The Odyssey

Status: published

Next up on the list is the Odyssey. This was actually my first time aroundfor this one. It has been a long time coming. This being my first time, I optedfor the more traditional Fagles translation: The Odyssey\"\" Also, while StephenMitchell is planning an edition of the Odyssey, it doesn't have a release dateyet. And the repetition of the Odyssey seems a lot milder than that of theIliad, thus somewhat lessening the effect of Mitchell's approach. Anyway, inroughly the same rambling format of the Iliad entry, onward!

The Odyssey consist of about one third in which Telemachus tries to find outwhat happened to his father, Odysseus, who never made it back from the TrojanWar despite having survived the war which ended about ten years before theopening of the Odyssey, one third in which Odysseus tries to get home, and onethird in which Odysseus is back home and masquerading as a hobo in order tobetter murder all the guys hanging around his house trying to get into hiswife's pants. This provides ample opportunity to discuss the relationshipbetween a host and his guests or a lord and his suppliants. Sometimes thecommentaries are quite overt, "The rights of suppliants are sacred." And it isalso stated that Zeus is the zealous defender of said rights. Other times, thenature of the relationship is merely demonstrated as in the case of the suitorswho hang around eating all of Odysseus' food while he's away. Their deaths atthe hands of Odysseus suggest that greedy guests who overstay their welcome arelikely to get a good stabbing. I had one professor, J- M-, who always insistedthat, combined, the Iliad and Odyssey taught a Greek everything there was toknow about life. Not being an ancient Greek, I can't really say whether or notthese works succeeded; as a modern reader, it seems obvious that the author(s)at least made a damn good try of it. On the other hand, aren't wandering blindpoets often guests of a sort? If so, the Odyssey provides some pretty stronghints that gifts and booze are expected.

Telemachus is quite interesting compared to certain other youngIndo-European heroes. Other heroes, like Sigurd and Cuchulain are described ashaving exceptional features when they are children, such as flowing beards orsuper-human strength. Telemachus is a teenager by this point of the story, justbarely reaching adulthood. But he is unable to deal with the suitors occupyinghis household. He's not a great hero who can hold back dozens of men all byhimself. He cannot even pull back his father's bow. But this is seen as okay.Odysseus, Menelaus, Nestor--still alive but finally taking it easy after 120 ormore years--and others acknowledge that Telemachus is well on the way to beingthe equal of his father. This may seem perfectly natural to the modern reader,but having read other Indo-European epics, I was kind of shocked by thisrealistic concept that even heroes need time to mature and grow into their fullstrength.

Overall, I found the Odyssey to be a much more "modern" work than Iexpected. By that I mean the story was far less repetitive and much moreplot-driven than the Iliad. Further, its story is non-linear in that much of itis told in parallel, switching between Telemachus and Odysseus duringoverlapping time periods. Scholars often tout the Iliad's "revolutionary"method of beginning the story in media res. However, that assertionentirely ignores the fact that the Iliad is just a single story in the largerEpic Cycle, most of which is now lost to us outside of the Iliad and Odyssey.But who knows what counted as a truly revolutionary literary device then? Ourknowledge of Greek oral literature before the Epic Cycle is very limited and weare almost entirely ignorant about its proto-Indo-European precursors. Thepeace-time setting of the story also helps prevents one of the Iliad's majorproblems: introducing characters simply so that they can be murdered. To extentthe suitors present a similar problem but the named suitors are kept to two orthree and they pop up frequently enough that they do have some definitecharacter to them. It may not be a lot, but it is certainly more thanTrojan-dude, son of Trojan-dude, who gets stabbed through the nipple at the endof the paragraph.

I guess that's about it. Surprisingly, I didn't find the Odyssey nearly asthought provoking as the Iliad. But damn if it wasn't way more fun, and theIliad was pretty fun in itself.