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.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather Pearson December 10, 2010 at 10:49 am

I haven’t read this one and I’ll admit that it hasn’t been on my reading list either. I will have to take a look for it. Didn’t realize that it was an epic poes. Thanks for your comments.

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Heather: I didn’t realize it was an epic poem until I started reading it, either. It wouldn’t have been on my list except for the read-a-long and Atwood, but I’m really glad to have read it.

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Laurel Corona December 10, 2010 at 11:17 am

Fagle’s translation is the best! BTW, if you are interested in fictional retellings, besides the Penelopiad, there is Margaret George’s novel Helen of Troy, and my own recent Penguin release, Penelope’s Daughter. So glad you got into Homer!

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Thanks, Laurel. I hadn’t really looked into other retellings, but I think they’d all be a lot of fun. They’ll all be going on my list of books to look into!

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Trisha December 10, 2010 at 3:03 pm

LOL! I had the SAME problem when I went to purchase the book. Looking in poetry never even crossed my mind. :)

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Trisha: I never, ever would have found it there had I not asked about it. But of course it makes sense, in retrospect.

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Shelley (Book Clutter) December 10, 2010 at 4:23 pm

I had a 40% off coupon for Barnes and Noble a couple of years ago and bought the Fagles set of The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s one of my favorite purchases ever!

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Shelley: I do want to read The Iliad now that I’ve read this one — I think it’ll be fun. I bet they make a beautiful set next to each other!

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Jenny December 10, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Hooray, glad you liked it! I only know where to look for Homer in the bookstore because we had to read Virgil in Latin in high school, and my Latin teacher told us explicitly “It’s a poem. Look in the poetry section of the bookstore.” :p

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Jenny: Thank goodness for English teachers who can give their students good directions. I miss mine :)

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Ash December 10, 2010 at 10:13 pm

I’ve never even considered reading The Odyssey. Not sure why, I just don’t seem to be very interested in it. But your explanation is making me second guess. Maybe I’ll give it a try some summer or after I graduate, definitely not now!

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Ash: I hadn’t really thought about it either, just as one of those “books I should read someday” kind of things. I think it’s a lot of fun, and much more accessible than expected. It’d a fun after school lets out kind of book.

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softdrink December 11, 2010 at 7:05 am

I gave it a feminist-y reading, too. It was hard not to, considering there 1)aren’t a lot of mortal women in the story and 2)I didn’t like any of them.

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 5:54 pm

softdrink: That’s a good point. There are so few women that it’s hard not to think critically about them. Also, they are pretty lame.

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Lisa December 11, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Seems like this turned out to be an excellent readalong for all involved!

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Lisa: Yes, I think so!

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Erin December 13, 2010 at 4:19 pm

The only reason I suspected Poetry was that that’s where we shelved it when I worked in a bookstore. Otherwise I’d probably have been in Fiction too! Glad you liked it and even that you got your thoughts up a bit late…kind of fun to revisit the story by reading your post!

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Erin: Yeah, I’m glad that I liked it too. Sometimes it’s hard to tell with older books, if they’ll work for you or not. But I guess I can count myself among the people that possibly enjoys ancient Greek epic poems :)

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