Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Odyssey

The Odyssey
© 1884 trans. George Herbert Palmer, original author Homer
313 pages


Three years ago I read The Illiad, and intended to follow it shortly with The Odyssey. Like Odysseus, however, my own attention was blown of course. This is course a classic, second only to the aforementioned Homeric poem in terms of hallowedness. Virtually everyone knows the story;  a veteran of the war against Troy, the architect of its defeat, attempts to return home, only for a quick jaunt across the Aegean into a ten-year journey, full of monsters and the ill will of the gods. An early escape from the monster cyclops Polyphemus earns our hero Odysseus and his crew the enduring wrath of Poseidon, who throws every obstacle he can at them. Fortunately the clever hero is much-loved of Athena, goddess of craft, and she offers able assistance to both the hero and his young son.They'll need it, because while the master of the house is lost at sea, his manor is filled with suitors who want his wife Penelope to wed them. Literally eating him out of house and home, they intend to kill young Telemachus and force Penelope to wed.

I know the Odyssey as Odysseus' story, but his perilous adventures only occupy a fifth of the book. Instead the tale opens with the gods considering his plight, and Athena embarking on a mission to inspire young Telemachus to go searching for news of his father.  A third of the way in, the focus switches to Odysseus, who -- captive by a goddess who wants him to bed her --  makes his escape with a little help from his divine friends. After washing up on one island and massacring its inhabitants without so much as a cross word exchanged between them,  he is driven into the sea and finds refuge among an island of friendly folk who urge him to tell his story. Enter the cyclopes and the rest.  The book by and large consists of a great deal of dialogue, of people making speeches and delivering flourished stories to one another; Odysseus himself seems to use a different name, and invents a different backstory, every time he makes land.  Even after he's home safely, he spins a yarn for his father, seemingly for the pleasure of saying "Just kidding, it's me!"

Although the speeches and such aren't exactly scintillating reading, the language makes up for that a touch;  the Odyssey began as a oral tale, we know, and the expressive language and use of repetition bear that out. Athena is ever the grey-eyed, Odysseus lordly, the dawn rosy-fingered. (In one stance it is also fair-haired.)  The amount of names,  people and place, dropped here is staggering, putting even The Illiad to shame. I'm glad to have finally read the Odyssey, considering its place in western literature, and enjoyed much of it, but I think I have to count The Iliad my favorite of the two.


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