Friday, June 25, 2010

The Reading List: The Odyssey

So! The Odyssey is a book about [[spoilers from here on out]] this Greek kid, Telemakhos, whose dad never came home from the Trojan War. It's been a decade now, and his house is infested with ne'er-do-well suitors who are ostensibly vying for his mother's hand, but mostly just partying their way through the estate. So, Telemakhos goes on a long sea journey to... what? that's not how you remember the Odyssey?

Well, me neither. Like the Iliad, the Odyssey turns out to be a book that is a little different in the actual text than it is in the popular imagination. By "the popular imagination" I of course mean my imagination, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that I am fairly typical in this regard. I thought that the Odyssey was going to be about Odysseus, the smartest of the warriors in the Iliad, having all sorts of zany adventures on different islands as he wandered around the Mediterranean trying to get home from the war. Didn't you? I mean, I kept getting complimented for picking the perfect book to take on a cruise, so I don't think I'm wildly off-base here.

To be sure, the famous stories about Odysseus are actually in the text, eventually. We do read about his visit to the Island of the Lotus Eaters and his fray with the Cyclops, albeit spelled "Kyklopes" in Robert Fitzgerald's translation -- Fitzgerald writes in a very compelling style, but seems to have been on a daft and fervent one-man mission to shake up Greek-English transliteration. We read about Odysseus' encounter with Circes ("Kirke"), his being tied to the mast to avoid the call of the "Seirenes," his sailing between the "Skylla" and "Kharybdis," and his terrible terrible years of captivity as the pampered love-slave of the sexy sea goddess "Kalypso." I expected these events to make up the bulk of the story, though, and in fact they are covered rather briefly, almost in passing, as Odysseus tells stories of his wanderings to people he has met further down the road.

The Trojan Horse, if you were wondering, is mentioned from time to time, but always with the clear assumption that you already know about it.

The less famous but more bulky chunks of the Odyssey are the long first act described above, where Telemakhos goes wandering around talking to famous survivors of the Iliad, and a very long stretch after Odysseus has made it back to the island, when he plots with Telemakhos and the more loyal servants to lay some serious vengeance on the odious suitors and the less faithful members of his family's entourage. He also spends quite a bit of time in a descent to the Underworld, where he has conversations with dead people. They tell him how they died and give him good advice about how to get home and what he can do to placate the god Poseidon, who is ticked off at him for blinding the Cyclops, who was his son or something.

Odysseus: the Missing Years

So, here's an interesting thing: often, in the direct-action sections of the poem, Odysseus is shown to be an inventive and capable liar. Sometimes he's lying tactically to defeat an enemy, like the Cyclops, but he lies pretty regularly to friends and allies too. Even when he is reunited with his elderly father, he lies for a while about who he is for no apparent reason. So, all of those famous stories about sailing between the monster and the whirlpool, about being captured by the one-eyed giant, and so on -- we only hear these stories being told by a guy whom we know to lie when it serves his purpose, or even just for the hell of it.

Now, it's really tough to even think about authorial intent when you are looking at a poem out of the oral tradition. But I wonder if Homer, or some of the many guys with excellent memories who embodied the Homeric tradition, intended or at least left open the possibility that the wanderings described by Odysseus were all just so much hooey. Hooey spun up, perhaps, to distract from the years of quality time that our hero had spent shacked up with the unbelievably beautiful, insatiable Kalypso? It is, I think, a plausible alternative reading of the poem.

But then, you're getting this theory from a guy who was startled to realize at some point that "Odyssey" must mean "Poem About Odysseus," and not just be the name of the name of the book because it's about a guy who went on a long, um, odyssey.

Iliad and Odyssey

As in the Iliad, the Greek tellers of the Odyssey didn't shy away from a little gore. The scenes in the Cyclops' cave are certainly attention-getting, but the real bloodbath is reserved for the story's climax, when Odysseus, Telemakhos, and a few helpers, after several chapters of buildup, make mincemeat out of the suitors. Even worse is the fate of members of the household who have one way or another collaborated with the suitors; I'll spare you the memorable passages.

We see again, too, that the Greeks were unabashedly preoccupied with things and with wealth. Well, this makes sense; things in general were considerably rarer and more crucial at their level of civilizational development. But it is interesting in a heroic epic that the insult of the suitors is not so much that their presence dishonors Odysseus' wife and household, although it does. What's really important, though, is that THEY'RE EATING ALL HIS FOOD. Food is scarce! You, or the people you supervise, have to work REALLY HARD to produce it. Mooching off another man's larder isn't just annoying in this context, it justifies him coming back and putting you away in the grisly fashion of his choice.

The Odyssey is more like a novel than the Iliad. It has more apparent literary sophistication, with a complex and non-linear flow of time and characters with somewhat more rounded personalities. It has more of a beginning and an ending. The action is equally episodic but more varied -- the Iliad is, to an extent, just the same episode (battle) over and over again. But they share much in common too, of course. Most notably, each poem features exceptional humans striving mightily toward their goals and being admired for doing so, yet in both cases their fate is really at the whim of the capricious gods. Unfortunately, I have once again mostly ignored the gods in my synopsis here. Hopefully, I will not be struck down for this hubris.

Did I mention, it's a lot of fun? It's aged well.


Nichim said...

You forgot to mention Penelope, that model of wifely fidelity and passive aggression. She just can't get rid of those suitors who remind me so much of the 400 boys of Mayan myth and are eating her out of house and home. She has to tell them she's weaving a shroud and she'll marry one of them when she's done, and then she sits in her little room, presumably overlooking the sea, looking wistful and weaving a shroud all day, and then UNWEAVING IT ALL NIGHT, by the light of the sad, sad moon. Poor Penelope. She and Telemachus are so impotent. If, as the suitors say, Odysseus is dead, then the estate belongs (imho) to Penelope, and if not, ancient Greece being what it was, it certainly belongs to Telemachus, either of whom ought to tell the 400 boys to get the f**k out.

PB said...

Two completely unrelated comments:
1) Deep down, don't we all want to do what Odysseus did to the suitors to that guy who always mooched off our food in college?
2) For the ancient Greeks, there were really two traits that were particularly prized, arété (excellence - essentially courage and manliness) and métis (cunning). Achilles is generally considered the embodiment of arété, while Odysseus is the embodiment of métis (the Athenian general/admiral Themistocles is probably the best historical example). Classical scholars would tend to tell you that that is what is behind much of the lying.