I’ve had a bind-up of The Iliad and The Odyssey on my currently-reading shelf for over a year, and I’ve finally reached the end of the book! I’ve recently set a goal for myself to complete bookish projects that I started oh so many moons ago, and the first objective is to clear off the books that’ve been hanging around on my currently-reading shelf for months. My focus for February was crossing Homer off of that list.
About the book: After ten years of fighting in the Trojan War, Odysseus sails for home along with the rest of the Argives. But in his journey, he angers Poseidon, who dooms Odysseus to ten years of hardship at sea while his family suffers in Ithaca, unsure whether he is alive or dead. Finally Athena decides it is time to help redirect his course, and in the last stretch of his travels Odysseus describes the troubles he’s encountered at sea. Ithaca faces its own troubles as a mass of “suitors” attempt to squander Odysseus’s estate in his absence, eliminate his son, and marry his wife.
“I have traveled much, and have had much to do with heroes, but I have never seen such another man as Odysseus.”
I’ve read long excerpts from The Odyssey both in high school and college, but I didn’t know how very much of The Odyssey I’d already read until I managed it cover to cover this month. I recognized at least 16 of the 24 chapters of this volume from my previous readings.
But through the familiar and the unfamiliar, I struggled far less with this book than I did with The Iliad. Since I’ve already complained about my dislike of this translation in my review of The Iliad, I won’t go into all of that again here. I’ll say only that the translator of my edition, Samuel Butler (whose introductions to these epic poems are dated in the 1890s), used a very literal translation style that transformed Homer’s epic poems into rather flat English prose.
Fortunately, despite Butler’s style, I found The Odyssey much more readable. There is far less repetition in this story than The Iliad, and fewer lists of names and lineages that hold little interest for the casual reader. Battle scenes are brief and contained, and further the plot of this book. Though The Iliad seems to me the more accomplished and perhaps more memorable of these ancient texts, The Odyssey was far more fun and engaging to read.
Odysseus is known as a very wise man who can trick others easily. For this reason, a plot centered around Odysseus makes for a story full of puzzles and deceit. He must scheme his way past the obstacles that the gods set before him. This is a rather episodic journey, but we spend much more time with these main characters than with those of The Iliad simply because there are fewer of import. But as in The Iliad, we still witness the gods’ manipulations in the lives of the mortals; stories from mythology (The Odyssey included) balance gods so well, in some cases using them to explain what many today would probably consider acts of fate or science (weather, illness, personal strengths and weaknesses) but also presenting them as characters with physical presence. Of course, mythologies are interesting not only because of the stories they tell on the surface, but for the glimpse into historical cultures that they afford. Though we may harbor different beliefs today, there is still a timeless human connection in these ancient stories that can be found in the artist’s efforts to moralize and explain.
“Men live but for a little season; if they are hard, and deal hardly, people wish them ill so long as they are alive, and speak contemptuously of them when they are dead, but he that is righteous and deals righteously, the people tell of his praise among all lands, and many shall call him blessed.”
It was also interesting for me to read The Odyssey after picking up Circe, The Iliad, and The Silence of the Girls all within the last year. I love classic retellings, but the first step to appreciating them is to familiarize oneself with the original text. I made myself finish The Iliad before picking up Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, but I did let myself read Miller’s Circe before completing The Odyssey. She doesn’t see much page-time in The Odyssey, so I was glad to have Miller’s exploration of her character in mind as I went through that part of the classic. With The Iliad behind me also, I was more aware of the character and plot references related to the Trojan War that crop up in The Odyssey than I had been while reading stand-alone excerpts in the past. And after reading The Silence of the Girls, I was more aware of the women in this story, few though they are, and could more easily see the unspoken hardships that they faced.
“She screams aloud and flings her arms about him as he lies gasping for breath and dying, but her enemies beat her from behind about the back and shoulders, and carry her off into slavery, to a life of labor and sorrow, and the beauty fades from her cheeks.”
I think the order in which I read these related books improved my experience with The Odyssey, though they certainly aren’t mandatory prerequisites.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this story has survived so long, and will continue to do so. I’ll definitely want to reread both The Iliad and The Odyssey in other translations that are at least more reminiscent of the original poetic form; I’m sure that I could enjoy the actual reading process of both these stories more if I could find a style better suited to me.
The Literary Elephant