Review: Homer’s Odyssey

Homer's OdysseyThe Odyssey of Homer is fascinating in a number of aspects. The plot is remarkably modern in outline, pacing and development and the insight into the domestic life of (pre-) Dark Age Greece cannot be underestimated. Yet for all this I didn’t like the book and was glad to be finished and rid of it. Where the Iliad is grand in scope and deals with characters struggling with ethical and social conflicts, the Odyssey forces heroic characters to wallow in the tedious and the mundane.

I guess we need a couple of paragraphs to get my reaction to the story out of the way before the interesting stuff.

Rather than recounting all of Odysseus’ travels, it opens just before the crisis of the plot. We see Odysseus’ son Telemachus struggling with how to deal with his mother’s suitors. They are the long-staying guests, eating all the food and putting their dirty feet on the furniture, waiting for Penelope to choose one to marry. After all, the Trojan War ended ten years ago and her husband, since he hasn’t returned, is undoubtedly dead.

The middle of the story bogs down into Odysseus recounting his sorrowful history since leaving Troy. Although I already knew from Shakespeare and other Renaissance authors the major episodes – Polyphemus the Cyclops, the encounter with the Sirens and navigating past Scylla and Charybdes – reading the original versions of these stories added nothing to them. Later authors have improved greatly the telling of them.

Sneaking into his own home and murdering the suitors is interesting but rather overblown.There’s wanton destruction, proofs of identity and burying the bodies before anyone finds out what happened. The whole thing struck me rather like a Steven Segal movie.

But these aren’t the reasons to read The Odyssey.

The Odyssey is an extended lesson on the social rules of pre-classical Greece. Hospitality was always to be extended to travellers begging food and shelter. And further, gifts were given to the traveller on his departure. Although in many myths, the traveller may well be Zeus himself in disguise and angering the leader of the gods is never a good idea, there is a more practical explanation at work in the text.

Taking care of a traveller is looking after yourself as your never know when you’ll be travelling and at the mercy of fate and the kindness of strangers. The granting of hospitality and the giving of gifts creates goodwill between your household and that of your guest. It also puts the guest in your debt. However, while the guest can expect decent treatment by his host and some form of gift on departure, there are limits which cannot be crossed. Staying longer than invited and demanding more than is offered are as bad as refusing hospitality to the traveller. The first is the sin of the suitors. The second is the transgression of the Cyclops. Other encounters fall somewhere between these two extremes.

There’s another fascinating theme at play here to do with the re-integration of the soldier back into civil society. When Odysseus and his crew make their first landfall after leaving Troy, they storm the city and conquer it. They are still warrior heroes who take what they want and damn the consequences. Each of the subsequent encounters teach Odysseus that thinking like a warrior no longer works. The war is over and the soldier mentality only causes problems for him and, one by one, costs his crew their lives. Only when Odysseus gives up his war-like attitude can he return home. This theme has been used to model of the mental and emotional journey faced by all veterans returning from war. The problem I have with this theme is that as soon as he does get home he slaughters everyone who has wronged him. Maybe he hasn’t truly learned the lesson.

I was surprised that I didn’t like the book since I adore so much its sister, The Iliad. Still, I’m glad I’ve read it and filled that gaping hole in my literary scorecard. I’ll read it again in a year or so to see if I can approach it without the expectations built over a lifetime of reading Renaissance literature.