Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1802
Homer was the beneficiary of earlier, disparate stories, some mythical, some legendary, and some doubtless historical. Like William Shakespeare so many centuries later, although in an oral medium rather than a written one, Homer combined, rearranged, and shaped with artistic purpose these earlier narrative materials. The writing down of Homeric epic must be nearly contemporary with the advent of the Greek alphabetic script within the eighth century b.c.e., for the vocabulary retains hints of letters subsequently discarded, and the earliest inscriptions on pottery include fragments of catalectic dactylic hexameter—the heroic scansion.
The Iliad remains the first of Western war stories and the Odyssey, the greatest of adventures. Each, for all its episodic variety, is a unity. The Iliad begins with the indignant wrath of Achilles which affects the last events before the walls of Troy and ends with the replacement of wrath by a personal humanity shown to the grieving Priam, King of Troy. The Odyssey develops the adventures of Odysseus (already praised for his ingenuity in the Iliad), who left his wife and home in Ithaca twenty years before to bring Helen back from Troy, until he triumphantly returns to Ithaca and his wife, the faithful Penelope—the moral obverse of Helen. In the creation of these unities, Homer utilized a number of techniques which later poets (and prose writers) would adopt. Among these are: the announcement of an anticipated action which is then suspensefully delayed; the invocation to the muse (with which each poem begins); the beginning of the action in medias res; the consequent use of flashbacks; and telling repetition by epithet and formulas, catalogue, and the epic simile.
The simplicity and directness of Homer’s vignettes have produced some immortal images for subsequent Western artists—literary, pictorial, and plastic. Among these are the parting of Hector and Andromache with the child Astynax frightened by the horse-haired helmet of his father, the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles, Priam’s visit to Achilles, the Greek leaders going to the tent of the sullen Achilles (used by Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida, 1601-1602, and through Shakespeare by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in “Ulysses”), and even the Telemachia, the sequence of episodes which makes up the first four books of the Odyssey. These episodes and characters remind the reader that they and the rest of the poem are both poetry and educational lesson. For the Greeks and Westerners who succeeded them, Homer is both “poet” and “educator”; some have gone so far as to seek lessons in every aspect of the poems, and they piously created them when they were not to be found. This moralizing bent has often led to rampant allegorizing. It is one thing to claim, in however a reductionist spirit, the Iliad as a textbook for governors and the Odyssey as a guide to household economy, but quite another to find anagogical and tropological meaning in verses singularly free from such designed levels of significance. Such, however, has been part of the interpretive history of these epics.
Those not understanding the wholeness of each poem have found inconsistencies and contradictions; book 10 of the Iliad (the Doloneia) and book 11 of the Odyssey (the summoning of the disembodied personalities in Hades) looked like interpolations. Yet in large the poems are most carefully structured, for the oral nature of their composition obviously did not preclude subtle balancing and contrasting.
The Iliad begins with the wrath of Achilles at the injustice done to him by Agamemnon and ends with the clemency of Achilles, who returns to Priam the body of Trojan Hector slain and dishonored by Achillean wrath. In between, the reader is shown the effects of Achilles’ withdrawal from the fight before the walls of Troy. Books 2 to 9 present the preparation for battle, the triumph of Diomedes, an only slightly less powerful Achilles, and the setback of the Greeks, whose leaders in book 9 come in an embassy to Achilles, who still refuses to fight, although in his refusal there are signs of hope.
Book 10, sometimes viewed as an interlude, involves the slaying of the Trojan spy, Dolon, and the capture by Diomedes and Odysseus of Trojan horses. Books 11 to 22 show more fighting, which brings about the wounding of the leading Greeks, Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Odysseus; the breaching of the Greek wall by Hector, a temporary Greek rally; a return to Trojan advantage; the pivotal decision by Achilles (book 16) to allow Patroclus to wear Achilles’ own armor in order to save the Greek cause; the subsequent triumph of Patroclus over Zeus’s own son, Sarpedon; Patroclus’s death at the hands of Hector; the fight for the body of Patroclus; the grief of Achilles for the death of his friend; the creation of new arms for Achilles, including the richly designed shield; the reconciliation of Achilles with Agamemnon and the public presentation of the compensatory gifts to Achilles by Agamemnon; the arming of Achilles; his destruction of many Trojans, but not Aeneas, who is rescued that he may live and eventually rule over the surviving Trojans; and Achilles’ great fight with the River Scamander, the battle amongst the gods, somewhat of a comic relief before the climactic fight between Achilles and Hector and the dishonoring of Hector’s body.
Book 23 provides the funeral of Patroclus and the funeral games, which offer a lessening of tension and further revelation of the characters of the Greek heroes. Achilles is still the dominant figure, but one almost purged of his wrath. In book 24 Achilles suppresses his need of vengeance and grants Priam the body of Hector, well aware of the imminence of his own death. The poem ends with the Trojans mourning the death of their bulwark and champion. The Iliad is the first of Western books, and its characters, themes, and structure have provided more than two millennia of subsequent narrative artists with materials for their own poetry and prose. None of them, however, with good reason, has matched the Iliad‘s presentation of the glory and limitations of perfected martial honor.
The Odyssey is a more varied work than the Iliad, even as its eponymous protagonist, the man of many wiles, is a far more multifaceted character than Achilles. Not only is Odysseus (Ulysses) more complex but also his enemies are of different kinds, not only men and gods but also sorceresses and giants. The fact that Odysseus overcomes monsters and women alters the tone of this poem, but as in the Iliad, the author can rely on his audience’s knowing most of the background of the events in his work, a knowledge that increases the pleasure derived from the heightened expectation. The suspense begins with books 1-4, which are devoted to the difficulties of Penelope, Telemachus, and Ithaca in general as they suffer the degradations and plots of the suitors. Only the return of Odysseus himself can save matters. Telemachus goes in search of information regarding his father’s whereabouts. The largely domestic considerations of the opening lay the groundwork of the plot and promise the return of the hero. In addition, there is an element of the fantastic, an important aspect of the entire poem, in the story of Proteus, the old man of the sea who is tricked by Menelaus into telling of Odysseus. Books 5-12 are framed by two magical women, the nymph Calypso, who, after saving Odysseus from shipwreck and loving him for eight years on her hidden island, only reluctantly and at the command of the gods releases him; and Circe, initially a powerful but evil witch who is overcome by Odysseus and, after loving the hero for a year, releases him with a helpful warning of future dangers.
In between, the plot includes the contrast of life among the aesthetically attractive Phaeacians and the adventure with the monster cannibal Polyphemus who, blinded, is tricked by Odysseus at nearly the cost of his own life. In addition there is the haunting episode (book 11) of the descent into Hades. The fantastic adventures, dangers, and magical devices (the plant moly given to Odysseus by Hermes to protect him against the charm of Circe) are perhaps the best-known aspects of the Odyssey (well-known also in their domesticated modernizations to readers of James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1922). These adventures are told by Odysseus himself (to the King and Queen of the Phaeacians) while functioning as narrative retrospect, and they remind the audience also of the important role of the “singer of tales” within the dramatic nature of narrative poetry.
Book 13 brings Odysseus back to Ithaca (by magic ship) and again within the protective care of Athena. In this and the following books, he learns of events in his beleaguered home, is disguised (as a beggar), and begins a series of discrete revelations and recognition scenes. These occur first with his son (book 16); then most touchingly with his old dog Argos (book 17); then with his ancient nurse Euryclea, who recognizes his boar-scar (book 19); then with his swineherd Eumaeus (book 21); after the slaying of the suitors, with his wife Penelope, who recognizes his unique knowledge of the structure of their marriage bed (book 23); and finally by means of his scar, with his father Laertes. Book 24 brings “this Odyssey” to its rightful conclusion with harmony reestablished by Athena.
The ferocity of Odysseus’s revenge upon the suitors serves to remind the audience of the ethics of a far earlier culture, even as modern readers marvel at the skillful narrative devices and the remarkable aesthetic compression of long-term physical action. No summary or analysis of this most intricately woven of ancient poems—woven of the threads of myth, fairy tale, legend, and geographical fact—can convey its delight or indicate the fascination of its protagonist, a hero who is a complete man, son, husband, and father.
How an epic poet is of influence upon other narrative writers using shorter forms and sometimes, indeed in the twentieth century, almost always, prose, remains an open question. The days of verse narrative seem to have ended with the death of John Masefield. Yet all narrators who have read Homer are themselves open to the force of the dramatic nature of the narrative; the diversity of his episodes; the unity of total design; the consistency and contrasting nature of his characters; the relative simplicity of his syntax and the clarity of his similes (even the celebrated extended or “Homeric” similes, which, if not equal to the Miltonic simile in homologation, are easily as memorable); the concentration of action into a few days out of very many; the devices of flashback and foreshadowing; the effect of augmentation and iteration by catalog and epithet; and, finally, the choice of themes of love, war, and personal integrity, however these terms are defined today. Homer is, after all, the first—perhaps the greatest—of Western storytellers.
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