So as you know if you read my last blog post, I’ve recently delved into the world of Homer’s Odyssey. What a strange word that is. Anyway, I started reading the book with a bunch of general expectations that I picked up in a grade eight ancient history class. Unfortunately we only had modern history at my high school, so ancient history was dealt with before grade ten came along and we got to specialize. We even did a film adaptation of a very condensed version of the Odyssey, which was a lot of fun but sadly lacked in budget. It made up for this in an overabundance of heart.
Following this theme of condensed versions, I certainly got more than I expected when I started reading my edition of the text. I was originally taught that the Odyssey consisted of the adventures of a young man called Ulysses who was sailing on an unspecified quest, and ends up getting lost because of bad winds. These winds lead Ulysses and his crew into some serious trouble with an island of harpies who try to eat them; an island home to a race of beautiful warrior women who welcome them, drug Ulysses and try to have his babies, and finally try and kill everyone when their plan doesn’t work; an encounter with some dangerous and very hungry sirens (in which Ulysses has himself tied to the mast of the ship and his crew stuff corks in their ears so they don’t fall prey to the sirens’ calls); an island home to a race of Cyclops who try to eat them, but when that fails Ulysses loses some of his crew to being turned into pigs; a maze run whilst being chased by an angry minotaur; and finally nearly being trapped on an island with the goddess Calypso, who is hellbent on keeping Ulysses as her, well, sex toy. His crew rescues him, and they eventually make it back home to Ithaca, the fair Greek isle, where everyone lives happily ever after.
Suffice to say, with this introduction I was very much looking forward to reading the full text, to see exactly how Homer had gone about writing what had become my favourite story of Greek legend. Well, I got an interesting surprise when the story opened not with Ulysses, but with his son, who is out looking for his father at the behest of his mother as she awaits a forced remarriage because everyone thinks that Ulysses is dead. Wait a minute, I thought. Is this the same story as the one I know? I kept reading, and much to my shock my original story didn’t exactly match up to the real thing. I was, at first, more than slightly horrified at the grievous error made by my favourite history teacher of middle school. But after a while, the story began to grow on me. What I had originally been told was a version without the ‘boring bits’. The bits where there’s a lot of sailing, a lot of questions, and not much action. The events weren’t all that accurate either, besides the Cyclops incident and Calypso, which is an island and not the nymph who lives there, and who was not forcing Ulysses into anything at all. And actually occurred first not last. Also there’s a prolonged trip to the Underworld, which is always fun and not boring at all. Especially when it lends to character development. Also, Ulysses is in his fifties, certainly no spring chicken. And he’s trying to get home after fighting in the Trojan War. There are a few other parts but we’ll get to those later.
Keeping all of this in mind, I ventured forth on a tale of discovery with Telemachus, to find his lost father and to help reconstruct my own understanding of this classic Greek legend.
The Odyssey, as some of you may know, is a tale of the epic kind. It’s almost (though probably not intended to be) the second part to Homer’s Iliad, as its events lie after the conclusion of the Trojan war, which the Iliad discusses. The thing that stood out the most for me when reading the Odyssey was that it was not only extremely detailed, but it was gruesome and bloody. Homer seems to enjoy writing about gross things (like bodies being smashed on rocks and having cyclops rip their heads clean off, and having arrows gouge people through their neck with extreme descriptions and overexaggerations of bloodiness and gore), an extremely interesting fact considering legend has it that he was a blind bard. Speaking of legend, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding Homer and exactly who he was, when he lived, and where he lived and was from. There is also some debate over whether or not Homer was actually his name. Perhaps this is the reason for my misconceptions of the work: was it a carry-on from all the mystery surrounding Homer? How many versions of the Odyssey are there floating around out there in the world? Who knows.
Other than being detailed and gory, the Odyssey is a work that, at times, gets too carried away with its own poetic qualities. Its tendency towards verbosity makes it a hard book to read for the initiated, and an even harder one for those just starting out with epic tales and long poems. Other points of note include the fact that Ulysses is something of a ‘Mary Jane’: a character who has no weaknesses or flaws, and seems to be or can come up with the solution to everyone’s problems. Reading the work also requires an in-depth understanding of Greek life and customs, to avoid both shock and misunderstanding about activities within. Also, keep a dictionary on hand, or the web.
Other protips include not reading the Odyssey past your bedtime. I’m a chronic night-time reader, and I usually spend an hour or so with my current novel before greeting the sandman for the night. These sessions often take me to 2am, and by that stage my brain can’t even make sense of which page I’m on. Part of reading this book is being able to keep track of the many, many events and multiple event lines as they unfold, because each affects the other in some way be it miniscule or huge. Keeping track of everyone’s names is much like handling the names in Tolkien’s Silmarillion: there are so many, and they’re so long and similar, that sometimes you forget who’s who. The easiest way to remember them in the Odyssey is be either tracking their deaths, or by tracking their family relations.
Its problematic qualities aside, the Odyssey is definitely a good adventure with all the classic tropes that a heroic quest could ask for. Angry and volatile gods, mythological beasts, lots of sailing, swordfights and arrows, magic, (dare I say it) sex, malicious enemies, and a hero whose journey ends with him being a better person for it. I wouldn’t exactly call it inspiring, but it certainly reels you into the world of ancient Greek mythology and Homer’s words often make you feel like the hero, rather than the character he’s written about. As a result of this quality which was perhaps intentional, characters like Telemachus and Ulysses sometimes have little to offer on the personality side. They are action-driven characters, where you the reader have to fill in the blanks. But that’s ok, because it forces you to imagine yourself as part of the action, and you feel the things the characters would feel. If anything, it’s craft mastery at its best and as a writer myself it’s something I admire and aspire to.
There really isn’t much else to say on the matter. I’d definitely read it again (with more sleep in the mix), and recommend it to anyone who is into Greek myth and legend and/or epic tales. I do prefer Homer’s writing style to that of Milton; Homer is more apt to make jokes, and his sarcasm and witty lines and puns always add colour to the work. I haven’t yet read many other works of epic style, Ben-Hur sits in my bookcase waiting patiently along with the Iliad and Beowulf is on my list. And until then, I don’t really feel qualified to judge.
Happy reading, dear followers. I hope you’re all reading something wonderful.
Next update will be on Stel Pavlou’s Gene, which I’m already halfway through.
Never stop reading!