The Odyssey - Homer, Robert Fagles, Bernard Knox Oh no, I didn’t! Did I just give Homer’s Odyssey 3 stars?! (Well, 3.5 really) What gall! Who the hell do I think I am?! Believe me, I am as shocked as you are. I thought I would end up liking this much more than its twin [b:The Iliad|1371|The Iliad|Homer||3293141], but the opposite turned out to be the case. Don’t get me wrong, Homer’s a great writer…he’s got a real future in the industry! (I kid, I kid) But seriously, while the Odyssey certainly contains more down to earth concerns than the vast epic of blood, guts and glory that was the Iliad, I just didn’t find it quite as compelling. As a literary artifact and founding work in the Western canon this is probably a five star book, but for me personally and my own enjoyment of it, it was still just a 3.5.

I think part of this may stem from my misapprehension that The Odyssey was primarily about the adventures and travels of Odysseus on his way home from Troy. While those aspects are certainly here, they took up a much smaller proportion of the book than I thought they would. The lion’s share seems more devoted to the travails that Odysseus encounters when he does finally get home to Ithaca and has to approach his own wife and home incognito due to the presence of dozens of overzealous, greedy suitors who are bleeding his estates dry with high living as they wait for his wife Penelope to make a decision on which of them she will marry. There were also some interludes with Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, and his foray into the wider world in search of his lost father. To be frank I found Telemachus a little less interesting than his dad. The picture we get of Greek domestic life and traditions of hospitality & obligation in these segments of the poem are certainly interesting, but I think I was just hoping for a bit more adventure and a little less skulking and planning as Odysseus attempts to sound out everyone around him and gain the lay of the land. It certainly spells out why Odysseus is the “man of twists and turns”, but I found it a little less compelling.

Overall there’s still a lot of great stuff going on here. The catalogue of the travails Odysseus must overcome to finally make it home after the Trojan War are probably known by everyone even if you haven’t read the Odyssey: you’ve got your adventure with the Cyclops, capture and seduction by not one, but two divine beauties (cry me a river Odysseus), the navigation between Scylla & Charybdis, the Siren’s song, a journey to the land of the dead, and an ill-conceived cattle raid on Apollo’s divine herd. For the most part these stories are related in the past tense by Odysseus himself while he’s on one of his layovers on the way to Ithaca.

I also enjoyed seeing the obvious links being made between the Odyssey and [b:The Iliad|1371|The Iliad|Homer||3293141] as each built upon the other and each was augmented by the lustre and resonance of the other. I especially enjoyed seeing old friends (such as Nestor, Menelaus, and most importantly Helen) in a new context as they appear in their own domestic tableaux and give some laudatory commentary on Odysseus, primarily remembering the ‘good old days’ when they were sacking Troy. Also carried over from [b:The Iliad|1371|The Iliad|Homer||3293141] was the chronic meddling of the gods in human affairs. This time, however, it’s mostly restricted to two divine puppeteers: Poseidon who has a raging hate-on for Odysseus and wants to see him sunk sooner than find his way home, and Athena who views the kingly trickster as the apple of her eye. The gods still seem, therefore, to have a vested interest in the doings of humanity, though just what they gain by this, especially when the life of only a single man, and not an entire nation, is at stake is open to question. It would appear that the pride of the immortals concerns itself with all levels of human affairs, from the epic to the domestic.

As noted above the preponderance of the text concerns itself with the actions of the suitors in Odysseus’ house and the plans and subterfuge our hero must undertake in order to return to his dearly remembered domestic bliss. Despite this we are given a scene that in its way is no less violent than many of the over the top battle scenes from the explicitly war-centred Iliad. The killing of the suitors may be somewhat toned down from the blood-drenched battles before the walls of Troy, but not by much. In this context I found it interesting how the spur to Odysseus’ actions, the ‘crimes’ of the suitors in their contravention of the rules of hospitality (in the spirit of what they do, if not the letter), while always spelled out explicitly and in no uncertain terms by the poet, still had a certain amount of ambiguity. Despite the fact that Odysseus is constantly presented as the wronged party it is apparent that he still feared the just retribution of the avenging furies of his victims. One wonders if Odysseus truly felt justified in his harsh actions against the suitors, or whether there was more than a little uncertainty in the justice of his actions on his part. Luckily for Odysseus his patroness Athena, through the auspices of Zeus, once again intervenes to save him from the consequences of his actions.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story for me was the return to the Underworld with the spirits of the suitors after they have been slain by Odysseus. There we once again meet with the shades of the heroes of [b:The Iliad|1371|The Iliad|Homer||3293141], namely Achilles, Ajax and Agamemnon, and are given their commentary, and commendation, on the actions of Odysseus and his wife despite the complaints of the suitors. I was also struck by the observation of Agamemnon regarding the ‘luck’ of Odysseus in both having a faithful wife to come home to (something of which he would obviously be envious), and in the fact that he views him as happy in that his death will be a quiet one in the arms of his loved ones. Indeed we are presented with three visions of death: Achilles is praised and envied by Agamemnon for having died a hero’s death on the plains of Ilium and having been celebrated by his comrades-in-arms, Odysseus is envied for making his way home and having the prospect of a quiet death surrounded by those he loves, and Agamemnon singles himself out for pity due to his treacherous and untimely death at the hands of his wife and her lover. Given the unambiguous way in which the Greek Underworld is the same (in both its characteristics of eternal boredom and regret over the loss of one’s life) for all of the dead I’m not sure I think it matters exactly how one died…even the ‘fortunate’ ones end up pining for the life they can no longer experience. I suppose, though, that it’s all about how you are remembered, and your death is the capstone to that. Both Achilles and Odysseus get an epic poem based on their actions and mode of death (even though those deaths do not occur in said poems),and while Agamemnon did get a play or two it was certainly not anything its audience would envy.