Other Literary Forms

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Homer is noted as the author of two magnificent works: the Iliad and the Odyssey.

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Homer’s position at the headwaters of Western literature has assured him an unparalleled influence. Writers from antiquity through the twentieth century are in his debt, and, as the principal repository of Greek legend, his work is an important source of knowledge about the classical world. Homeric epic in particular presents a complete world of remote time and space, offering the full range of human experiences, integrated into one complex social and ideological nexus.

While modern readers have nothing at stake in this remote past in and of itself, those who became the “things of song” as well as those who were “the singers of tales” are their ancestors, culturally if not biologically. One of the functions of Homeric epic was to set in motion “for the future” the singing itself. The dimensions of the Iliad and the Odyssey are respectively 15,693 and 12,110 metrical lines; Greek text consists of 115,477 and 87,765 words. It was the genius of Homer to create such an ancestral literary heritage.

Discussion Topics

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What are the advantages of a storyteller, such as Homer, beginning in medias res? Are there any disadvantages to such a beginning?

Is the Iliad a glorification of war?

Does the emphasis on moira corroborate common human presuppositions today as well as in Homer’s time?

Might the state of Ithaca when Odysseus returns reflect an awareness of the decline of the former Mycenaean world?

To what extent does Odysseus succumb to the many temptations in his path?

In their concentration on young Telemachus, do the first four books of the Odyssey amount to the first bildungsroman in Western literature?

In what respect is Penelope a fitting wife for Odysseus?


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Further Reading:

Alden, Maureen J. Homer Beside Himself: Para-Narratives in the “Iliad.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Advises students and others new to the Iliad on how to read, understand, and absorb the poetry, and then offers an analysis.

Brann, Eva. Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad.”. Philadelphia: Paul Dry, 2002. A close and witty exploration of the experience of reading Homer.

Carlisle, Miriam, and Olga Levaniouk, eds. Nine Essays on Homer. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. This collection of essays offers insight into Homer’s themes and style.

Clarke, Howard. The Art of the “Odyssey.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. General introduction to the Odyssey, with a chapter comparing the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Dalby, Andrew. “The Iliad, the Odyssey, and Their Audiences.” The Classical Quarterly, n.s. 45, no. 2 (1995): 269-279. Contends the society that appears in Homer’s epics is built on the perceptions of the poorest and least powerful Greeks of that time. The power, actions, and possessions of the heroes are enlarged because this is the most satisfactory means by which to depict the life of the rich in a literature that is in essence a popular discourse.

Dalby, Andrew. Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic. Norton, 2006. Dalby speculates that Homer was a woman. Speculation aside, this is an excellent introduction to the history and historicity of the Trojan War and its companion epics.

De Jong, Irene J. F., ed. Homer: Critical Assessments. New York: Routledge, 1999. Thoughtful critical interpretations of Homer’s works.

Foley, John Miles. “Signs, Texts, and Oral Tradition.” Journal of Folklore Research 33 (January-April, 1996): 21-29. Discusses an episode in the Odyssey as a species of oral traditional communication; argues that only when we put aside our culturally constructed, unexamined notions of “signs” and “reading” can we grasp the richness of Homer’s poems, which effectively lie between performance and text.

Ford, Andrew Laughlin. Homer: The Poetry of the Past. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Focuses on the moment in Western literature when the Greek oral tradition began to be preserved in writing. An inquiry into the function of ancient poetics without exhaustive scholarship making it accessible to the informed general reader.

Friis Johansen, K. The “Iliad” in Early Greek Art. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1967. While discussing and detailing a complete representation of epic themes in archaic art (before 475 b.c.e.), Friis Johansen provides a comprehensive catalog (pp. 244-280) of all that pertains to the Iliad, in a work unmatched for comparable materials in English.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Pengiun, 2003. Fagles’s verse translation is accompanied by a long and detailed introduction by Bernard Knox. Includes glossary and textual notes.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998. Poetic translation includes introduction by D. S. Carne-Ross and bibliographical references.

Kim, Jinyo. The Pity of Achilles: Oral Style and the Unity of the “Iliad.” Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. An argument for the unity of the Iliad that surveys recent scholarship. Bibliography.

Kirk, G. S. The Songs of Homer. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962. The standard introduction to the Homeric poems, focusing on their language and composition. Illustrated.

Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. This edition offers a new introduction and a CD-ROM containing audiovisual material from research in the Balkans by Milman Parry, who recorded and studied a live tradition of oral narrative poetry in order to find how Homer had composed his two monumental epic poems. Lord’s book, based on Parry’s research, intends to demonstrate the process by which oral poets compose.

Nagy, Gregory. The Best of the Achaeans. Rev. ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Sophisticated and stimulating analysis of the hero in Greek civilization and how the language of Greek epic defines his role.

Powell, Barry B. Homer. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. A concise introduction by a professor of classics writing with students in mind. Considers the Homeric question by reference to recent scholarship. Good bibliography.

Richardson, Scott. “Truth in the Tales of the Odyssey.” Mnemosyne 49 (September, 1996): 393-402. Discusses the difficulties involved in determining the truth value of long narratives told by characters in the Odyssey; a number of tales told by characters cannot be authenticated because the main narrator does not include these episodes in his own narrative; explains how the idea of an “ideal narrative audience,” one that believes all the incidents related as factual, can be helpful in dealing with falsehoods in the Odyssey.

Schein, Seth. The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s “Iliad.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. An introduction to a literary interpretation of the Iliad. Explores questions of mortality, the gods, and heroism in detail. Excellent references.

Snodgrass, Anthony. Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Economic and social history of the age in which the epics were composed, based on the archaeological evidence. Well illustrated.

Scodel, Ruth. “Bardic Performance and Oral Tradition in Homer.” American Journal of Philology 119 (Summer, 1998): 171-194. Claims that the care with which Homer presents bardic performance as uncontaminated and free, even while he reveals the forces that would realistically limit its freedom.

Wace, Alan J. B., and Frank H. Stubbings, eds. A Companion to Homer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962. Essays on language, transmission of the text, and especially the archaeological evidence pertaining to the Homeric poems, by authorities in each field. Slightly dated but still authoritative. Illustrated, with many references.

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