'The Odyssey' by Homer (circa 750 B.C.)

The Odyssey - Homer, E.V. Rieu, Peter Jones, D.C.H. Rieu

Homer, The Odyssey (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 348pp. Translated by E. V. Rieu and revised by D. C. H. Rieu.

 

"Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man who was driven to wander far and wide after he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy."

What surprised me the most about reading The Odyssey of Homer, the second oldest surviving piece of Western literature (after Homer's The Iliad), was how well it has held up. Its style is by no means modern, but it reads surprisingly well for an oral epic written in a 2,500-year-old dead language. Credit must go, of course, to the translation that I read: the standard 1948 Penguin Classics translation by E. V. Rieu. Not only does Rieu make the prose come alive, but his Introduction (along with those by his son D. C. H. Rieu and Peter Jones in my revised Penguin Classics edition) significantly enhance one's enjoyment of the story, which is not always something one can say about scholarly introductions. Jones and the Rieus provide context and sympathetic navigation for the story; I would recommend this translation to readers who want an authentic Homeric experience without being alienated by archaisms or, conversely, over-simplistic modern re-tellings.

As for the story itself, it is rightfully considered a classic; the original adventure story. The most famous elements, such as the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclopes, Circe the witch, etc., are all great feats of imagination and genesis for many modern myths and fantasy stories. But there are some things which did jar with me; I would perhaps suggest that it is impossible for such an ancient story to chime one-hundred-percent with any modern reader given it was written for a completely different audience. I am not talking about the things that would seem morally questionable today, such as slave ownership, aristocracies and the killing of unarmed people, as one must of course be aware of the novel's historical context. Rather, it is the Ancient Greek obsession with deities involved in human affairs which, if this novel were written today, would have levelled at it the crime of deus ex machina. (I remember unapologetically tearing a strip off Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist for faulty narrative mechanics and dei ex machina that pale to those present here.) Many things only happen because a god willed it, and little explanation is given as to why; it is particularly annoying when the action didn't even require a god to intervene, and events might have progressed along similar lines if the gods had just stayed at home on Mount Olympus and tucked into some ambrosia. Some (read: many) of the various gods' actions are baffling, counter-productive or out-of-character (though the lame god Hephaestus calling his adulterous wife Aphrodite a 'brazen bitch' was rather amusing), and the narrative inconsistencies with which The Odyssey is abruptly ended are often noted and lamented by readers.

But my main criticism of The Odyssey is the apparent lack of focus. It is not quite a bona fide adventure story; most of the famous elements of the story (the Cyclopes, Circe, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, etc.) are dealt with only in the second quarter of the book (Books/Chapters 9 to 12 of a total of 24 Books). You do wonder about Homer's priorities: he devotes more time to mixing bowls and courtesies than he does to the Sirens, say, or the lotus-eaters. Both the Sirens and the lotus-eaters are dealt with in perhaps a page or two each. It reminded me a bit of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien would devote just a short chapter to the epic Battle of Helm's Deep but entire swathes of prose to describing the intricacies of a language, landscape or suchlike. A mere perusal of the chapter names is instructive in this regard; the second half of the book is dominated by such less-than-thrilling titles as 'In Eumaeus' Hut', 'Telemachus Returns', 'Odysseus Goes to the Town' and 'Eurycleia Recognizes Odysseus'. Odysseus spends more time toasting the health of courteous hosts than he does impaling dread sea monsters on his bronzed spear.

That said, The Odyssey is a true epic. If not a straight-up adventure story, it does nevertheless have a consistent theme, which is hospitality and the correct treatment of guests, a concept known as xenia to the Ancient Greeks. Most of the events of the novel, not just the obvious story of Odysseus against the Suitors but also Odysseus' encounters with the Cyclopes, Circe, Calypso, the Phaeacians, and so on, are driven by the use or abuse of this concept of xenia, which is held sacred. One can entertain oneself identifying relevant instances of xenia and how they drive the story throughout.

The characters are also interesting; straightforward enough to be readable but also complex. I found it particularly interesting that Odysseus relies as much on guile as he does on strength (he was the one who came up with the Trojan Horse gambit, after all), even though he is fêted as an honourable man and considered 'godlike' in his strength. There is scholarly debate as to whether Odysseus is in fact an anti-hero, predating our modern pop-culture obsession with such morally-ambiguous characters by a couple of millennia. (The non-linear storytelling is also impressively ahead of its time). The major female characters are also well-developed (Odysseus' wife Penelope, above all, proves to be cunning enough to hold her own against the Suitors' attentions), even though there is perhaps a misogynistic, belittling mentality occasionally apparent where the misdeeds of one woman is said to bring a curse down on all womankind, whereas individual men have different fates from one another. But, as I said above, one must judge The Odyssey in its historical context and not let our modern ways of thinking hinder our enjoyment of the story. (Though I did find it funny when, in Book 18, Odysseus, a fine orator when he wants to be, puts down a handmaid's lengthy eloquent mockery of his rags - he is disguised as a beggar - with a short, sharp retort: "You bitch!").

Above all, the language is gorgeous. There are evocative references to the 'wine-dark sea' and Dawn appearing 'fresh and rosy-fingered', which sweeten the reader's mind no matter how often they are repeated (and, as The Odyssey was originally an oral poem, they are repeated a lot). The goddess Athene is often referred to as the 'goddess of the flashing eyes' or the 'gleaming eyes', conveying both her beauty and her cunning. And even the smallest actions are made to sound epic; consider, for example, this passage in Book 4 which describes Menelaus merely getting ready one morning:

"As soon as Dawn appeared, fresh and rosy-fingered, Menelaus of the loud war-cry rose from his bed and put on his clothes. He slung a sharp sword from his shoulder, bound a fine pair of sandals on his glistening feet and strode from his bedroom looking like a god."

For my indulgence, the 'ambrosial night', the arrow flying with its 'burden of bronze' (i.e. its arrowhead), a battered ship in a storm as the 'sport of the furious winds' and a deep sleep described as 'the very counterfeit of death' are all achingly beautiful phrases. I particularly liked that when a character is speaking animatedly or passionately or angrily, they are described as speaking with 'winged words' or being addressed with 'words that flew'. Readers should be aware that I am also speaking with winged words when I recommend The Odyssey for these little gems of prose alone. Failing that, it should be read as a classic of adventure fiction and mythic fantasy, an eloquent epic undiminished by the passage of time.