Last year I read The Iliad (translated by Caroline Alexander). This year I felt it was time to journey back to Ithaca.
I knew a bit heading into The Odyssey, having picked up a fair amount of the plot from around and about (unlike The Iliad, The Odyssey lends itself more easily to anthologies of Greek mythology). I’d also enjoyed Madeline Miller’s Circe, a modern inversion of the tale (and other Greek myths) from one of the epic’s female characters. So there were few surprises in terms of the plot itself.
Briefly then: Odysseus, king of Ithaca, left his wife Penelope and newborn son Telemachus 20 years ago to fight in the Trojan war alongside heroes such as Achilles (see: The Iliad). The fighting goes on for ten years, then, having conquered Troy, the Greeks set off home. Odysseus is waylaid by various fantastical turns of misfortune – cyclopes, sirens, witches, monsters, goddesses, the dead – and takes ten years to get home. Meanwhile back in Ithaca a hundred suitors have been trying to woo his wife, eating Penelope and Telemachus out of house and home. Finally, Odysseus returns home, massacres the suitors, and everyone lives happily ever after. (I jest: Homer doesn’t do happy endings).
What took me completely off guard was the daringness of the narrative. This is a story in which the central character doesn’t appear for four chapters. Instead it starts with Telemachus, almost 20, setting out to ask the old Trojan warriors for news of his father.
We meet Odysseus towards the end of his journey, stuck on an island for seven years with minor goddess Calypso, who has promised him immortality if he would only marry her. But he chooses home – and therefore ultimately death. Then he crosses the sea to the island of the Phaeacians, where he recounts his tale of suffering up to that point, including the infamous cyclops, Circe, and Hades.
Most unexpectedly, Odysseus actually arrives home halfway through the poem. What follows is a gripping domestic thriller as Odysseus tests and conspires with his family to rid the house of suitors. The tension ratchets upwards to a moment of bloodlust more shocking than anything Game of Thrones ever managed. The poem ends on an irresolute note, a choice that Odysseus faces. You think you know what he will do, but there is just enough doubt to keep you wondering.
I loved everything about The Odyssey, from the high fantasy and action to the inner lives of its wonderful characters. There are moments so beautiful and moving, so hard-won, that I caught my breath. It is capital E entertainment.
I need to stop being surprised that the ancients produced narrative as inventive (or more so) than the stories we make today. This inventiveness is also kind of the point. The Odyssey is a story about stories, spilling them all over the place, in digressions and flashbacks, doubling and deceits, wherever it can. As the narrator says when Penelope finally reunites with her husband “and when the couple had enjoyed their love-making, they shared another pleasure – telling stories.”
What else is it about? The Odyssey is obsessed with honour, but on the domestic front rather than in the battlefield (and really, the poem seems to be asking, is there much difference?). Time and again Odysseus encounters stories of unfaithful wives, inhospitable hosts and bad guests (not unlike Airbnb), and those who forgot to sacrifice properly to the gods. A key frame for Odysseus’s plight is Agamemnon, who returned from Troy to find his wife with another man. Subsequently, they had him killed; and Agamemnon’s son sought revenge. It is a story that forebodes Odysseus’ return while also playing on his anxieties about his own household. The Odyssey, then, is a code, a guide to living an honourable life, which includes violently dispatching anyone who threatens yours.
It is also impossible not to sit The Odyssey alongside its companion. The Iliad is a different beast entirely: concentrated and cool, honing in with a laser-like focus on the events that spell the end of the Trojan war. “Wrath – sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles”, The Iliad begins, and over 24 books the poem never sways from this theme. It is a poem of war and all its horror.
The Odyssey, which begins, “tell me about a complicated man”, similarly follows through on this promise. But it is a more sprawling and generous affair. We get time to really get inside the characters, understand them. There is suffering, for sure, but there is also joy and hope.
If The Iliad is about war, heroism, immortality, The Odyssey is about what happens next. How do we go home? What does home even mean after such suffering? How do we return to ourselves, and keep living in the face of our mortality? The Odyssey makes the case that the process is fraught. Its Trojan heroes – Nestor, Menelaus, Helen – are weary and grief-stricken. Odysseus wanders the Mediterranean, lost in a fugue of PTSD, something that might explain the extreme violence with which he deals with the suitors. Home is not the way he left it (can it ever be?), and nor is he. But perhaps he and his family can salvage something from all this suffering.
There are gods in The odyssey as in the Iliad, playing with human lives like pawns on a chessboard – Athena and Poseidon key among them. But while The Iliad exalted immortality and the humans who strove for it, something more dangerous seems to be creeping about in The Odyssey, that humans might have their own agency, and that the one power they have over the gods is the fact that they can die.
There are archaisms in the text, sure, but they are surprisingly few, especially in the excellent translation by Emily Wilson, which is robust and earthy, and importantly, calls a slave a slave (instead of dancing around the issue of servitude with terms like “maid”). There are elaborate metaphors which rely on you living in a Greek city-state, a fondness for introducing characters by listing all their ancestors, and a patriarchal approach to gender. But not as patriarchal as you might expect: the The Odyssey’s women have more to do, think and feel than a lot of 20th Century novels.
Gay rating: 1/5 – I ship Telemachus and Nestor’s son Pisistratus, said to be “intimate”.