Coming in for coffee, Odysseus?

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Some rewrites of Homer take rather more liberties than others, but all testify to the enduring power of myths, writes John Mole. THE ADVENTURES OF ODYSSEUS Retold by Neil Philip Illustrated by Peter Malone Orion Pounds 12.99.

THE ILiAD and THE ODYSSEY Retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams Walker Pounds 9.99. ODYSSEUS SUPER HERO By Tony Robinson and Richard Curtis. Illustrated by Chris Smedley Hodder Pounds 3.99.

ODYSSEUS GOES THROUGH HELL By Tony Robinson and Richard Curtis. Illustrated by Chris Smedley Hodder Pounds 3.99. THESEUS, MONSTER-KILLER By Tony Robinson and Richard Curtis. Illustrated by Chris Smedley Hodder Pounds 3.99. MIND THE DOOR!

By Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore. Illustrated by Tony Ross Hamish Hamilton Pounds 6.99

Great stories deserve, and can survive, any amount of repetition and reworking. Every generation will, of course, cast them in a prevailing mode according to literary fashion and social climate. This is particularly so with the world of heroic action. Pope's "Iliad", for example, marches ahead to the rational beat of its elegant couplets, the sententious sonority of Tennyson's "Ulysses" is pure Victoriana, and Christopher Logue's Homeric versions - with their imagery drawn from contemporary warfare and their dramatic emphasis on the opportunism and cunning of men and gods alike - while closest to the spirit of the original are very much of our time.

When it comes to versions for children, anything now goes. There will always be parents and teachers anxious about trivialising our heritage, but others will seize any opportunity to ensure the great names and adventures are known by the next generation. Both should welcome Neil Philip's The Adventures of Odysseus. Philip, like Kevin Crossley-Holland and the late Leon Garfield, is particularly skilful at capturing the essence of a complex narrative and reworking it without oversimplification.On this occasion, he has achieved a compact, exciting version of The Odyssey concentrating many of its most memorable incidents into short, vivid paragraphs.

He resists the temptation to compete with Homer's extended similes even where their bloodthirstiness might be expected to appeal. For example, the blinding of Polyphemus is achieved with a twist of the stake "to and fro to drill it home. The eye bubbled and hissed with a sound like a smith tempering iron in cold water". That is splendid, and enough. He is also good at building tension in a short space. Homer has the advantage of lengthy delay, so at the climax when Odysseus strings the bow with which he will finally reveal his strength and identity, the original - taking its time - describes the lovely sound the string makes in answer, like a swallow's note. Philip, while keeping the musical analogy, omits the dramatically ironic lyricism, replacing it with explicit threat as the string "twanged beneath his fingers with a low, pure, menacing sound". This is artistry, and the ominous pulse of his clear prose is here, as throughout, beautifully judged. So, too, are Peter Malone's decorative colour plates.

Those familiar with Marcia Williams's comic-strip versions of Don Quixote,Robin Hood and others will know what to expect from her retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Each frame jokily complements the straight narrative printed beneath it. So, for example, when Odysseus and his companions arrive at Circe's island the bare-bones caption tells us that "for two days and two nights they lay exhausted on the beach" while the picture shows a seagull gazing down on what looks like a crowded stretch of sunbathers and observing, in Raymond Briggs argot, "Bloomin' load of beach bums." This is typical. There's plenty of it and it's quite likely to amuse and even absorb children for a good while. Marcia Williams's full-page picture of the Trojan Horse has a kind of Where's Wally-ish delight in visual minutiae, and at the very least wherever you look all human life is there. "I'm a soldier. This is not my job," complains the soldier fixing a wheel. "Moan on, baby," sympathises his companion.

Tony Robinson and Richard Curtis offer the same kind of fare in the body of their texts (which are accompanied by routinely cartoonish black-and-white illustrations). The two Odysseus books are based on their television series Odysseus - The Greatest Hero of Them All, and, as might be expected, are full of gags. The spirit of Baldrick rules. "'Don't run away,' drooled the Cyclops. 'I like Greek food'." "Odysseus . . . looked at Calypso's beautiful, lonely face. 'OK,' he said. 'I'll just come in for a quick coffee'."

That kind of thing plus a good deal of capitalised CHUNK! BERDANG! and SPLUUUUME! may be just what the teacher ordered for Friday Afternoon Live.

The same goes for Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore's Mind the Door! This is a lively romp which sets the story of the Minotaur (Mr O'Taur, the new musclebound caretaker who also runs a gym club) in the context of school life. There's plenty of horseplay - though less of the Trojan and more of the vaulting variety. A world away from Neil Philip's enterprise, but good fun, and evidence of the enduring power of myths and the uses to which they can be put.

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