Classic Review: The Odyssey by Homer

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Book Reviews
Odyssey by Homer
Homer's Odyssey is a testament to the power of story.

For 2012, I thought that I’d spend the year devoting myself to books that involve, or, in some way, invoke the idea of traveling.  These will range from Baum’s The Wizard of Oz to Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.  But to start such a voyage of discovery, what better starting place than Homer’s Odyssey?

Joseph Campbell, the great myth scholar, described the hero’s story as departure – adventure – return. Of course, when the hero returns home, he or she is different because of the adventure, and he/she returns home anew. Homer’s narrative of Odysseus’ return home to Ithaca was so famous in the ancient world that the work’s title, Odyssey, has become a noun meaning “journey,” especially a long journey.

Homer’s Odyssey is the only surviving poem from a cycle of poems called the Nostoi (“the Returns”), which told of the returns home of the various Greek heroes at Troy. The archaeological record, as well as what passed for the historical record of the late Bronze Age, shows that following a great conflict at Troy, the great palace complexes and urban centers of Greece soon collapsed, plunging Greece into a Dark Age. 

In other words, the heroes left a stable world, but their absence for a decade of war so weakened society on the home front that their world completely collapsed. The Homeric heroes all returned to a home quite different from the place they left. And so, Homer and his other bardic fellows reflect the idea that these returns to a world on the brink of collapse was just as important as the great Trojan War. And Odysseus’ return is particularly engaging – for he had been away the longest. Following a ten-year stint at Troy, Odysseus took another ten years to get home. 

What sets Odysseus apart from the other heroes, though, is that he is both a doer of deeds and a speaker of words, the two arenas for excellence for Homeric man.It is not just brute force, but also intelligence, that brings Greece victory in the Trojan War, and it is Odysseus’ efforts at planning and covert intelligence gathering that prove crucial to that victory.

In addition, Homer, as outside narrator, tells part of the story, but Odysseus tells a lot of his own story – Odyssey ix-xii is the first extended first-person narrative in Western literature. Not only does he tell his own story in these books, but, at various other points, he tells different “personal” stories, when posing as a trader or beggar. Odysseus, alone of the Homeric heroes, is a master storyteller.

To the people of Homer’s time, the storyteller/bard was something akin to a magician – he (no evidence of female storytellers at the time exists) could recreate the past and was the only source, in an oral society, of that past.  He also could imagine and craft worlds and sights no one has seen (Odysseus’ visit to the Underworld, for instance). Inspired by the Muses, the storyteller could cast a spell. Homer’s contemporary, the poet Hesiod, tells of the Muses appearing to him while he was a shepherd. The Muses (daughters of Zeus and the divine spirit of artistic creation) say the following to Hesiod about their abilities to inspire stories: “we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things” (Hesiod, Theogony ll. 27-28, trans. Hugh Evelyn-White). In other words, the Muses tell the facts and the fanciful – but always skillfully.

The Magic of Story

Whenever I teach the Odyssey, I tell my students that I see the work as a poem showcasing the magic of story. Consider: in the first four books of the epic, Odysseus is conspicuous by his absence (he doesn’t appear until Book v). What we get are stories about Odysseus and the returning heroes, stories that highlight the unlikelihood of his return (told in Book i by a singer at Odysseus’ palace to some undesirable guests); that highlight the difficulties sent to many of the Greeks for failure in worship (told by old Nestor in Book iii); and that highlight Odysseus’ cleverness and sangfroid (told by Menelaus and Helen in Book iv). 

So before we meet Odysseus himself, we get stories others tell about him. In the banquet in his honor at the Phaeacians (Book viii) a singer tells of the adulterous love affair of Ares, the war god, and Aphrodite, the love goddess, and of the tricky way her husband, Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, caught them, and he sings of the Trojan Horse and how Odysseus’ stratagems to take Troy, illustrating the teller’s range from fancy to fact. 

We get Odysseus’ own story about himself (Books ix-xii), and we get other stories Odysseus tells, when posing as a trader and later as a beggar. And when Odysseus visits the spirits of the Underworld, it is stories about the living that the ghosts seem to hunger for most. 

Why all this focus on stories? Well, it’s what Homer does. In many ways, the Odyssey is Homer’s portfolio, a defense and a demonstration of the art of telling stories.  For all of human existence, at least since humans gained language, stories have been a part of our world and they affect our perception of the world around us. We know so little through direct experience; what little we do know is often affected by the stories we’ve heard, or read, or seen. There is the magic of our first kiss, but a lot of that magic is the anticipation we’ve built up from all the stories in our lives.

When we reflect on our experience, we compose that experience in narrative form, and with that encapsulation, the experience itself has morphed into something else. As humans, we can’t help telling stories; we do it all the time. But Homer encourages his audience to something more – when you tell stories, tell them well, make them entertaining, touch your audience; Homer does that so well, as does his main character here, Odysseus, the “man of many twists and turns.”

When he was just a teenager, John Keats spent an afternoon with a teacher reading Homer’s Odyssey in the translation by George Chapman (Keats could not read Greek).  Writing about the experience later in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Keats noted that he “felt like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.” 

In other words, we should be blown away by our experience of story, and in Homer’s Odyssey we are.   

Translations

There are dozens of translations of the Odyssey; I would recommend the following:  If you’re interested in a full John Keatsian experience (minus the early death due to tuberculosis), read George Chapman’s translation. If you want a more contemporary translation, the best is probably Robert FitzGerald’s translation. Other good translations are that of Allen Mandelbaum, Robert Fagles, and Stanley Lombardo. George Herbert Palmer is probably the best of the prose translations. 

Of course, reading Homer is rewarding, but Homer couldn’t read, nor could his contemporaries, so to really experience Homer, listen to an audiobook of the Odyssey.  The best of these (if you can find it) is Derek Jacobi’s reading of Mandelbaum’s translation; Ian McKellen does a good job with Fagles’ translation; Stanley Lombardo does a good job with his own translation (Note: Lombardo is a Classics professor at KU and sometimes does public readings in the area). Finally, George Guidall does a good job with Palmer’s translation. Unfortunately there is no audio version of FitzGerald’s translation, nor is there one of Chapman’s? Any volunteers to correct this oversight?

Come back here every month for more in Bernie’s series of reviews of classic books with a travel theme.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

Comments:

The Role of Storytellers in Ancient Greece

I like your emphasis on Odysseus as a storyteller. I've always been fascinated by the strangely contradictory nature of the opinion that Ancient Greece had towards storytellers. On the one hand, skillful storytellers were held in very high regard - as you say, being a "speaker of words" is one arena of excellence. However, they also had a certain distrust of people who used words. After all, words are how people lie to each other, something you can't do through actions.

One of my Classics professors once asked an interesting question. In ancient and classical literature, when a character in a story is a storyteller, they're usually depicted as being blind. This has some basis in reality, as blind people in the ancient world couldn't easily make a living using their hands and had to use their words instead (this changed, of course, with the advent of written storytelling). So imagine that you're sitting in your hall, having finished dinner, and now the blind poet is singing a story for you and your friends. He describes the great white walls of Ilium and you wonder, "He's blind - how can be possibly know what the great white walls of Ilium look like?" In a very literal sense, the storyteller is lying to you.

So what does it mean that Odysseus is a storyteller who can see?

In "The Iliad", Odysseus isn't always portrayed as a sympathetic or admirable character; other heroes of the war don't always like the way he manipulates situations by talking. They fundamentally distrust so much speech. And according to Greek myth, Odysseus is descended from a legendary thief - not the best recommendation for his character! He's described as crafty as often as heroic - and this is a warrior culture where crafty isn't seen as a virtue. But then again, he is a hero, too, and the Trojan Horse is his idea. He won the war. Even in "The Odyssey" he's not always shown to be a good man and he isn't necessarily the most trustworthy. The nature of Odysseus' character poses one of the most enduring sets of contradictions in the history of Western literature.

Taken all together, I've always found it quite intriguing that Homer takes this character - skillful, heroic, intelligent, a great storyteller - and at the same time deceitful, manipulative, crafty, and untrustworthy - to be a symbol of the art that Homer himself practiced.

Reply to John Keogh

Thanks for the rather extensive response. One thing about Odysseus in the "Iliad" that I'd comment on. He has two big scenes, in Book II, he manages to keep the Greek army from running away when Agamemnon tells them, "Boys, we can't win the war, let's go home!" Apparently he meant this as a test, and the whole army, except for Odysseus, lost their heads, and he managed to get all the leaders to get their troops in line. Later in Book II, he pummels the only working class guy in the "Iliad," a soldier named Thersites, much to the enjoyment of the troops, who find Thersites a pest. The other big scene is the Embassy to Achilles in Book IX, where he delivers Agamemnon's peace offering to Achilles. At the end of Agamemnon's speech to Achilles, the Lord Marshall told Odysseus to remind Agamemnon that he has to comply because Agamemnon is the big cheese. Odysseus, in reporting the peace terms to Achilles, delivers Agamemnon's speech verbatim, but he leaves out the threats, showing him to be quite the excellent diplomat.

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