Before we begin, I’d like to point your direction to a prelude I did, The Odyssey in Perspective. It’s designed to offer an introduction and context to both the epic poem and my understanding of its influence upon Western civilization.
Once you’ve read it, I’d like to point out the most obvious thing missing in that assessment. You see, I didn’t go far enough when discussing the influences of The Odyssey, and like everything within the ancient text as we know it today, that was by design. There are very few epochs in human history that we can pinpoint as an endpoint or a new beginning. For example, we tend to date the Sack of Rome in 473 CE as the arbitrary beginning of the Middle Ages, but we only guess at the beginning of the Renaissance, claiming its beginning at around 1450 CE, give or take. We know exactly when the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque. We know because of an art form that made its debut, changing the world forever: Opera.
Why is that important? 1600, the year the first Operatic performance, is the year the lost culture of the ancient world finally returned to Western civilization, or rather, the closest approximation of it that would ever know again. The Iliad and The Odyssey are both 24 scrolls, or books, admittedly an arbitrary point of separation added later once these epics were finally written down. Scholars believe each of these was performed in such a manner that it took an hour per book due to vocal performance — they were sung, with instrumental accompaniment — over the course of three days each. How far those performances went in terms of set pieces is anyone’s guess, but we know it wasn’t a simple matter of a bard taking the stage and merely reciting poetry for eight hours a day for three days. That wouldn’t make sense to anyone in any age. So when we look at what we’ve accomplished in the dramatic arts with Opera, said to be the highest of the art forms we’ve ever developed in the Western world, we see in it the shadowy reflection of whatever it is that made Homer the legend he is today, pale moonlight in comparison to the blazing sun of the ancient theater. Chew on that for a few moments and see if it doesn’t give you a tingle.
In that original prelude, I provided the history and context for what happened in other epics between the Fall of Troy and the tale of Odysseus as recorded here. I offered the structure of how the story unfolds within this poem, which provides its own summary of the story. For this review, then, I can skip the summary and offer my thoughts on what it means.
As I mentioned, The Odyssey is the quest for life in the here and now as opposed to the pursuit of immortality in death as presented in The Iliad. The overall theme is the relationship between guest and host. One is expected to treat a stranger with kindness, offering a relief of immediate needs before even knowing the person’s name or allegiances. So it is as Telemachus meets with his father’s comrades in arms in their homes, and so it is as Odysseus finds refuge with the Phaiakians. But then there is the abuse of the guest and the abuse of the host, which represents a complete breakdown in civilization. The suitors who eat their hosts out of house and home, threatening ruin to Penelope, are those who did not go to Troy to fight. They circle like vultures, literally picking apart a carcass. The cyclops is a terrible host, clearly, looking to eat his visitors. Circe turns her guests into pigs. And Calypso… well, she is proof that all the comforts cannot ease a longing heart. Mortality requires more of us than mere existence.
In the flashbacks wherein Odysseus regales his Phaiakian hosts with his adventures, he proves that he is a leader of men, worthy to return home a hero, in spite of losing everything and everyone under his command. This is important, because as we see, his victory at Troy is known to the bard, and that means his reputation — his Glory — is still intact. Without the understanding that he did everything right and still had fools undermine his genius, his Honor would fade, stealing his Glory from him. It’s the same lessons we learned on the battlefield, applied to peacetime. The thing is, cunning is not the same as wisdom, and this is where Odysseus must suffer more, thus driving the character arc through the entire story. When he tells the cyclops his name is “Nobody,” that is cunning. None can avenge the cyclops against nothing. But in his hubris, Odysseus tells the cyclops his name as he returns to his ship, and the cyclops entreats upon his father, Poseidon, to avenge him. That is where ten years of suffering at Troy become only the halfway point for all the years of suffering for Odysseus must now endure, because he had not the wisdom to keep his yap shut. For his audacity, he loses his ships, his men, his treasures, and the years of happiness he might have had with his wife. On top of that, his son grows from infancy to manhood without him there, which is the kind of primal loss that even Athena does not understand in her immortality. Ten years or twenty, it’s all the same to her, no matter how helpful she is. All of this is pain of the heart, combined with not knowing what it is he’ll return to. Could it be that Penelope might have been unfaithful? Would he return only to be murdered as was Agamemnon? The variables for Odysseus are quite literally numberless when one considers how many threats he faced due to his need to put his name forward. He had renown enough for the world of men, but he had to be known to the gods and monsters too. It’s a harsh lesson.
Upon his return, there are little moments that resonate for me. He learns of servants both loyal and disloyal. He poses as a beggar and must take all manner of abuse from suitor and slave alike. His dog, a puppy when he left, has grown old and tired waiting loyally for his master, and even in under Athena’s guise, the dog recognizes him, wags his tail, and passes away silently. Odysseus can not even acknowledge this friend’s final moment, lest he betray himself and his purpose. That is the lesson of the cyclops, made real. And then the ultimate test, he cannot betray himself to Penelope once he finally has an audience. There is bloody work ahead, one of the most memorable sequences in all of literature.
For Penelope, we see that she is Odysseus’ match in intelligence at all levels, perhaps why she was so loyal to him. They are the original power couple. Think Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Francis and Claire Underwood. It’s curious, then, that there are two ways to read Penelope upon Odysseus’ return. One could read that she is completely unaware that he is in her presence, that Athena’s disguise has fooled her, as was the intent, but then some lines don’t ring true. One could just as easily read that she is completely aware, that the heart pushes aside the veil of the gods with ease, which makes perfect sense… save for a handful of lines here and there. Scholars have bickered about this for centuries. I read it that her heart knows, but her head won’t allow her to believe it. It’s too good to be true. She is a woman at war with herself, exhibiting the same trait that led Odysseus to reveal his name to the cyclops. She is smart enough, however, and hopeful enough, to wait it out and trust to fate. She provides all of the opportunity for Odysseus to enact his plan, knowing it would not change a thing for her otherwise if she is wrong.
I came to realize in the course of this that to properly give The Odyssey its due would require one of those scroll-by-scroll analyses, much as I’m doing with Tolkien. I also came to realize that it would be totally worth the time and effort to do so. I simply don’t have that to spare at this point. I’m going to add that to my bucket list, however, and I’ll tell you why. For me, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is the greatest fictional world building ever created. Shakespeare is the acknowledged master of the English language, the bard to whom all others strive in their own attempts at greatness. Homer was there first, and regardless of my personal feelings towards Tolkien, those centuries of head start mean that Homer will always remain more relevant and vital to the thrust of civilization. More than that, the dramatic prowess demonstrated mean that while Shakespeare is indisputably the greatest bard of the English speaking world, Homer is the superior bard in the world, period. Shakespeare would acknowledge that, I think, and I expect as my explorations of his work progresses that I will find that acknowledgment. Even Caesar had Alexander envy, but to whom did Alexander look upon for inspiration? Achilles, of course, who would ultimately lament that what Odysseus had was superior still, that he regretted in death his quest for Honor and Glory over all else. The lessons of Odysseus, the humanity he must learn and the terrible price he must pay, are all over the themes of Shakespeare. How is Odysseus remembered and praised for his accomplishments? In song, by the bards, through the muses. The power of the arts as the truest engine of civilization triumphs over the destruction of war. And that makes sense to me, as Shakespeare’s heyday is the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque, the level of dramatic expertise that opened the way to Opera. And now you know why a successful Operatic performance is known as a triumph. It all comes full circle, and it all points back to Homer and his epics.
This particular translation is one I’ve read before, long considered the gold standard. But the selection of it for this go-round on audio came down to the choice of narrator. This recording of The Odyssey is performed by Sir Ian McKellan. Need I say more? It’s an older recording. He doesn’t yet have the gravel of age in his voice that he will bring to bear for Gandalf, but the power of the performance is most definitely there, honed well by so many years of Shakespeare. The recording itself is a digital transfer from cassette, with the chapter breaks corresponding not to the books of the story, but to the end of the side of the tape, marked by a musical interlude. A couple of the chapters are of degraded quality, where it sounds as though the tape is possibly on its last legs, not unlike our dramatic hero, and like him, it endures the hardship and carries on anyway. In some ways, that’s a kind of nostalgia for me, as my first audiobooks were on cassette, both of the Homeric epics and an abridged version of Le Morte D’Arthur, all narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi. Different translation, but an astounding performance in its own right, I assure you. I’d be hard pressed to tell you which narration I prefer. Accordingly, as if there were any doubt, I have nothing but praise for what McKellan brings to this. The limitations in the recording itself do not detract from his delivery, nor do they detract from the power of the tale he performs. If anything, it puts it into perspective to consider how modern even this recording is by comparison of the story itself.
The Odyssey is truly the tale for the ages, the original quest upon the foundation of which all others are launched. For all of its inspiration, there’s not a modern novel that touches upon this tale that can live up. Any of them will be forgotten in a handful of years while this one remains rock-steady in the annals of human lore for all the reasons. Its magnificence is beyond reproach, its impact beyond question, its endurance legendary in the truest sense of the word. It is the epic by which all others are compared, up to and including the Arthurian sagas and my beloved The Lord of the Rings. Any who say otherwise have clearly never experienced it.
Take a bow, Homer, and hear your praises sung into eternity by the muses.