For all its reputation as ‘the greatest adventure story ever written,’ The Odyssey is lacking one very expected and vital component: adventure. I don’t quite understand how it garnered that moniker; something like ‘the greatest sitting-around-and-talking story ever written’ seems much more appropriate, and then I wouldn’t have been as surprised as I was at the lack of adventure and the amount of sitting-around-and-talking there was; I still would have only enjoyed it the same amount that I did, which wasn’t much, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.
We’ve all heard about the Sirens and the Cyclops (above), the trip to Hades and the fights with the monsters etc, but what we’re not usually told is that all that stuff is encompassed within only 7 of the 24 books; the entirety of the 17 others consists of . . . sitting around and talking (with one or two pages of excessive violence — especially against the slave women — at the end). It’s all mostly dreadfully boring, and while the structure itself is actually quite interesting (I’ll get to that in a minute), the execution is slow, plodding, repetitive and dull. It may have been the archetype for the medieval and modern quest narrative, but aside from that distinction, it’s amazingly very easily forgettable.
So let me start with the positives. As mentioned, the structure is pretty great; Odysseus’s travels are bookended by the supposed sub-plot (which unfortunately turns out to actually be the main plot, but anyway) of his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, at home being besieged by the suitors, waiting for him to return. If this part of the story was truly bookend and not most of the book, it would have worked much better; as it is, it’s about 100 pages from when Odysseus arrives home and takes the form of a beggar to when he finally kills the suitors, and the amount of time he goes on and on simply testing their characters, repeatedly, over and over . . . well, I’m not sure why ancient bards and audiences found all that so enthralling. The only possible explanation I can come up with is that of positing The Odyssey as a ‘morality tale;’ the true function of the story was maybe meant less as entertainment and more as a quasi-religious text, focusing on the exactitudes of various moral and immoral behaviour and highlighting the punishments for each. If this is meant to be at least partly the case, then the ‘travels and travails’ stuff could almost be viewed as just tacked on for spectacular purposes, but not what the heart of the story was supposed to be.
Be that as it may, it makes it excruciatingly difficult to read at times. Take this passage, for instance — Telemachus is getting ready to leave Sparta, and he has just received some gifts from Menelaus and Helen:
So saying, she (Helen) gave the robe over to him and he received it gladly. Then Pisistratus put the presents in the chariot, and admired them all as he did so. Presently Menelaus took Telemachus and Pisistratus into the house, and they both of them sat down to table. A maid-servant brought them water in a beautiful golden ewer, and poured it into a silver basin for them to wash their hands, and she drew a clean table beside them; an upper servant brought them bread and offered them many good things of what there was in the house. Eteoneus carved the meat and gave them each their portions, while Megapenthes poured out the wine. Then they laid their hands upon the good things that were before them. But as soon as they had had enough to eat and drink Telemachus and Pisistratus yoked the horses, and took their places in the chariot. They drove out through the inner gateway and under the echoing gatehouse of the outer court, and Menelaus came after them with a golden goblet of wine in his right hand that they might make a drink offering before they set out. He stood in front of the horses and pledged them, saying, “Farewell to both of you . . .”
Book XV, pg. 186 (Butler translation)
Asleep yet? Do you realize how completely extraneous all that description is (unless you’re a historical anthropologist) if they aren’t even going to have their leave-taking conversation until afterwards? That entire paragraph could have been written thusly: “After receiving the admirable gifts and eating a quick meal, Telemachus and Pisistratus assembled their chariots in the outer court, wherein Menelaus came out to them with a golden goblet of wine to make a drink offering before they set out.” Even more annoyingly, this same sort of description is repeated almost every single time anyone sits down to eat. Okay, Homer, we get it.
Although there is that interesting theory that The Odyssey was actually written by a woman; one argument for this is because there are several scenes in the poem which espouse the rights of women and criticize the double-standards in effect at the time, but another could be that a man writing this might not have been all that concerned with constantly reporting all these common, domestic routines that people did day-to-day and meal-to-meal. Since three thousand years ago this type of stuff was truly ‘women’s work,’ if a woman was writing the story she might be more inclined to put description like this in at the expense of other things, seeing as it would be what made up a large part of her experience (I realize this argument hinges on very base gender stereotypes, but, again, it was three thousand years ago, so bear with me).
Those ‘other things’ would be, of course, action. Take the confrontation with Charybdis (a killer whirlpool) and Scylla (a killer monster), for example. There is a pretty great description of Scylla earlier on:
She has twelve misshapen feet, and six necks of the most prodigious length; and at the end of each neck she has a frightful head with three rows of teeth in each . . . so that they would crunch anyone to death in a moment . . . she (thrusts) out her heads and (peers) all round the rock, fishing for dolphins or dogfish or any larger monster that she can catch . . . no ship ever yet got past her without losing some men, for she shoots out all her heads at once, and carries off a man in each mouth.
This, plus the build-up to Odysseus’s arrival, is all pretty good, and puts you in a state of anticipation, but then once they get there, all that happens is that while trying to avoid the whirlpool . . .
. . . Scylla pounced down suddenly upon us and snatched up my six best men. I was looking after both ship and men, and in a moment I saw their hands and feet ever so high above me, struggling in the air as Scylla was carrying them off, and I heard them call out my name in one last despairing cry . . . Scylla land(ed) these panting creatures on her rock and munch(ed) them up at the mouth of her den, while they screamed and stretched out their hands to me in their mortal agony. This was the most sickening sight that I saw throughout all my voyages.
When we had passed the rocks, with Scylla and terrible Charybdis, we reached the island of the sun god . . .
Book XII, pg. 153
“It was the most sickening sight that I had ever seen, but I did nothing about it, and then we went to this other island.” I mean, talk about anti-climax. As you can see, there is more description of sitting down to eat than there is of this ‘exciting’ encounter (save for a simile to a fisherman that I left out). This is in complete contrast to The Iliad, where there are vivid descriptions of eyeballs rolling around in the dust, and Achilles has to fight against a magic river, among other things. So did ‘Homer’ really write The Odyssey, or was it his daughter, or wife, or someone else, or many people? Well, whomever it was, male or female, obviously wasn’t all that interested in the fine details of Odysseus’s terrible voyages; the main thing was about getting him home to begin the karmic testing of his allies and karmic, and then literal, destruction of the suitors. It’s just so unfortunate that had to be the ‘main thing.’
The Odyssey’s popularity and longevity seems to be based solely on the fact that for millennia it had no real competition save it’s big brother The Iliad; but now, in this Harry Potter age, it wouldn’t surprise me if The Odyssey quickly falls from its pedestal as ‘enduring work of great adventure literature’ to ‘esoteric text on the social mores of ancient Greece.’ Who knows — maybe it already has; I don’t see anyone rushing to make a big-budget blockbuster out of it like they did with The Iliad. In today’s world, that’s as sure a death knell as any right there.
I think we can all agree that this one’s probably pretty forgettable, no?