Tag: Alexander Pope

The Odyssey by Homer

Posted October 7, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

The Odyssey by HomerTitle: The Odyssey (Goodreads)
Author: Homer
Translator: Walter Shewring
Published: Oxford World's Classics, 8th century BC
Pages: 349
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

The Odyssey is one of two narrative poems that have been attributed to the Greek poet Homer; while it is not entirely clear that he actually composed both or any of them. While it can be said that The Odyssey is a sequel to Homer’s Iliad, reading them out of order will not put you at a major disadvantage. Iliad tells the story of the war on Troy and remains popular due to the fact that it is one of the only surviving Greek classics that actually deals with thetopic. The destruction of the Library of Alexandria was a great cultural loss and many poems and documents were lost, leaving Homer’s works even more culturally significant as it pretty much all we have left to go on. The Iliad and Odyssey remain fundamental to the Western canon for being the oldest works still in existent in literature.

While the Iliad focused on the events that happened in Troy, The Odyssey takes place ten years after the Trojan War. Odysseus has still not returned home from the war, his wife Penelope is still hopeful for his return while the Suitors (a group of over 100 men) try to persuade her to marry one of them. The Suitors are enjoying the hospitality of Odysseus, eating up his wealth while he is not around to stop them. Up on Mount Olympos, the gods are debating on whether to let Odysseus return. The goddess Athene pleads to her father Zeus in favour of letting him return, but Poseidon wishes to wipe his ship out. Obviously this is an over simplified synopsis; to give The Odyssey’s plot any justice, I would need to write a few paragraphs of information.

I was a little worried going into this epic poem; I have often found medieval literature difficult and the idea of reading something so much older scared me. I was lucky enough to be assigned a prose translation by Walter Shewring which was a perfect choice for me. Out of interest I had a look at another prose translation, the Project Gutenberg edition (translated by Alexander Pope) and was shocked to see Jove, Neptune and Minerva used in the text. A Greek epic poem that was using Roman gods, that didn’t work for me. Shewring’s was superb; it made things easier for me and helped me find the beauty with this text.

Obviously when The Odyssey was first composed (believed to be around the 8th century BC) it was shared in an oral tradition by an aoidos (poet or singer). We can see a lot techniques being used that have since been established as the literary norm. The Odyssey reads almost like a modern day thriller, continually keeping up a fast pace with slight repetition to remind the audience of key plot points. It is a story of a variety of adventures, told in a non-linear fashion that doesn’t have much in the way of philosophising or introspection.

While the Iliad and Odyssey is attributed to Homer, there isn’t much other information about this Greek poet. The bearded blind man often depicted as an image of Homer is not even one that can be historically verified. The lack of information about the author (if in fact he was the author) means that the poems have to speak for themselves; a new experience for me in my study of literature. It is surprising that the literary terms ‘Homeric Greek’ and ‘Homeric world’ were named after someone we know nothing about.

There is a lot going on in The Odyssey but I want to look at two things I found interesting; first of all the idea of hospitality. Within the poem the idea of hospitality is a little weird; the Suitors just move in and make themselves at home, taking advantage of the hospitality of someone who wasn’t around to stop them. Further in the poem, Odysseus and his soldiers are doing the exact same thing to the Cyclops. Hospitality is expected and within this poem it is often being taken advantage of. What does that say of humanity during the time this was set and has it changed much now?

Secondly I want to talk about gender inequality, ever since reading The Fictional Woman I see it in almost everything I read, so I can’t help but talk about. Odysseus is not faithful to his wife Penelope; there are countless times he is sleeping with someone else. In fact the idea of him being a highly sexual being is pretty much glorified within this poem but if it is a woman, then she isn’t an ‘ideal’ woman or evil. Just look at how Clytemnestra, the sirens and Calypso are portrayed within this poem. In fact Penelope is the symbol of a perfect woman and Odysseus has to test her before revealing who he is. My problem is the scary notion that this gender inequality is still a problem now; in the 8th century BC it was evident; why is this still a problem?

Odysseus is an interesting character, a smart and witty hero; you could even say he had the favour of Athene (goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill) on his side. It is interesting the way Odysseus is portrayed as a hero; it is different to a modern interpretation of the word. He isn’t necessarily a good person, in fact, I would say he wasn’t but his actions are often heroic. He tries to save his men from the Cyclops but his pride and ego almost got them killed and there are many more instances of this. In this modern world we seem to combine a good character with heroics but that isn’t often the case. A person can be heroic and try to protect or save others, doesn’t mean they are not a jerk.

I went into this epic poem nervous and I ended up loving it; I will have to track down the Iliad and read that one as well. I think Walter Shewring’s translation did help and the fact that this was an Oxford World Classics edition meant that I knew I would have some helpful information to help me understand The Odyssey. On a more personal note, writing this review was rather difficult, I had to remember Homer didn’t write this, he spoke it and this is a poem not a novel or book. I have so much I want to say about this poem but I had to edit this review down already.