In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits Homer’s Odyssey, the epic poem that resists our analysis
Of all the epic poems from the classical era, Homer’s Odyssey is the most modern. In ancient Rome, at the court of the Emperor Nero, Petronius parodied its episodic style for his scurrilous and daringly modern ‘novel’ the Satyricon; nearly 2,000 years later, James Joyce used its episodic structure for his scurrilous and daringly modern ‘novel’ Ulysses. There is something novelistic even in Homer’s original poem. Far from being solely a glamorous epic idealising heroes and glorifying war and adventure, Homer’s Odyssey is also about how heroism and adventure often fail to live up to our expectations of them.
I first encountered the story of Odysseus through Tony Robinson’s entertaining retelling of it for children, Odysseus: The Greatest Hero of Them All. The story of Scylla gobbling up Odysseus’ crew terrified me, the tale of plucky Odysseus’ adventure with the Sirens gripped me, and his cunning plan in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus made me realise that Greek heroes weren’t all just brave and strong: they could be clever, too. When I bumped into Tony Robinson, quite by chance, on a cliff in southern England some 25 years later, I wanted to tell him he was the one who’d introduced me to Odysseus. But, unlike the wily hero himself, I bottled it. Still, it was quite apt that we were near the sea at the time.
An analysis of the poem’s structure reveals just how ‘modern’ it is. We don’t meet the title character, the hero of this epic poem, until the fifth book. The first few books of the Odyssey instead focus on Telemachus, back home on the island of Ithaca, trying to rule in his father’s absence. We learn about the suitors who are hanging around Odysseus’ home, hoping that news will arrive of their king’s death so they can move in and tussle for the widowed Penelope’s hand in (re)marriage. Then, Odysseus is finally introduced, on the nymph Calypso’s island, where he has been captive for the last seven years. Winning his freedom, he departs, only to get washed up on the island of the Phaeacians, where he falls in love with Nausicaa, a princess. He tells the Phaeacians about his adventures prior to his time on Calypso’s island, before they reward his storytelling with the gift of a ship, which Odysseus uses to get home to Ithaca, vanquish the suitors, and rejoin his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus. This section occupies the last third of the poem, since Odysseus arrives back on Ithaca disguised as a swineherd, so that he can observe Telemachus and others without being recognised – yet another sign of Odysseus’ innate cunning.
The poem’s legacy, its influence on everything from literature (Joyce and Petronius being but two examples) to film (O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a modern remake of the story) to language (from the word mentor to siren to even odyssey itself to describe a journey filled with adventure), is well-known. But Odysseus is also a leap forward in that he is not only strong and brave at times: he is also clever, ‘wily Odysseus’ as he is often called in the poem itself. He’s perhaps the first great hero in Western literature to be renowned for his pluck and cunning as much as for his brawn or brute force. But Homer’s way of telling the story is also startlingly modern, utilising prolepsis or flashback, framed narratives (Odysseus recounting some of the story himself), and plenty of delay to build the suspense. It’s like Joseph Conrad’s modernist novel Heart of Darkness, another story that calls into the question the glamour and joy of travel and the idea of the noble quest, only written nearly 3,000 years earlier. It’s also a brave poet who doesn’t actually introduce us to his epic hero and title character until the fifth book of his poem.
How should we analyse the Odyssey in terms of its themes? What brings its various episodes together: heroism, love, comradeship? William Allan, in his introduction to this new verse translation by Anthony Verity, The Odyssey (Oxford World’s Classics), suggests another: hospitality. The code of hospitality, known as xenia to the ancient Greeks, was hugely important, and, for Allan, ‘the poem’s basic morality is articulated through good hosts (such as Nestor, Menelaus, Eumaeus) and bad ones (like Polyphemus or Circe), as well as by good and bad guests (most notably the suitors).’ Of course, even today we use a word derived from that Greek root, xenophobia, to describe a dislike of foreign guests we don’t wish to pay host to.
From Allan’s introduction I also learned that the majority of modern scholars believe that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by different people. But as Allan points out, this doesn’t matter as much as we might think: the important thing is that we have the Iliad and the Odyssey. I’m glad we have the former; I couldn’t imagine a world without the latter. For all odysseys begin with that famous journey home, and from one man’s homeward travels, European and world literature went out and found itself a thousand new homes.
The Odyssey (Oxford World’s Classics) is available now in hardcover and paperback.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.