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
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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...
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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 island by a nymph, without a ship. From that tremendous climax of remoteness the hero must somehow return.
The decision that the Odyssey should be set ten years after the fall of Troy—the figure strongly recalling the ten years of war at Troy which have elapsed before the Iliad—meant that most of Odysseus' adventures would have to be told retrospectively. It would be highly anti-climactic to narrate all that after the killing of the Suitors and the dissipating of tension, so a place needed to be found where the stories could be unpacked at leisure. . . .
The Phaeacians provide the setting for the tales. They are men, but remote from ordinary...
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