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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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David Elliott
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Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King - Duncan Steen

I listened to this thanks to SYNC YA's free audiobook program. (If you're not downloading these books this summer, you need to!)


I had never read Sophocles's Oedipus the King before, so this audio version was a fun introduction to this iconic story. Michael Sheen's narration was fiercely intelligent, and quite moving in parts, and the supporting cast was excellent, too.


Production. The recording itself is from 2000, and like some older audiobooks I've listened to, there were occasional quality issues--a new voice would sound like it was coming out of a tube before it finally "settled"--and there were pretty serious variations in volume. (Whispering could hardly be heard at any volume on the device.)


Translation. At times the translation soared, balancing perfectly between accessible, modern language and nearly Shakespearean eloquence, and then occasionally there were absolute dud cliches inserted for no reason. I didn't mark them down, but these hack expressions were on the level of "trapped like a rat."   


Plot. As a young man, Oedipus (the prince of Corinth, son of Polybus and Merope) receives a prophecy that he'll kill his father and marry his mother. He decides to leave Corinth and never see his parents again. On the road to Thebes, he encounters a band of men who jostle him in passing. He gets into an altercation with them and kills all but one. Before he reaches Thebes, he comes upon a sphinx that has been tormenting the city by asking travelers a riddle and killing them if they get it wrong. ("What animal travels on two legs, on three legs and on four legs, but is weakest when it's on four legs?") Oedipus answers correctly, the sphinx kills herself, and the city is saved. They welcome him as their hero and crown him king. He marries the late king's wife, Jacosta, they have four children and reign happily for fifteen years. 


A plague and drought settle on Thebes, and when the city is at its worst, Oedipus sends a messenger to the oracle to ask for help. The answer comes back, "Bring justice to the old king's killer, and the plague will be lifted." Oedipus, outraged that the king was killed and his murderer never brought to justice, pushes hard to re-ignite the evidence trail. He goes on a tirade about how the man who did it must be executed or exiled, never to have any civil interactions again. An old man, a seer, begs him not to ask him who killed the king. They have a giant verbal battle, with Oedipus insulting him and blaming him for being in cahoots with his brother-in-law, Creon. The blind man foresees that Oedipus will be blinded by his anger and shame. A former servant was a witness to the king's murder, but has retired to the countryside--exiled himself from town--to tend sheep. We all realized way before Oedipus does that he himself is the killer. Even his wife begs him not to investigate further, not to call in the shepherd. (She loves him, and her language indicates she'd rather live in denial.) She also tells him that prophecies can be wrong, because she and the late king received one saying their son would murder his father and marry his mother, and the old king had a bolt pierced through the baby's heels to bind him, and threw him down a mountainside to die. That prophecy couldn't have been fulfilled, she reasons, because the baby died. Of course it turns out a shepherd rescued the baby, and gave him to the childless king and queen in Corinth, who raised him as if he were their blood. And oops, Oedipus has stigmata on his feet.


The queen hangs herself, and Oedipus uses the two brooches on the shoulders of her gown to put his eyes out. He is allowed to visit with his daughters one last time before he is exiled, to live alone in torment.


Now versus then. I was struck by the similarities to modern times and modern narratives in such an ancient text--the passion, the love, the loyalties, the superstitions--and also by the differences, which were mostly cultural. For instance, the murder of a multiple people on a road for no reason other than "they jostled me" is glossed over, unimportant! That's not the reason Oedipus is being punished--there's no grave injustice in that act. And yet oaths are of supreme importance, and sacred, so that Oedipus's oath that the killer will be publicly reviled must be honored. In our contemporary culture, lying is tolerated, and people break vows all the time, whereas murder is unacceptable except in cases of self-defense. Jacosta's suicide is barely acknowledged as a loss, while the fact of a son and mother having sex (and children) together is the most repulsive sin imaginable, even though it was done unknowingly, accidentally.


The gods. Another cultural difference seems to be the acceptance of the fickle nature of the gods. Why is Oedipus chosen as the poor sap who will suffer this particularly horrifying series of events? Is seeking advice from the oracle in the first place the act that's being punished? Is punishment arbitrary? Is the victim unimportant, and the whole point is the lesson of the last lines? (I'm not a Greek scholar, and I suspect these questions have been answered by others.)


The last lines. I love the slightly macabre theme that a man is not happy until he's dead. Until the moment he takes his last breath, there's always that possibility that his life will be upended and ruined. It's a strong commentary on how little we control our lives, how privilege, peace, and health are temporary, and could be snatched away at any time.