And Then I Finished The Odyssey

by Kim on December 10, 2010 · 19 comments

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Awhile ago I started reading The Odyssey as part of a read-a-long hosted by Trish at Love, Laughter, and Insanity. I did finish the book right on schedule, reading the last page on Thanksgiving during a post-turkey coma, but then never got around to writing up my thoughts (for the end, or for the second check in… a good participant, I am not).

But The Odyssey was awesome, and I am really glad I read it. I have to admit, that’s not what I expected would happen — something about The Odyssey being an epic, ancient, and a poem intimidated me into thinking I’d hate it, which was not the case at all.

In fact, I liked the book so much that I went on an epic quest of my own to try and buy a copy. First I thought it would be in the fiction section at the bookstore, which was not true, even though many other ancient classics are there. Then I looked in the ancient history section, which also had Greek classics, just not The Odyssey. So then I asked a bookstore employee who kindly took me over to the poetry section because, duh, The Odyssey is an epic poem. Me = dork.

So what happens in this book? When Sophisticated Dorkiness last left The Odyssey, in ultra-condensed form, Odysseus was just finishing up telling the story of his imprisonment to the Phaeacians. The offer him a boat and sail him all the way home. Poseidon and Zeus are displeased, so the turn the Phaeacians’ boat into a massive rock after they deliver Odysseus. That’s what you get for helping a guy out.

Athena finds Odysseus and helps him take on the disguise of an old beggar. He returns to Ithaca and proceeds to trick everyone with his weird beggar story, except his son, Telemachus, who he confides in, and a couple of other people who figure it out. He doesn’t even tell Penelope!

The next day, at Athena’s suggestion, Odysseus-the-beggar challenges the suitors to an archery contest with his bow. Of course, none of them can even string the bow, so he wins. He then turns on the suitors with the help of Athena, Telemachus, and others, and takes them all down. Understandably, the people of Ithaca aren’t thrilled about their sons and whatnot being killed, but Athena intervenes and all is well with the world.

That’s pretty sketchy. If you want a more detailed summary than that, I suggest checking out the posts on the Mr. Linky from Check-in the Fourth – they’re all great posts.

I think one reason I enjoyed this so much was because the translation by Robert Fagles was so good. He did a nice job making the text both rhythmic — keeping in spirit with the fact that it’s a poem — and readable. If I were to read it out loud, I think it would have sounded like a book, except for various repeated phrases, which gave it a lyrical quality.

Odysseus as a character was really frustrating for me. On the one hand, he’s an ancient Greek, so gets some latitude in terms of being “progressive” or “tolerant of others.” But on the other hand, he’s sort of an ass — sleeping with women, pillaging as he pleases, talking himself up in all of his stories. It gets a little old, but I guess many of our current hero stories could be critiqued in the same way.

The women in the story weren’t much “better” that Odysseus: Penelope is prone to crying and fainting, Calypso and Circe are manipulative and man-eaters (maybe literally, since Circe turns men into pigs!), many of Penelope’s handmaids sleep around and betray her, and the other Greek wives seemed to have equally checkered pasts. There are obviously different standards for the way women and men behave, as well as the way mortals and gods conduct themselves. I think there was a point at which Calypso pointed this out explicitly — why can Zeus have mortal lovers but she can’t? — and I was glad about that.

And the violence! Wow, Odysseus and Telemachus taking down the suitors was brutal — more brutal than I expected given the early parts of the story (minus the stabbing of the Cyclops’ eye). No mercy, for real, but I guess that’s just ancient Greece.

Now that I read back, I think I’m giving this a more unfair feminsit-y reading than it deserves, in part because I was reading it thinking about Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopeiad, which is a retelling of the story from Penelope’s perspective. I was deliberately paying attention to gender dynamics because I think Atwood is going to play that up heavily in the retelling.

Overall, I think reading The Odyssey reminded me that classics don’t have to be intimidating. The language is sometimes hard — all those Greek names, yikes! — and the stories exist within the social rules of the time they were written, not the ones we use today, but they still have interesting things to say. The Odyssey is really good story, full of all the things we expect in an epic — romance, drama, violence, and redemption — just in a slightly older package.

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