25 April 2018
The Odyssey is the epic that lives it life through ages, has been read over many time, digging its way into our hearts, becoming an instant classic. Odysseus and the adventures of his homecoming create a much different tale than Homer’s other work, the lliad, provided. The epic is not about bloodthirsty men trying to get their hands on kleos anymore; it is about the homecoming of a man who uses his wits, not his weapon. The Odyssey is not only a great romantic, adventure epic, but it’s terribly realistic in its depiction of human nature and a brilliantly crafted narrative. Today we could learn from how Homer lays out his plot and plays the characters off against each other for maximum reader involvement. Of course, it was composed almost three thousand years ago and our sensibilities have changed rather drastically in those centuries. Which mean the Odyssey texture does not go down as smooth as the modern story. The key to understand this story is that you have to work a bit at putting yourself in the ancient mindset and understanding it, especially when your copy of The Odyssey is translated as poetry. Once you make that effort, you will start to find it coming easier and easier, and it will eventually end up not so ancient or foreign at all. It eventually sucks you right into the tale. Which is more than you can say about many “classics” of more recent vintage to wit, James Joyce’s so-called modern masterpiece, Ulysses, which supposedly follows Homer’s outline. Homer is way ahead of his time in the indirect route he takes in telling the story. The standard approach to an epic is to start in medias res in the thick of the story, as the same author does with the Iliad. But instead of setting off with Odysseus (also translated as Ulysses) at the fall of Troy, picking up from the end of the Iliad, and following the character’s ten-year journey home from the war, here Homer starts near the end of the story. We’re shown the state of Odysseus’s home and family, with suitors for his wife Penelope despoiling his estate. His son Telemachus is sent by the gods to find his father, and has several adventures of his own over the first four chapters. (It’s thought by some scholars the Telemachus story was once a separate work that was later joined with the Odysseus tale, while others think Homer intentionally used this diversion to build up anticipation and show the roles of the gods in the story to come.) Telemachus finally learns his father has been kept captive on an island by the nymph Calypso. Then the narrative switches to Odysseus. With the help and hindrance of various gods, he escapes from the island, is almost drowned and is washed up in another land where he stays anonymously. Eventually he reveals his identity and he starts—in what’s designated as the ninth chapter of The Odyssey—recounting all that happened to him since the Trojan War to bring him to this point. Here we get the adventures we’ve all heard before: visiting the land of the Lotus-Eaters, fighting the Cyclops, escaping the cannibals, descending into Hades, outsmarting Circe who turned his crew to swine, evading the Sirens who lure sailors to their death, passing between the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, being captured by Calypso…. Told over four action-packed chapters, this brings us up to present. The rest of the tale concerns the homecoming of Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, and his bloody revenge on the interlopers. Plus, a little extra excitement at the end as a civil war erupts before the gods can impose a peace. It’s all exciting stuff. But significant too in how it depicts a hero. Odysseus is not just an honest, just, god-fearing action hero. He’s crafty, a trickster. At times his morality is repugnant to a modern audience. He displays the vengeful anger and self-righteousness that you also find in Old Testament gods and prophets, mixed with promiscuity, greed, and single-minded self-interest—and tenderness, especially in regard to his wife and son. It’s a complex mix but it works. Much more interesting than the more completely self-righteous characters of the Iliad.
Another nice thing about this tale, in contrast with the Iliad, is that the gods are relatively laid-back. Apart from Athene, who gives Odysseus a hand now and then, most of them are not constantly interfering. They leave the mortals to work out their problems in their own bloody and lovable ways.
One thing that may put you off is Homer’s use of certain stock phrases. The water is always “the wine-dark sea”, daybreak is always “rosy-fingered dawn”, and certain characters always arrive with the same adjectives before their names. Not all translations retain this repetition, but if you do find it, bear in mind that these stories were meant to be recited or performed from memory rather than read, and the repetitions helped to fix certain images and characters in both the storyteller’s and the audience’s memories.
Try reading it aloud to yourself and, at least with some translations, you may discover how much more understandable and enjoyable it is.