Odyssey is undoubtedly the most popular epic of Western culture. Its chief character, Odysseus, or Ulysses, inspired more literary works than any other legendary hero. From Homer to James Joyce, Nikos Kazantzakis, and after, Odysseus has been a central figure in European literature, and one who has undergone many sea changes. Odyssey has the ingredients of a perennial best seller: pathos, sexuality, violence; a strong, resourceful hero with a firm purpose braving many dangers and hardships to accomplish it; a romantic account of exploits in strange places; a more or less realistic approach to characterization; a soundly constructed plot; and an author with a gift for description. It is, in fact, one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.
Of the poet, or poets, who wrote the poem there is only conjecture. Tradition says that Homer lived in Chios or Smyrna in Ionia, a part of Asia Minor, and it is probable that he, or whoever composed this epic, did so late in the eighth century b.c.e. Odyssey was originally sung or recited, as is evident from its style and content, and it was based on legend, folk tale, and free invention, forming part of a minstrel tradition similar to that of the Middle Ages.
The style of the poem is visual, explanatory, repetitive, and stately. Like Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), the work uses extended similes and repeated epithets, phrases, and sentences. Homer, whoever he was, wanted his audience to visualize and understand everything that happened. He grasped the principles of rhetoric, and he composed in a plain, direct fashion that possesses great eloquence and dignity.
Homer also mastered certain crucial problems of organization. When the audience knows the story that is going to be told, as Homer’s did, it becomes necessary to introduce diversions from the main action, to delay the climax as long as possible. In this manner the leisurely development of the plot stirs anticipation and gives the climactic scene redoubled force. However, the intervening action must have interest on its own and must have a bearing on the main action. Odyssey shows remarkable ability on all of these counts.
If the subject of Iliad is the wrath of Achilles during the Trojan War, the subject of Odyssey is the homecoming of Odysseus ten years after the Trojan War ends. The immediate action of the poem takes place in no more than a few weeks, dramatizing the very end of Odysseus’s wanderings and his restoration of order at home. Homer allows Odysseus to narrate his earlier adventures, from the sack of Troy to his confinement on Calypso’s island, which extends the magnitude of the poem. Moreover, through Nestor and Menelaus, Homer places Odysseus’s homecoming into the wider context of the returns of all the major heroes from Troy, most of which were disastrous. Thus the epic has a sweeping scope condensed into a very brief span of time.
The Telemachy (the first four books dealing with the travels and education of Telemachus) sets the stage for Odysseus’s return. The gods make the arrangements, and then the audience is shown the terrible situation in Odysseus’s palace, where the suitors are devouring Odysseus’s substance, bullying his son, and growing impatient with Penelope. They intend to kill Odysseus if he should ever return, and they arrange an ambush to kill Telemachus. Their radical abuse of hospitality is contrasted with the excellent relations between guest and host when Telemachus goes to visit Nestor and then Menelaus. In an epic whose theme is travel, the auxiliary theme must be the nature of hospitality. In Odysseus’s journeys, his best host is Alcinoüs and his worst is the savage Cyclops.
At first Telemachus is a disheartened young man trying to be hospitable in a house where it is impossible. Then Athena, as Mentes, puts pluck into him with the idea that his long-lost father is alive and detained. Telemachus calls an assembly to state his grievances and then undertakes a hazardous trip to learn of his father. He plainly has the makings of a hero, and he proves himself his father’s true son when he helps slay the rapacious suitors, after displaying some tact and cunning of his own.
Odysseus is the model of the worldly, well-traveled, persevering man who overcomes obstacles. He has courage, stamina, and power, but his real strength lies in his brain, which is shrewd, quick-witted, diplomatic, and resourceful. He is also eloquent and persuasive. He needs all of these qualities to survive and make his way home. His mettle is tested at every turn, either by dangers or temptations to remain in a place. Calypso even offers him immortality, but he is steadfast in his desire to return home. Athena may intercede for him with Zeus and aid and advise him, yet the will to return and the valor in doing so are those of Odysseus alone. The one thing Odysseus finds truly unbearable in his travels was stasis, being stranded for seven years, even though he has an amorous nymph for company.
However, a good deal of the tale is taken up with Odysseus’s preparations, once he arrives at Ithaca, for killing the suitors. The point is that the suitors are the most formidable enemy Odysseus encounters, since they number well over a hundred and only he and Telemachus are there to face them. It is here that his strategic and tactical cunning is truly needed; the previous wanderings were merely a long prologue to this climactic exploit. Coming after nine chapters in which nothing much happens, the killing of the suitors and their henchmen and maids is stunning in its exulting, deliberate violence. The house of Odysseus is at last purged of its predators, and the emotions of the audience are restored to an equilibrium.