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The Odyssey

I’ve just read the Odyssey, which means that I have finished reading the first author on my Great Books reading list. In some ways the Odyssey is much more accessible to us modern readers than the Iliad. The basic format, in which the hero journeys from one fantastic encounter to another before finally returning home, is quite familiar to us from works like Huckleberry Finn, The Hobbit, and thousands of others. Fans of Joseph Campbell will recognize it as a classic “hero’s journey”. The Iliad, on the other hand, is a type of epic that focuses on battles and the deeds and lineages of heroes. This form would have been just as popular in the ancient world, but seems a bit strange to us moderns. Also, in the Iliad, in the words of W.E. Gladstone (1855), “a more antique tone on colouring prevails, as it is demanded by the loftier strain of the action.” Even so, I found that the Iliad was my favorite of the two. This might be due to the translations I used, however: Alexander Pope worked alone to translate the Iliad, but he subcontracted several chapters of the Odyssey, which may have made it harder to make the text flow smoothly.

Odysseus and the Sirens. Gerard de Lairesse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Odysseus and the Sirens. Gerard de Lairesse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Odyssey is still a wonderful story, and very well worth reading. Few authors have ever had Homer’s gift of sketching such vivid characters and locations in only a few lines of poetry. Even after nearly three millennia, these people and places live for the reader. As a writer, I have an almost irresistible urge to borrow from Homer and put my own stories in his universe, and I am hardly alone. Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and a legion of others through the ages read Homer and were inspired to write what our era would call “fan fiction”. Homer is the mother of all expanded universes. Even today a quick scan through Amazon shows hundreds of modern novels, plays, and movies that adapt Homer’s stories. It’s easy to see why. I feel I could take nearly any character from the Odyssey, even bit players who are only mentioned on a few pages, and create a short story, if not a novel, about them.

This is gratifying, since my main motivation to read the Great Books is to improve my writing. I can only hope that the other 146 authors give me so many ideas.

Odysseus Yearns for Ithaca.  Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Odysseus Yearns for Ithaca. Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Structurally, I found a few surprises about the poem. Most adaptations of the Odyssey focus on the journey itself. Of the twenty-four books in the original, however, the first four follow Odysseus’ son Telemachus and his frustrations with the boorish suitors who have come to woo his mother. Unable to force them to leave, he sets off to the mainland to find news of his father. As characters, Telemachus and his mother, Penelope, are at least as developed as Odysseus himself. The last twelve books occur after Odysseus arrives home in Ithaca, so that only the eight books in the middle deal with his epic journey. Furthermore, I noticed that some of the most fantastic elements of the story, such as the encounter with the cyclops and the incident when Circe turns Odysseus’ men into swine, are actually told by Odysseus himself in the form of flashback dialogue. One wonders if the cunning king was embroidering his stories a bit in order to impress his hosts. Overall, the story structure is much more sophisticated than I would have expected from such an ancient work. It is fabulous to me that his poem, composed (probably) in the 7th century BCE and translated in 18th century English, reads so much like a modern novel, but I suppose that is what makes a Great Book.

See also: You may be interested in an essay I wrote several years ago about the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? and its relationship to the Odyssey and Campbellian meta-mythology, or another essay I wrote about Constantine Cavafy’s poem Ithaka.