The Odyssey Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

The Human Element and Scale of the Odyssey

As Peter Jones remarks in his 1991 introduction to E. V. Rieu's translation of the poem, "The Odyssey—the return of Odysseus from Troy to reclaim his threatened home on Ithaca—is a superb story, rich in character, adventure and incident . . . and making the household, rather than the battlefield, the centre of its world" (p. xi). That, I think, goes a long way toward explaining its perennial appeal, even some 3,000 years after it was written.

That is not to say that the Iliad, Homer's other epic poem, is not also a superb story: just a different kind of story. If Homer's works were operas, the Iliad would be something out of Wagner: rather heavy, highly formalized, and full of deep meaning—along with some really great singing and special effects. The Odyssey, on the other hand, would be something like Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro: it has a definite moral message, but that message is conveyed through humorous means, on a human scale, with plenty of mistaken identities and other plot twists—and again, some really great singing and special effects. Or, to put it in somewhat more modern terms, the Iliad is more like Cecil B. DeMille's treatment of The Ten Commandments, while the Odyssey has a bit more in common with George Lucas's Star Wars films.

Jones also suggests (p. xxxii) that Homer has adapted Odysseus's adventures in Books 9-12 from the myths surrounding Jason and the voyage of the Argo (which were themselves made into a short epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes in the third century BC). While there are certainly characters in Homer that also appear in those myths (chiefly the parents of the Homeric heroes, but Circe is also the sister of the king who proves so troublesome to Jason and his companions), and certain of the episodes do bear a resemblance to those attributed to the company of the Argo, it seems to me that "adapted" is perhaps too strong a word: and it must be emphasized that Homer would have had excellent reasons for including such material in the first place, if that is what he did.

To begin with, heroism is usually set against the background of a great war or major battle. Having already used that setting in the Iliad, Homer must now turn to the other traditional setting for heroes and heroism, the long and difficult journey: there was simply no other "vocabulary" for heroic behavior available for him to use.

Related to that problem is one of what we might call "credentials." Tradition had it that Odysseus's father was one of those who sailed with Jason on the Argo: enough to establish Odysseus as a potential hero, but not to prove him a hero in his own right. (The same sort of thing happens to Telemachus in the Odyssey: merely being the son of his father is enough to put him in line to inherit Odysseus's estates and authority, but if he is going to hold on to that inheritance, he must earn the respect of others and demonstrate his ability and fitness to succeed his illustrious father.)

Given that Odysseus was much more skilled at stratagems, ambushes, and tactics than at simple hack-and-bash fighting (at least given the way Homer depicted him in the Iliad), the best way to establish Odysseus's "credentials" as a hero would be for him to do the same sorts of things his father Laertes had done in his younger days, as those are the sorts of things that heroes do when they are not "lucky" enough to have a war in which to prove their merits.

Unlike the Iliad, the Odyssey is concerned more with the individual than the group, and with individuals who are much more down-to-earth than those we find in the earlier poem. Most of us will never be a Hector, keeping an invading force at bay all by ourselves, or an Achilles, single-handedly responsible for the continued success of our comrades-in-arms. But we might measure up to a Penelope, a Telemachus, or even an Odysseus, at least in spirit and understanding: there may not have been enchantresses, magic potions, and interfering gods to contend with, but at least until the middle of the 20th century there were still new places and new peoples to discover and to explore, much as Odysseus did on his wanderings. Our eyes are now beginning to turn outward into the reaches of space, but the spirit of Odysseus is no less comfortable there than it was here on earth: it can scarcely have been by accident that the command module of the ill-fated Apollo XIII mission was christened the Odyssey.

As Jasper Griffin points out in his discussion of the "after-life" of the Odyssey (1987,...

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Overview of the Odyssey

The Odyssey is the second work of Western literature (the Iliad is the first). The ancient world agreed almost unanimously that both epics were the work of Homer. The Odyssey—the return of Odysseus from Troy to reclaim his threatened home on Ithaca—is a superb story, rich in character, adventure and incident, reconciling reality with fantasy, the heroic with the humble, the intimate with the divine, and making the household, rather than the battlefield, the centre of its world.

What stands out . . . is the brilliant ingenuity with which Homer has engineered situations in which accounts of Odysseus' adventures and of developments on Ithaca in his absence can be plausibly given—not merely the great flashback of [Books] 9-12, but a host of smaller, highly significant, moments. And the more one thinks about it, the more difficult it becomes to envisage an Odyssey which did follow a purely temporal sequence. . . . Consider an Odyssey which started in [Book] 1 with Odysseus leaving Troy. First, the adventures which the poet has put into Odysseus' mouth as a flashback in [Books] 9-12 would have to be narrated as a third-person narrative. ('First Odysseus went to X and then he went to Y', etc.) Consequently they would lose much of their excitement as a personal reminiscence, and of their significance as an extended exercise in heroic self-revelation. Second, once the hero had returned, it would be impossible to give the intensive treatment to Penelope, Telemachus, the suitors and the effect of Odysseus' prolonged absence on the household that the poet achieves in his chosen version. One would not know what the hero was returning to, and why his return was so urgently needed. We would lose the rich and subtle characterization of, and interaction between, the people in Ithaca to which he returns. . . .

Seen in this light, Homer's decision to target the epic on the moment of Odysseus' return is a master-stroke. Far from losing perspective on the previous twenty years, the reader is endowed with a far sharper and more telling focus on it, because the events of the intervening years are selected by, and told through the mouths of, the characters themselves. What those twenty years mean to them is of far greater significance to the plot than simply 'what happened during Odysseus' absence'.

This rich interaction of past and present is one of the great glories of the Odyssey, and is an important component of the narrative's power and pathos. . . . The past [gives] the key to the present, as it does so often in the Odyssey. In an epic of return and recognition, how could it not? When Argus recognizes Odysseus, we go back to Odysseus' hunting days (17.291-317); when Eurycleia does, we go back to his naming...

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Homer: The Odyssey

The conception of starting the poem with Odysseus offstage for the first four books was a bold one. Not only did it involve technical difficulties in handling and uniting two strands of narrative, it also risked the first appearance of the hero being an anticlimax. In the first four books Odysseus is constantly mentioned: he is in everyone's thoughts. On Ithaca life has been in a kind of limbo for twenty years, with no public assemblies since Odysseus left. Old Nestor, a well-informed man, thinks constantly of Odysseus but has not set eyes on him for ten years. A long journey brings us to Sparta, where Menelaus tells us that long ago and far away he was told by a god that Odysseus was held on an...

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