claudius) Jacobi in every voice he can muster.

c) translated by Ian Johnston (2002)
read by Anton Lesser
Naxos AudioBooks, 2006
13 CDs (complete)

Pretty definitive, I should imagine.

2 - Homer: The Odyssey (c. 850 BC)

a) translated by William Cowper (1791)
read by Anton Lesser
Naxos AudioBooks, 1995
3 CDs (abridged)

As above about his Iliad. Cowper's Miltonic blank verse works fine on the page but not so well on the radio - Anton Lesser gives it a good go, though.

b) translated by E. V. Rieu (1945)
read by Alex Jennings
Penguin Audiobooks, 1995
6 cassettes (abridged)

Alex Jennings may be less adept as a reader than Derek Jacobi, but this is nevertheless an amazingly effective version. It quite transformed my last roadtrip around the South Island.

c) translated by Robert Fagles (1996)
read. by Ian McKellen
Penguin Audiobooks, 1996
12 cassettes (complete)

Translation great, Ian McKellen excellent, but it's surprising just how much of the poem concerns Odysseus wandering around Ithaca. Abridged versions tend to shorten all that return-of-the-native stuff considerably.

d) translated by Ian Johnston (2002)
read by Anton Lesser
Naxos AudioBooks, 2007
10 CDs (complete)

Again, pretty definitive.

3 - Virgil: The Aeneid (c. 30-19 BC)

a) translated by Robert Fitzgerald (1983)
read by Christopher Ravenscroft
Highbridge Company, 1995
8 CDs (abridged)

Ravenscroft, who used to be on Ruth Rendell's Wexford series, has a rather nasal voice, but it's fascinating to hear so much of Aeneas's adventures in Italy, normally glossed over in the selected versions. Fitzgerald's translation is fantastic - the only drawback about this version is that it is slightly abridged, otherwise I'd be to look no further.

b) translated by C. Day Lewis (1952)
read by Paul Scofield et al.
Naxos AudioBooks, 2002
4 CDs (abridged)

Partly dramatised and very selective - great for the bits it does do, though. Paul Scofield has the perfect hollow, echoing voice for the narrator of so spooky a poem.

c) translated by Robert Fagles (2006)
read by Simon Callow
Penguin Audiobooks, 2006
10 CDs (complete)

A spirited translation in a rather plummy rendition.

4 - Ovid: Metamorphoses (c. 8 AD)

[a) translated by Charles Boer (1989)
read by Noah Pikes
Spring Publications, 1994
1 cassette (abridged)]

I haven't actually heard this, but it gets a very bad review on the Amazon.com site. Boer's complete translation is great to read in book from, though.

[b)Tales from Ovid
translated & read by Ted Hughes (1995)
Penguin Audiobooks, 2000
1 CD (abridged)]

I haven't heard this, either (out of print), but Ted Hughes is usually a pretty good reader.

c) translated by Frank Justus Miller (1916)
read by Barry Kraft
Blackstone Audiobooks, 2008
12 CDs (complete)

Kraft has the most grating, mid-western voice imaginable, but at least he's audible and pretty consistent in his range of tones. That's a very important consideration when one's trying to listen to something over the roar of traffic. A very bald prose translation (from the Loeb Classics) is actually an excellent choice for reading aloud - and it is complete.

5 - Beowulf (c. 800 AD)

a) translated by Michael Alexander (1972)
read by David Rintoul (2000)
Penguin Audiobooks, 1997
2 cassettes (complete)

Excellent, informative translation in a spirited reading.

b) translated & read by Seamus Heaney (1998)
Penguin Audiobooks, 2000
3 CDs (abridged)

And yet, I have to admit, that - while he doesn't follow the strict rules of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse (unlike Michael Alexander above), there's a real difference between a poet's rendering of a great poem, and an academic's. Heaney makes a riveting story out of the ancient epic - the hype that surrounded his translation when it first came out certainly seems justified by this masterly reading.

[c) translated by Benedict Flynn (2006)
read by Crawford Logan
Naxos Audiobooks, 2006
3 CDs (complete)]

I hadn't realised that the Penguin Audiobook recording of Michael Alexander's translation is actually complete, or I don't know that I would have bothered with this one as well ...

6 - Dante: The Divine Comedy (c. 1300-1321)

a) translated by Benedict Flynn (1998)
read by Heathcote Williams
Naxos AudioBooks:

  • Inferno (2004)
    4 CDs (complete)

  • Purgatory (1998)
    3 CDs (complete)

  • Paradise (2004)
    4 CDs (complete)

I have nothing but praise for this. I don't really like Heathcote Williams as a poet, but as a reader he's amazing. The choice of a literal prose version was also very wise - rather than mucking around with all the - essentially futile - attempts to naturalise terza rima into English. It's hard to imagine this being bettered, except (for Italian speakers) for this complete version read in the original.

7 - The Thousand and One Nights (c. 800-900 AD)

a) translated by Sir Richard F. Burton (1885)
read by Philip Madoc
Naxos AudioBooks, 1995
3 CDs (abridged)

A poor selection from Burton's immense masterwork. The reading is okay but it's hard to see the logic behind the audiobook as a whole.

b) translated by N. J. Dawood (1954-57)
read by Souad Faress & Raad Rawi
Penguin Audiobooks, 1995
4 cassettes (abridged)

A witty and musical reading -- the stories are well chosen and the whole makes good sense. More, please!

8 - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1400)

a) translated by J. R. R. Tolkien (1975)
read by Terry Jones
HarperCollins, 2007
4 CDs (complete)

A sinuous and complex set of poems, in a bluff, hearty reading by Monty Python's Jones. Again, you owe it to yourself to check this out, especially if you're unfamiliar with the originals - one of the great, thorny masterpieces of medieval poetry.

9 - Milton: Paradise Lost (1667)

a) read by Anton Lesser
Naxos AudioBooks, 2005
9 CDs (complete)

Great stuff. Lesser has a slightly whiney voice, which suits the Prince of Darkness very well. What better way to encounter the greatest epic poem in the English language? A complete Faerie Queene would be nice, too - but so far only selections are available.


by kd said...

Where's Gilgamesh? Just kidding.
Great list!

Interesting comment about The Odyssey being too Ithaca-ky. In CLAS 101 we were repeatedly told the theme of the book is 'nostos' -- homecoming (reclaiming property, killing upstarts, testing slave loyalties etc).

Those interested in a modern treatment of the theme, see here:

Dr Jack Ross said...

No kidding involved. If I could find a nice audiobook version of Gilgamesh, I would sure-as-hell be listening to it in the car ...

Yeah. The fact is, I still take a rather Romantic view of the Odyssey -- I like the adventurous first half best, all the nymphs and monsters and mayhem. And so do other modern readers, given the emphases of the selected audiobook versions. But listening to the Ian McKellen, I began to see how much one misses by taking this approach> The sheer detail of the Ithaka section is more like George Eliot than, say, Hesiod. Or Walking Tall, for that matter (much though I thrill to the Rock's dramatic craft ...)

by kd said...

The Rock ruuulz!!

Here ya go:

+ a musical interpretation complete with a satisfied commuter review:

+ Gilgamesh: A Verse Play, by Yusuf Komunyakaa