J.G. Keely's Reviews > The Odyssey

The Odyssey by Homer
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's review
Jul 27, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: epic, reviewed, greece, sea-story
Read in August, 2009

It's funny how many people feel intimidated by this book. Sure, it's thousands of years old, and certainly Greek culture has some peculiarities, but the book is remarkably, sometimes surprisingly modern, and most translations show the straightforward simplicity of the story.

Perhaps like The Seventh Seal, The Odyssey has gotten a reputation for being difficult because it has been embraced by intellectuals and worse, wanna-be intellectuals. But like Bergman's classic film, The Odyssey is focused on action, low humor, and vivid characters, not complex symbolism and pretension.

It shouldn't really surprise us how modern the story seems, from it's fast-paced action to its non-linear story: authors have taken cues from it for thousands of years, and continue to take inspiration from it today. Any story of small people, everyday heroes, and domestic life we read today is only a few steps removed from Odysseus' tale.

Unlike the Iliad, this book is not focused on grand ideas or a grand stage. The characters do not base their actions on heroic ideals but on their emotions, their pains and joys, their grumbling bellies. It is less concerned with the fate of nations than the state of the family and friendship.

Since the story turns on whims instead of heroic ideals, it is much less focused than the Iliad, meandering from here to there in a series of unconnected vignettes drawn from the mythic tradition. Like The Bible, it is a combination of stories, but without a philosophical focus.

There are numerous recurring themes that while not concluded, are certainly explored. The most obvious of these may be the tradition of keeping guests in Greece. The most honorable provide their guests with feasts, festivals, and gifts. This seems mostly the effect of a noblesse oblige among the ruling class.

Like the codes of war or the class system, it is a social structure which benefits their rulership. Like the palace of Versailles of Louis XIV, keeping someone as a guest was a way to keep an eye on them and to provide camaraderie and mutual reliance amongst the fractitious ruling class.

The second theme is that of 'metis', represented by Odysseus himself. Metis is the Greek term for cunning. It is a quick-witted cleverness that is sometimes considered charming and other times deceitful. Achilles tells Odysseys in the Iliad that he resents the clever man's entreaties, and those of any man who says one thing but thinks another.

Odysseus later mimics this sentiment as part of an elaborate lie to gain the trust of another man. Such are the winding ways of our hero. He misleads his son, his wife, his servants, and his despondent father after his return, careful not to overplay his hand in a dangerous situation, arriving as a stranger.

Each of these prevarications can be seen sometimes as cruel, but each deception has a reasoning behind it. He uses his stories to carefully prepare his listeners for his return, instead of springing it upon them unwarned. He ensures that he will be received upon the most profitable terms, though he also enjoys the game of it all.

These acts of sudden, cruel cleverness are not uncommon in epics and adventure tales. One tale of Viking raiders tells of how, after sailing into the Mediterranean, their ship reached one of the cities of the Roman Empire. Though just a small outpost, the Viking chief thought it was Rome itself, since its stone buildings towered over the farms of his homeland.

He hid in a coffin with a wealth of swords and had his soldiers bear him into the town, telling the inhabitants they wished to make burial rights for their dead king. When they were let in, the coffin was opened, the swords passed around, and the city sacked. What is curious is that while warriors like the Greeks or Vikings maintained a strict sense of honor and honesty, this kind of trick was not only common in their stories, but admired.

The honor of the battlefield does not extend to the Trojan Horse (Odysseus' idea) or to the tale of Sinon in the Aeneid. The rule seems to be that if the tricks played are grand and clever enough, they are allowed, while small, mean pranks and betrayals are not. Not all the soldiers agree what is outsmarting and what is dishonorable (Achilles puts Odysseus in the latter camp), but there is a give and take there.

What is most remarkable about Odysseus is not merely that he comes up with these tricks, but that he passes them off on proud, honorable men without incurring their wrath. Moreover, he does all this while having a famous reputation for being tricky. You'd think he'd get an intentional walk now and then.

Odysseus was not as strong a character as Achilles or Hector were in the Iliad, though this may be because he was a complex character who did not rely on the cliche characterizations of 'the noble warrior'. He is not a man with a bad temper, nor a good one. He is a competent and powerful warrior and leader, but those are not his defining characteristics, either.

Odysseus represents the Greek ideal of 'arete' as well as metis. Arete is the idea that a man who is truly great should excel in all things, not merely concentrate on one area of life. Even raging Achilles showed the depth of his arete in the Iliad when he served as host and master of the games. He was capable of nobility, sound judgment, and generosity, even if he didn't always put his best foot forward.

Odysseus is likewise skilled in both war and domesticity, in the sword and politics, and he's clever and wily to boot. In the end, there isn't much room left over for negative character traits, which is what makes him feel a bit flat. What makes people interesting as individuals is not their best traits, but their worst.

For Odysseus, this is his pride. After spending twenty years of his life away at war, leaving his wife and infant son behind, it's not surprising that he wants to return home with wealth and with his name on the lips of poets and minstrels.

Between his pride, his easy smile, and his quick wit, he is the model for the modern action hero. He is not merely some chivalric picture of goodness, nor simply mighty and overwhelming, but a conflicted man with a wry sense of humor and above all, a will to survive.

Don't read this book simply because it is old, influential, and considered great. Read it because it is exciting and approachable and thoughtful. Even without all the reputation, it can stand on its own.

I read the Fagles translation, which was enjoyable and often lovely, though some modern idioms did slip in here and there. The Knox intro rehashes a lot of the introduction to The Iliad, but it's still very useful.
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03/25/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Eric (new)

Eric Great review....

David Sarkies Great review. I particularly enjoyed your thoughts on Metis. I had never heard that viking story before.

Anand Venigalla I'm really loving the Odyssey. I love the prophetic subtext of it. Lot of seers, prophets, omens, signs.

I certainly prefer the Iliad's tragic subtext, the loneliness that accompanies greatness, the visceral war poetry, those epic similes.

Yet I am drawn to the world of women in Odyssey, the ceaseless adventure, the storytelling, the food, the prophecy. Storytelling and prophecy are quite related, and I think that, as well as giving us Odysseus the man, we get excellent storytelling within the story

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