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  • Ben Schafer

My Journey through 100 Books: The Odyssey


"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy." Welcome back, everyone, to the next installment of our literary adventure. And adventure is certainly the right word to describe this next work: The Odyssey, Homer's other famous epic poem (which has arguably had an even greater impact on Western literature than even The Iliad). Right from the first line we can see the dramatic differences not only between the style of the two poems but between the protagonists themselves. Achilles is a man filled with rage who brought ruin upon the Greek army with his pride. Odysseus, on the other hand, is clever and uses his wits (something already shown by his brilliant strategic decisions in The Iliad). The storytelling in The Odyssey is also much more clever and intricate than the more straightforward war story of The Iliad. Indeed, the story opens not with Odysseus but with his son Telemachus who grew into a young man while his father was away at war. He is one of the few who hold out hope that Odysseus is still alive and he is visited by the goddess Athena in disguise. She encourages Telemachus to seek out the story of what happened to Odysseus from other Greek heroes who were with him at the end of the Trojan War. It is a brilliant storytelling device as it turns what would otherwise be a direct narrative of events into a sort of ancient detective story with Telemachus gathering stories of his father from the people who knew him during the war. Odysseus himself appears in the story washed ashore and naked following his escape from the nymph Calypso. He is discovered by some children playing near the shore and one of them, the young princess of the island, brings the lost Greek hero to her father. There Odysseus fills in the gap for the reader between the stories told to Telemachus and his present condition. Some of the most famous elements in Western literature take place in this narrative and I don't have the space to list them all, but readers will find themselves recognizing stories like the encounter with the cyclops or Odysseus' clever solution for bypassing the destructive song of the sirens. After the course of these adventures, Odysseus eventually returns home to discover that his house has been besieged with suitors who are there to coerce his "widow" Penelope into marrying them so that they can take on Odysseus' wealth and influential position in the community. In disguise (and with the help of Telemachus), Odysseus sneaks into his own home (which would have been a large property with an open courtyard and surrounding grounds almost like a palace). Achilles or Hector might have simply challenged the many suitors to open combat, but of course Odysseus has a clever plan for both confirming his own identity to his wife and eliminating the suitors at the same time. Incidentally, Penelope is one of the greatest characters in the book and shows that the idea that female characters in the Western tradition were only seen as conniving villains or damsels in distress by "the patriarchy" is a load of garbage. I won't spoil the ending (though the story is nearly 3,000 years old so the cat may be out of the bag at this point) but I highly encourage you to read it for yourself and appreciate not only the conclusion itself but the subtext and nuance it presents.

Like in The Iliad, we are challenged by the question of how much of Odysseus' trial is the result of his own choices and how much is the result of outside forces beyond his control. I really like how the Robert Fagles translation uses the phrase "man of twists and turns" during the opening line in sort of a double meaning to both reflect Odysseus' scheming mind and his fate of constant shifts of fortune and long wanderings at sea. The connection is right there from the beginning and the fact that Odysseus, of all the surviving Greek heroes, is the only one to be lost at sea for so long strengthens the implication that it was his nature as much as his fate to continue wandering after the more direct warrior-kings had returned to their homes. While Achilles had pride in his physical prowess, Odysseus has a thirst for novelty and a need to showcase his own cleverness in the face of overwhelming odds. In the same way, we could ask why Odysseus was able to not only survive but to have gained a happy ending to his story when so many other Greek heroes died tragically. And I think the answer to that is presented by Homer in the opening chapters (or "books") of the story: his family. Telemachus hunts for answers for his father and helps him get his revenge against the suitors. Penelope holds on to her loyalty and love and shows herself to be no less than Odysseus' equal in wit and will. In short, Odysseus has something to fight for and has people who will not give up on him, and that gives him the strength to keep going when even the strongest solitary Greek hero would have collapsed.

Returning to the opening line, I find the appeal to the Muse in both of Homer's poems to be a fascinating look into the origin and development of creative endeavors. The Muses were goddesses of the arts who were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the primordial Titan goddess of memory. The idea that the arts are the result of combining the collective memory of a culture with a sense of order and structure (as represented by Zeus, king of the Olympian gods) has fascinating implications that I won't get into here. But, as an author, I am intrigued by the idea that creative vision essentially exists external to the human beings that harness it and mold it into a final work of art. There is a famous quote regarding sculpting (apocryphally attributed to Michelangelo) that says "Every block of stone has a statue inside of it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." This is an idea I will examine in more detail in later works, but it is something that I would have you consider as you engage with any creative work in your daily life. Is there something deeper than the oil on the canvas or the words on the page that is being translated through this physical medium into your mind? Does the work of art bring that deeper truth forward or blur it? Do we consider "good art" to be art that adheres closest to its purpose or simply a novelty that catches our attention for a fleeting moment?

Like The Iliad, The Odyssey is available for free at The Internet Classics Archive (once again using the Samuel Butler translation which uses Roman versions of names, so Odysseus becomes Ulysses). The way I experienced this work, however, was through the audiobook version of the Robert Fagles translation as read by Sir Ian McKellen. No matter how you come to this poem, I highly recommend it as not only a foundational text of Western literature but one of the greatest adventure stories ever told.

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