Homer: Odyssey

November 21, 2022

Odyssey
Homer
Translated from the Greek by Robert Fitzgerald
(FS&G, 1998) [c.800 BC]
515 p.

…godlike in counsel,
he that in twenty years had borne such blows
in his deep heart, breaking through ranks in war
and waves on the bitter sea.
(Bk 13)

***

Theories about the authorship of the Homeric poems abound: they were the work of a solitary genius, or they were created by countless bards in a generation-spanning oral tradition, or they were adapted from an oral tradition by a solitary genius, and so on. But if you were to tell me that the (however construed) author of the Odyssey had nothing whatever to do with the author of the Iliad, I would believe you. From the first page of this poem, the world of the Iliad — the world of hard war, of bruised honour, of brandished spears and bristling helmets, of bellicosity and belligerence — all of that is gone, vanished like a dream, and we find ourselves in a domestic sphere, where slaves are wiping down tables, a fire crackles in the hearth, and a boy sits, daydreaming, when a mysterious stranger arrives at the door. The scale is intimate, and good manners are paramount. We are breathing new air.

Of course, all is not well. The home is troubled by ruffians who circle the lady of the house like wolves, and a great sorrow, a quiet, aching pain, sits stubbornly in the hearts of Penelope and her son, Telemachos, for Odysseus, the lord of the house, is absent, and may be dead. Nobody knows.

In my imagination the Odyssey survived, since I first read it many years ago, as the tale of one man, a sleek, stripped down story (especially compared to the enormous ensemble cast of the Iliad) that flew like an arrow from Troy to Ithaca, with the lion’s share of the story devoted to accounts of the numerous hardships he endured along the way. This, I am surprised to find, was actually quite wrong. The tale, as told, isn’t like a flying arrow at all, but instead like a tangled web of yarn, told us in a non-linear fashion that starts in the middle, and folds back on itself through flashbacks. Even the famous adventures of Odysseus — the cyclopes, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the bag of wind, the sacred cows, the cannibals, and so on — are confined to just four (of 24) books.

The poem is really a family drama, with Penelope and Telemachos getting a significant share of the page-time. Indeed, although we hear briefly about Odysseus at the poem’s opening, and in particular about his longing to return home —

But such desire is in him
merely to see the hearthsmoke leading upward
from his own island, that he longs to die.

— we do not actually see him until Book 5, at which time the poet strikes the same note, stressing for us his desperate desire to return to Ithaca. He has been seven years on Calypso’s island, having no means of escape, and he sits on the shore, looking out:

in his stone seat to seaward — tear on tear
brimming his eyes.

This, then, is one of the leading emotional elements of the poem: homesickness. When a man is unable to go home, his heart is out of joint, and so too his family suffers, and his whole household. And what prevents him going home is not just outlandish danger, not just the wine-dark sea, not just the wrath of Poseidon, but also Odysseus’ own heart, frail against temptation. Again and again we see him beset by seductresses: the Sirens, Circe, Calypso, even, maybe, the youthful Nausikaa. Sometimes he resists successfully, sometimes he is overcome. But, always, too, his fundamental desire to see again his wife and child reasserts itself.

We know that he does eventually get home, with the help of Athena. (And I will note in passing that here, too, in the realm of the gods, the Odyssey is a much more intimate affair than was the Iliad. Athena is Odysseus’ special patroness, and Poseidon is, or becomes, his nemesis, but beyond that the gods play a limited role in the poem. The clamouring crowd of gods that so befuddled me before is silent now, and so much the better.) In the poem’s second half we see how Odysseus conducts himself upon returning home, adopting a disguise and plotting against the confounded suitors who befoul his house with their antics and their vices. And, of course, the plotting finally leads to a bloodbath in which Odysseus and Telemachos together avenge these wrongs. It is all superbly carried off. Homer winks our way when he has the suitors struggle to prepare the bow that will, we know, soon kill them. And when Odysseus, still in disguise, provokes general astonishment by stringing the bow himself, Homer gives us one of his most striking similies, comparing the bow to a lyre and Odysseus to the musician:

like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
(Bk 21)

He begins to play upon it immediately, as the poem erupts in violence and cleansing wrath. Homer again uses a memorable image to convey the aftermath:

In blood and dust
he saw that crowd all fallen, many and many slain.
Think of a catch that fishermen haul in to a halfmoon bay
in a fine-meshed net from the white-caps of the sea:
how all are poured out on the sand, in throes for the salt sea,
twitching their cold lives away in Helios’ fiery air:
so lay the suitors heaped on one another.
(Bk 22)

Let me not be one to take joy in such carnage — and the poet, too, counsels us that “To glory over slain men is no piety.” (Bk 22) — but it would be fruitless to deny that I derived a certain satisfaction from this rough justice.

And justice it is. A central preoccupation of the poem is that there is a set of virtues proper to hosts and guests, and in such virtues the suitors are shamelessly derelict. Over and over the poem shows us contrasting examples of good hosts and bad, of good guests and bad.

Telemachos, in search of news about his father, comes to the houses of Menelaus and Nestor, and, before they know his identity, he is treated with all the honour and deference rightly due a guest. Calypso seems to be a good host, but then keeps Odysseus hostage for years. Circe seems to be a bad host, but then offers him essential aid. Odysseus finds a bad host in Polyphemus (who wants to eat him), and then himself becomes a bad guest (by injuring his host). Odysseus even protests against the cyclops’ incivility, linking it to a lack of respect for the gods:

‘We would entreat you, great Sir, have a care
for the gods’ courtesy; Zeus will avenge
the unoffending guest.’

But Polyphemus gives a belligerent reply:

‘You are a ninny,
or else you come from the other end of nowhere,
telling me, mind the gods! We Kyklopes
care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus
or all the gods in bliss; we have more force by far.’

It is a matter of more than just manners, therefore. And when Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he finds a gentle and generous host in the wonderful swineherd Eumaios, who, again, not knowing his identity, treats him right. When Odysseus, in disguise, encounters first Telemachos, and then Penelope, they are distinguished by their kindness to him, in sharpest contrast to the taunts and insults hurled by the doomed suitors. The treatment of strangers reveals character.

*

For all that the story is arranged like a puzzle, it is nonetheless, when we straighten it out, the story of a homecoming. This, I think, is part of what endears it to me so strongly, for I am inordinately fond of stories in which someone returns home, or is reunited with family after an absence. It is this quality that makes the Biblical story of Joseph so affecting for me, and it is this that brings a tear to my eye in the story of the Prodigal Son. So, too, here.

As in the story of Joseph, the reunion in the Odyssey happens in an asymmetric way: one party knows it is happening, and the other does not. Odysseus adopts, at Athena’s behest, the guise of an old, itinerant codger, and he encounters both Telemachos and Penelope without their being aware of his identity. This part of the tale calls for virtues of patience and self-control that are quite unlike those Odysseus needed during his tumultuous journey home. Upon arrival, Athena counsels him:

Patience, iron patience, you must show;
so give it out to neither man nor woman
that you are back from wandering. Be silent
under all injuries, even blows from men.
(Bk 13)

I was moved most, however, by the three occasions on which his self-control fails him. Unless I am mistaken, he weeps three times: on first revealing his true identity to his son, to his wife, and to his father. These last two occur in the poem’s denouement following the slaughter of the suitors.

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms, longed for
as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
(Bk 23)

Pass the handkerchief.

I learned through background reading that the Greeks had a whole set of homecoming epics about the aftermath of the Trojan War, of which the Odyssey was just one. There was a poem about Agememnon’s return home and his murder by Clytemnestra (which would have made a great contrasting double-bill with this poem), another about Ajax’s drowning on his return journey, and yet another about the sojourn of Menealus and Helen in Egypt on their return home. All lost. Don’t put that handkerchief away just yet.

*

The bloody house cleaning finishes up in Book 22, and I’d like to reflect a moment on the two books which follow. The triumph of Odysseus over his challengers feels like the climax of the story in many ways, so what are the final two books doing?

I should first note that there is, I am told, a scholarly dispute about whether these last two books were part of the poem originally (whatever “originally” may mean in the context of an oral tradition). We need not let this detain us long, since these two books are part of the poem as we have received it, and we’re simply asking what purpose they serve, but I wanted to acknowledge the point.

These two books contain three main things: first, are the reunion scenes, or, maybe better, the revelation scenes, between Odysseus and Penelope, and then between Odysseus and his father, Laertes. I’ve already remarked on how moving I found these scenes, and they are, it seems to me, essential to the emotional arc of the poem. Without them, the homecoming would feel incomplete.

A second element, in Book 24, takes place in Hades. We see the shades of Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ajax, heroes of the Trojan War, conversing as they witness the souls of the slain suitors arriving in the underworld. At first I thought this a very odd addendum, but it does provide Homer an opportunity to sing in fulsome turn the praise of Penelope, the faithful wife. What better way than amid a parade of those unworthy suitors whom she rejected? And the praise comes from the mouth of Agamemnon, who, because of his own (let us say) marital woes has the best cause to admire a good wife:

‘O fortunate Odysseus, master mariner
and soldier, blessed son of old Laertes!
The girl you brought home made a valiant wife!
True to her husband’s honor and her own,
Penelope, Ikarios’ faithful daughter!
The very gods themselves will sing her story
for men on earth — mistress of her own heart, Penelope!’
(Bk 24)

So this, too, though it feels less essential, still fits, and puts an exclamation mark on one of the poem’s central themes.
The third and final piece feints at a return to the violence of the earlier books. The families of the slain suitors descend on Odysseus, Telemachos, and Laertes looking for revenge. But things don’t progress far before Athena interrupts, and, by her godlike power, declares peace. Though it highlights the importance of Athena to Odysseus’ affairs, a constant theme throughout, this nonetheless is, for me, the least satisfying thing about the final book. A dea ex machina is, almost by definition, artistically unsatisfying. That is how my expectations have been trained. It would be very interesting to understand whether and why it was more satisfying to an audience in ancient Greece.

***

When I read the Iliad, I kept myself alive in part by entertaining a rotating door of translators. No such problem here, so I stuck throughout with Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation. It was a happy choice. I have previously read Fagles’ somewhat later version, but I didn’t bother to make side-by-side comparisons.

***

What an encouraging experience this has been! I was so dispirited after reading the Iliad. I was tormented at night by hard questions. Am I a person who hasn’t the wherewithal to appreciate Homer? What does that say about me? Should I abandon this Greek reading project in its infancy? Should I give up reading books altogether? Maybe watch television instead? Maybe lie down on the train tracks at night? Well! The Odyssey turned all that around. I loved it. I’m a Homer man after all.

****

And now the big question arises: basking in the Odyssey‘s afterglow, is it time to pick up that long-languishing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses and read it? Has the time finally come?

Nah.

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