One of the earliest surviving works of Western literature, and widely hailed as one of the most influential, The Odyssey occupies an intimidating position of prestige which can seem overwhelming. However, for new readers, the weight of the story's heritage is thrown off by the ultimate simplicity of its theme: a man is lost, and he is trying to get home. We shouldn't be surprised that Odysseus' struggles have inspired so much admiration and imitation over the years, as they are only a distorted magnification of struggles common to us all. It's hard for mere mortal readers to identify with most classical heroes - an indomitable Hercules, or invulnerable Achilles can only be admired from afar. His journey may be more eventful than ours, and the distance travelled a good deal greater, but the restless yearning which underpins Odysseus' heroism is utterly, painfully human.
What really can get overwhelming is the sheer volume of historical, mythical, and legendary detail that is folded into the tale. Like the shadowy figure of 'Homer' himself, the epic poem represents centuries of accumulated storytelling, both oral and written, passed down through the generations - and it shows. The wanderings of Odysseus take an encyclopedic tour of the classical world; from the gods of Olympus to the shades of the Underworld, the dreams and nightmares of a long-dead culture run together as our hero seemingly traverses every inch of heaven and earth except the one patch he longs for. It is the untangling of these many threads that allows us to truly appreciate the poem, and we couldn't ask for a better tool than Victoria's excellent profile.
“I am Odysseus, Laertes’ son. The whole world talks of my stratagems, and my fame has reached the heavens.” (Book 9, 19)
The Odyssey is one of the earliest and most famous pieces of western literature. It is an epic tale of adventure, magic, love and loss, of the struggle to regain civilisation after returning from war, and of the joy that home and family bring. These universal themes stretch across borders and time; from the ancient Greeks to James Joyce to the Coen Brothers, The Odyssey has remained one of the most influential stories ever told. As Odysseus struggles against the inhuman and the barbaric, against sinister magic and brutal monsters, seductive goddesses and the terrifying forces of nature, we are reminded of what it means to be human. The Odyssey can be enjoyed on several levels. Not only is it an incredibly important work in terms of its influence on western arts, its historical revelations about ancient Greek society, and its fascinating insight into ancient oral poetry, it is also a very enjoyable story.
Once Homer has set the scene and introduced us to the world and characters of his epic, The Odyssey moves at a roaring pace through Odysseus’ various encounters and adventures. The plot is tightly structured, including a ‘story within a story’ motif that allows for flashbacks whilst maintaining the tension and immediacy of the story. All the characters in the epic are very well-realised. Their speeches, though often long and dramatic, do not seem overwritten or fanciful, and their actions are always completely believable in each particular circumstance. Odysseus himself is the perfect hero, cunning, brave and resourceful, but with that all-important fatal flaw that shows him as a real person, capable of mistakes and bad judgements. This particular fatal flaw is perhaps one of the best ever given to a hero; he is too proud, always concerned with his own fame and reputation for ingenuity. He is always just a little too pleased with himself, and it is this that gets him into so much trouble throughout the epic. It also paints him as a much more endearing character than the lofty heroes of other stories.
Readers unfamiliar with Homer or ancient oral poetry might find the style and language a little challenging at first. In modern literature, we are not used to seeing so much repetition of language and scenes, or such long, rambling digressions and backstories. The odd quirks of an epic poem that was meant to be performed rather than read take some getting used to. Though parts may seem coarser than the carefully constructed language of later literary works, after several pages the reader will find that the strange rhythmic style has become surprisingly enchanting. The beauty of The Odyssey's language also cannot be denied. Using repeated phrases like “as soon as Dawn appeared, fresh and rosy fingered,” Homer conjures up vivid and beautiful imagery at every turn. In fact, the poem is alive and colourful on every level, appealing to all the senses in such a vibrant way that is rarely found in modern works. Reading the poem makes one hungry for the lavish feasts described, and ache to hear the sweet singing of the bards. It makes one long for Greece, for its sparkling azure sea, or the deep wine-dark waves between the rocky islands, for its rosy-fingered dawns, for Ithaca where goats play in the rocky grass, or the lush meadows and horses of Lacedaemon.
A few words should certainly be said about the translation, as this great epic could not be enjoyed without the effort and talent of E. V. Rieu, or the careful additions and edits of his son D. C. H. Rieu. Between them, they have captured the atmosphere and beauty of Homer’s epic, without ever drowning out his voice in place of theirs. The layout of this translation presents The Odyssey as a book rather than a poem. This will certainly make it an easier and more enjoyable experience for the casual reader. However, for those who wish to get more of a feel for the rhythm and structure of the original Greek verse, a different translation will be more useful. Students of The Odyssey might also want to discover the differences that alternative approaches to the translation will bring. A good translation presented in poem-form is the Hackett version by Stanley Lombardo.
Monsters, villains, a cunning hero, magic and gods, action and adventure, heartbreak and humour; Homer’s Odyssey is a story to be remembered and loved by all readers. The Odyssey takes itself less seriously than other epics; it is a great deal more fun, but also has a great deal more heart. It is a moral poem; it teaches us about civilisation and human nature, how to live together in respect and harmony, how important are the virtues of love, home and family, and ultimately how happiness is a greater goal than any amount of fame and fortune; lessons that have not lost their relevance today.
"One of the world's most vital tales... The Odyssey remains central to literature" - Malcolm Bradbury
"The Odyssey is broad and inclusive: it is an epic poem, not in The Iliad's way, with men and nations massed in the first conflict of East and West, but epic in its comprehension of all conditions of men" - Howard Clarke