Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Odyssey by Homer

If you looked over the kinds of books I tend to read and review, you might be surprised to learn that I had never read The Odyssey. To be honest with you, I've always been a little scared by classical literature, so I put off reading this for a long time. But finally I decided to put it on my Classics Club list and tackle the thing once and for all. Now that I'm done, I don't know why I waited for so long to read this wonderful book. The Odyssey is a truly lovely and beautiful poem, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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. 


15 comments:

  1. Eeeee, I want to go back and reread The Odyssey now. I find it more interesting technically, but I can't help it - my heart stays with The Iliad. In any case, Homer, if such a person existed, was amazing. If he didn't exist, then a bunch of people are even more amazing for putting this together.

    On a somewhat unrelated note, this made me wonder if such an extended form of hospitality and personal generosity can exist separate of religion. The Greeks and the pre-Reformation Christians were nice (or supposed to be nice) to people because there was a chance those people were disguised gods. I don't think they were necessarily a nicer or more caring society.

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    1. Yeah, Homer is basically the coolest.

      I like to imagine that cultural standards of generosity, hospitality, and general niceness can exist without religion. Of courses, as an atheist I may have a biased opinion there. I feel like the Greek "anyone could be a god" reason for being hospitable originated because they were all spread out on a bunch of little islands, and travelling was hard, so if people weren't generous they couldn't have made it. They literally depended on each other, and their myths followed that need. I guess now we've lost that hospitality because we don't feel like it's as vital to our survival anymore. Add that to the cult of the individual we have here in America (and most Western capitalist societies) and people are taught that everyone should fend for themselves instead of expecting generosity. It's sad really, because I think everyone would be a lot happier if we could all depend on each other a little more.
      Clearly the answer is that everyone should just read The Odyssey. :D

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  2. This book has scared me for years too! I have it on my shelf next to The Iliad, both untouched. One day....

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  3. Thank you for the encouraging words. I, too, have always been intimidated by Homer. I will have to make a point of picking him up in the near future.

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  4. It's great to hear which translation you preferred. It's been years since I read this one and I was thinking about re-reading it soon.

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  5. Okay, okay, I really should pick this up off my shelf and read it shouldn't I. You make it sound amazing!!

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  6. Since the title of my blog (The Wine-Dark Sea) comes from Homer, you can guess that I adore The Odyssey, though I haven't read it in years. I love The Iliad too; but The Odyssey I love just a little more. I hated it the first time I read it, though. I was in high school and the translation was terrible. I blame that. I read it again in a better translation and fell in love.


    Can I just mention that perhaps my favorite symbol in all of literature is Odysseus and Penelope's bed with its post carved from a living, rooted tree?

    The last time I read The Odyssey I actually listened to the whole thing on an unabridged audio book-- I'm pretty sure it was the Fitzgerald translation. His is my favorite too. Listening to it gives the story a whole different flavor. For one thing, you become much more aware of the fact that it is a poem. But even more you become aware that this is a work that was meant to be heard and not read. I listened to it over a very long commute to and from work and I think the increments were not at all unlike how the Greeks would have heard it over a series of long evenings gathered around the hearth, hanging on every word and waiting eagerly through each day for the next installment. The rhythm of the work, the repetition and the phrasing all have such a different effect when you hear them recited.

    Now I feel a burning need to go read them both again. And perhaps to hunt down audio versions too. (My long ago one was borrowed from the library.)

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  7. This is very off-topic so feel free to remove my comment or destroy it with fire, if that is your wont.

    I just wanted to say thank you for your wonderful comment on Cuttlefish's blog. It was so straight-to-the-point that you deserve not one, but at least two shiny new internets.

    Thank you!

    TR

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    1. Oh wow. Thank you, anonymous person. That really made my day. Feel free to come by and leave off-topic comments on my blog any time. :D

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  8. Hi Emily
    Terence Moodie (Melbourne Australia) here. I just read your comment in Pharyngula (Thunderdome) and I think you absolutely nailed it! What an excellently written argument for the non-existence on any gods, but particularly the dreaded Christian God. Well done!

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    1. Oh, thank you! You just made my day. :)

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  9. I was surprised by how much I loved this book when I first read it, too (especially because I read The Iliad before I did The Odissey, and let's just say that the latter is much better- in my opinion, anyway). Despite the differences in characterization, I found it was not only very easy to read, but also very enjoyable. The conclusion of the poem was fabulous indeed.

    Hospitality is a highly interesting topic in ancient Greek literature, and it's made even clearer how important it is in the Iliad: Hector found the fact that Paris had betrayed his hospitality a lot more insulting than the fact that he had run away with his wife. It's amusing when you think about it, but it's also such a wonderfully revealing detail.

    Great post! :)

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  10. Quick correction: Menelaus was Helen's husband, not Hector. Clearly, I'm in dire need of an extra cup of coffee. :D

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  11. I really dislike the Odyssey's first 4 books. They are really boring with long descriptions about nothing and long epic tales that have absolutely nothing to do with what anyone is talking about and they still listen. I'm just hoping that Odysseus' part isn't like those.

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    1. Yeah, I wasn't a big fan of the Telemachus chapters either. I think it gets better once you get to Odysseus.

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