I didn't know a lot about The Odyssey going in to it. I knew it was the story of Odysseus from the time he leaves the Trojan War to the time he arrives home in Ithaca, and I knew about some of the monsters and goddesses he ran into on his journey, but that was about it. Because of this, I was expecting a story filled with action, daring feats, horrible danger, and crafty escapes. While all those things were there, I was surprised at how much of the book takes place in a domestic setting, focusing on things like food, clothes, bedding, and talking. Homer seems to linger over the details of the places that Odysseus visits, giving beautiful detail to the feasting and sacrifices, the fruitfulness of the lords' gardens, the women's talent in weaving, the color of the wine, the comfort of the beds, the beauty of the gold dinnerware, and the hospitality of his hosts. This was probably my biggest surprise while reading The Odyssey, but it also turned out to be my favorite part of the book. The descriptions of these domestic pleasures are all so loving and so beautiful that the reader feels a true love for the comforts of home and understands exactly why Odysseus wants so badly to get back to Ithaca. I wanted nothing more than for Odysseus to get back to Ithaca and experience the joy of being at home again. The care and love that Homer put into those descriptions made even everyday things seem truly lovely, and that warm loving glow was by far my favorite part of the book.
Another thing that surprised me about The Odyssey was how much of the story is given to us after the fact, told by Odysseus to his hosts. I thought this was an interesting device, because it puts the reader in the same place as Odysseus's host. We know who he is, but we're waiting for him to tell us what happened to him. Once we get caught up on the action and Odysseus makes the last leg of his journey and arrives in Ithaca, we see even more of his storytelling skills. He goes into disguise, and makes up stories about who he is and where he's from to many people before he kills the suitors and reveals his identity. These stories seem to be a way of fleshing out Odysseus's character. The fact that he can make up these stories on the spot shows that he is smart and cunning. The way he varies the length of his stories and the details he includes depending on who he's talking to shows how he feels about these people. The degrees to which people believe him and the way they react to his stories serves as a means for character development for them as well. I think the different kinds of stories and storytelling that happen in The Odyssey are incredibly interesting, and I intend to pay closer attention to them next time I read it.
One of my favorite little things about The Odyssey was the emphasis on hospitality and generosity to strangers and travelers. I knew that hospitality was an important part of early Greek culture, but I was constantly struck by the difference between the reception that Odysseus gets and the way we treat strangers in our society. When Odysseus came to a place, he was bathed, given a cloak to wear if he didn't have one, brought to the table, and fed like a member of the family. All this happened before they ever asked him his name or where he was from. When they knew his name and heard his story, they gave him gifts and treasures and helped him to get home. He was always given a warm bed to sleep in and more than enough food to eat, and was treated with respect. I know that this is just a story, but I still found it to be incredibly refreshing. I wish that our society would focus a little more on hospitality and generosity like they do in The Odyssey.
I've heard many people complain that they found The Odyssey boring, with dry descriptions and long stretches where nothing happens. It may just be that I read a better translation than other people (my boyfriend, who has often picked The Odyssey as his favorite book, recommends the Fitzgerald, and I agree) but I didn't have any of these problems. I found the pacing to be very good, with most sections moving on to other sections in a timely and satisfying manner. The ending, when Odysseus and Penelope are finally reunited, is absolute perfection, and I would not have changed a single word of it. The descriptions are vivid, colorful, and utterly lovely in every way. Though I was intimidated by classical literature and afraid of being bored, within the first few chapters The Odyssey had completely won me over. I am glad that I finally read this thoroughly lovely and enjoyable book.
Rating: 5 stars
Recommendations: Beautiful descriptions, interesting plot, iconic characters. Highly recommended. Contains some violence.