Aug 15, 2016

Reading the Classics: The Odyssey by Homer


I finally finished reading The Odyssey, and I loved it. I picked the Fitzgerald translation because I had heard good things about it, but this particular edition doesn't have an introduction or any notes included, so if you're new to the Greeks, another edition might help provide more context. That said, I don't think you need to read a bunch of analyses to enjoy Odysseus' adventures. (That's Ulysses to those that prefer the Latin name). 

If Iliad is an Ancient Greek action movie, The Odyssey is an adventure flick. It's surprisingly captivating, especially the first half that tells of Odysseus' journey home. I might not be entirely unbiased in this, because I grew up with these stories; I had an edition that retold the story for children, and I also loved "Tales of Sinbad the Sailor" from One Thousand and One Nights, which were influenced by Homer's works. The Lotus Eaters and the Cyclops feel quite familiar, for instance.

I didn't love the part in Ithaca as much. Does anybody else think that massacring the suitors, even those begging for mercy, and the women of the household who had slept with them was a bit overkill? The rules of hospitality (and the suitors' abusing of them) is explored a lot in the book, so maybe that's why? And the constant testing of Telemachus, Penelope, and even Laertes, his father? I get that Odysseus is a cautious man, but that just seems cruel. Okay, testing is also a major theme, as you can see even from the cover of the book. That's Odysseus' bow, the one that none of the suitors are strong enough to string and shoot, and in the end Odysseus, in disguise, strings it and shoots the arrow through the hoops as indicated, then goes on a rampage, unleashing his fury on the suitors. So the story is also about vengeance. But is this justice, or only revenge? 

Telemachus almost manages to string the bow after a few tries, but desists after Odysseus gives him a warning look. Does this mean that even if Odysseus hadn't come home, Telemachus could have thrown the suitors out eventually? Maybe he wasn't there yet, but would have been, soon? The idea that this proves that he'll never be the man his father is feels quite depressing. 

Loyalty is another important theme. Penelope is the main example, but there's also the old swineherd  Eumaeus. The bit about Penelope feels unsettling, because I get the feeling Odysseus would kill her without remorse if she didn't pass the tests. And there's also the old double standard at work here. For women, sleeping around is a deadly offence, while Odysseus jumps in the sack with practically any nymph/temptress he happens to come across on his journey home and doesn't even feel bad about it.  

That said, the storytelling is surprisingly modern: a lot of the story is told in flashbacks. The description is vibrant and full of detail, and you can practically see what's happening. I also liked the way Agamemnon's story is used to mirror Odysseus'. Agamemnon fought in the Trojan War just like Odysseus, but when he came home he was murdered by his deceitful wife Clytemnestra and her lover. So a dark mirror, then. 

All in all, a fantastic read. Even if you think you know all about The Odyssey from pop culture references, it's very different to actually read it. 

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