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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers


Dear B.R.

I have yet a confession of delay to make. First, a delay in London, then a visit of some people to Plymouth; then another business trip to London: then a crash of a Flying Boat, followed by its Court of Enquiry and an Inquest: and tomorrow a detachment to near Southampton for ten days to test a new fast motor boat for the R.A.F.

The upshot of all this is no more Odyssey. I am still working on Book XXI and it will be the end of April before I finish, if all goes well after this ten days. I am sorry again.

I have your Bible sheets always in the workshop office, on public view, and I call them superb. So undemonstratively superb, too. Till they are familiar one does not see how wholly good they are. At first glance one just says 'Bible, of course: good one, too'.

Yes, I know the Butcher and Lang view of the axes trial. All other scholars have followed them, more or less. I have found copper axe-heads with openings in them like that. Nobody could have shot through one of them at twenty yards, much less 12: and if he did, the merit would have lain with the placer of the axes, and not with the archer. Whereas the text shows that they were not put up with plumb-line and spirit-level. Only stamped firmly into a trench scratched by Telemachus into the earth floor of the hall. And Telemachus had not set out axes before. They must have been in only a rough line.

If the axes were about 4 feet long, and 6 inches be taken off for what was put into the ground, then a 5 foot 6 inch man standing 20 yards off could easily shoot through an alley of them: no difficulty of angle of trajectory would arise: and the spectators sitting at their tables could see the arrow pass through:

Whereas with your suggestion of shooting through the ears of 12 axes so: it would require a slow-motion cinema to prove that his arrow passed so and no higher: and the trajectory and angle-of-stance would both complicate the point.

I suspect we make too much of the shooting test. Nobody seems to have been struck with astonishment at it. Stringing the bow seems to have been the more difficult job.

'Through' leaves the problem open. I should prefer it, therefore.

Personally, as archaeologist and archer, I like my own notion of two rows of axes, six-a-side: and nothing else fits all the Greek and yet remains a possible feat. I admit that possibility is not what the public prefer. They feed poor Elisha by ravens, rather than by Arabs, which the text could equally read: only I feel that the Odyssey should, so far as possible, make sense. If you leave standing my 'alley of bilge-blocks' and the words 'through' as now amended, then both parties are served: which is a good compromise. 

Homer can't have meant only axe-heads - to shoot through the handle-holes: for then he would not have plainly called the bilge-blocks of oak. Besides bilge-blocks are man-high, nearly: and always in pairs.

There wasn't a platform to shoot from: only off the bench on the floor: and most ancient archers with these short bows shot kneeling. It would not be a standing-man's height. I think a 4-foot axe-handle would be ample: and most battle axes are 4½ to 5 feet tall. 

These re-curved bows (I was handling one yesterday) are most cunning things built up of sinew and birch bark and wood and horn. Relaxed they are an oval about 30 inches by 18: strung they are 4½ to 5 feet long. One strings them usually half-sitting, putting the one end between the thighs and pulling on the other horn, while pressing down the centre-grip. When it is bent right out and over the other side one slips the string up the blade and notches it.

As for the pun, by all means soften it. They are out of our fashion. Only put a comma after 'destroy'. The Greek does not use the word destroy nor suggest destruction. I only looked for an English word with the syllable 'troy' in it. Read 'An ill-season took Odysseus in his hollow ship to destroy or des-troy - or desTroy (comma) that cursed place I will not name.'; it's not to destroy-the-place: but to a place called destroy: or 'no-troy' perhaps.

Palmer translated Odyssamenos (the pun-word) as 'odious'. I think there is no other English word which preserves even the shadow of a pun. The Greek word means grieved, angered, disgusted, peeved. Odious is not very close: it refers to the other men and women, and not to Autolycus; he was fed up with them, not they with him: at least he thought so. I have no doubt the disgust was mutual, myself: and so odious is rather good. But it does stretch things. Palmer says 'since I come hither odious to many men and women . . . therefore Odysseus be his name.' I should have said - 'let his name be Odysseus, for their odiousness'. Or better still 'for the odiousness' or 'in odiousness'. (this is really pretty good).

In great haste.


Source: DG 711-712  
Checked: dn/  
Last revised: 1 February 2006  



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