The Odyssey Essays and Criticism
by Homer

The Odyssey book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Odyssey Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Human Element and Scale of the Odyssey

(Epics for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 4,774 words.)