The Odyssey

Elsewhere I have posted on why I think you should read the Iliad.  So why do I like the Odyssey? Well, this is a good question.The Odyssey was my first epic and my second complete work of Greek literature (the first being Sophocles’ Antigone). I read it in the summer of 2000, between Grades 11 and 12. I was to be taking Advanced Placement OAC English in my Grade 12 year, and we had a list of books to read over the summer (including The Great Gatsby, The Joy Luck Club, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The translation was that of Robert Fagles, and it is still one of my favourites. Appropriately, I read this rooted, primary voyager’s tale on a road trip from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to St. John, New Brunswick. As we entered Quebec, I remember declaring, “What sort of people dwell here?” and then quoting Odysseus, “What are they—violent, savage, lawless? / or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men?” (Fagles, ll. 195-196)

From the first, the Odyssey gripped me. Sometimes Homer is a little bit slow, but not as often here as in the Iliad. Since then, I have journeyed far with this epic, now possessing four translations as well as the original Greek. I have read it in English three or four times and selections of it in Greek. The Odyssey, after nine years of acquaintance, still has great staying power. The power of this epic in particular to grip the reader is due in large part to the narrative structure but also its plot and the interest of the characters.

The plot of the Odyssey is tight. Homer presciently fulfilled Horace’s plea from the Ars Poetica, nec gemino bellum Troianum orditur ab ouo: The Trojan War is not to be set out from the double egg. Thus, we do not learn the story of Odysseus from his feigned madness before the War. Or, if anyone would admit that as being too early a start, the story does not begin with Odysseus setting sail from the sacking of Troy. Instead, we first meet Odysseus in the final year of his wanderings. But wait—we don’t first meet Odysseus; we first meet Telemachus, son of the great Ithacan king.

Not only does Homer begin in medias res, as Aristotle recommends somewhere, he also demonstrates mastery of delayed gratification. We spend four books (in epics, books are like chapters) with Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, before we even meet our hero. These journeys of Telemachus are called the “Telemachy,” because they are like a mini-epic about this lesser hero. In the Telemachy, we see some more of Homer’s narrative craft as here we learn of the homecomings (or nostoi) of other Greek heroes; we see the aftermath of this long war long years past its ending; we catch a glimpse of “the face that launched a thousand ships” at work at her loom in her home in Sparta.

Furthermore, in the Telemachy we see Homer’s concern spreading more widely in Odysseus’ story specifically. We see the effect of the wanderings of Odysseus upon his wife and son, upon his household, upon his kingdom. This sets the backdrop for the later wanderings—what else has transpired, what Odysseus awaits.

Finally, his entrance delayed long enough, Odysseus strides onto the stage in Book 5. Here we meet a man who longs for home, who longs for the wife and child whom we have already met, who is to be king of the kingdom we have been exposed to. So he must get home! Odysseus begins his journey home, and during a stopover in Scheria, land of the Phaeacians, we finally learn of his adventures.

Here we have the great, glorious tales of magic and myth, of monsters and witches, of gods and the underworld. These are the tales from the Odyssey that grip the imaginations of generations to come the most. Who can forget the cave of the Cyclops? Circe turning sailors into pigs? The cattle of the sun god? Necromancy? Scylla and Charybdis?

Part of the brilliance of the narrative is that these tales are told not by Homer but by an internal narrator—Odysseus gives his account to the Phaeacians himself. We move from third-person narrative to first-person narrative. This adds a vividness and power to the story that drives it on from moment to moment as well as adding poignancy of the narrator himself experiencing these woes. What surprised me most was that these adventures are only about three books worth of story. Homer’s greater concerns lie elsewhere.

And then the narratology calms itself down, because our hero finally gets home. We are halfway through the Odyssey. The rest is spent on dealing with the situation we encountered in Books 1-4: Telemachus, Penelope, and the management of the household. Through various schemings and magical encounters with the goddess Athena, Odysseus basically does something he hasn’t done for 20 years—he takes out the trash (tipping my hat to the Simpsons’ “Homer’s Odyssey”). In this half, we have slyness and cunning, battles and fights, reunions and deceptions. Furthermore, the strong current running through it all of the virtues of home and hearth is reinforced.

This, indeed, is possibly why I prefer the Odyssey to the Iliad. I like the adventures and battles. I enjoy a complex narrative scheme. I am fond of the Telemachy. The Iliad certainly has its share of battles although it lacks the complexity of narrative. However, the Iliad is a war poem. Simone Weil calls it the poem of force, citing force as its main character. The main thrust of the poem is honour, the loss of honour, the gaining of honour; this is honour gained in battle, measured out in “meeds”—the loot be it human (Briseis) or non-human (gold). I am not a warrior (sum amator, non bellator). Thus, the virtues of home and hearth, of husband and wife, of father and son, of maintaining a household, of getting home and staying there, of protecting one’s family, of taking care of one’s comrades—these are the virtues that speak to my soul. These values were summed up on our wedding invitations:

“There is nothing better or finer than when two people of one heart and mind keep house as man and wife.”

Odyssey 6 (EV Rieu)

Why do I like the Odyssey? Because I could never be an Achilles but would hope to be an Odysseus.

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