1994-11-07: The Odyssey

The Odyssey

(-750, tr. E.V. Rieu, 1946) by Homer (~-850?)

This prose translation was gripping, the writing as good as any novel. Reading such a translation makes me wish I could read the original.

The work is interesting for its story, of course. The contrast with the Iliad is striking. Rexroth says the Iliad is the first tragedy and the Odyssey the first novel; I believe it. I found the attitudes toward and portrayal of the gods particularly interesting (though I didn’t take notes). Zeus’ role as protector of strangers and promoter of hospitality is evidently self-serving to a minstrel such as Homer.

Also interesting was the extent to which the genealogies of the characters were evidently important. It made me wonder the extent to which they may reflect actual names and peoples.

There is little suspense in the plot, and the only surprises are in the character of Oddyseus. I found the scene near the end, where he misleads Laertes, who doesn’t seem to mind (perhaps he wasn’t alert enough to notice), particularly peculiar.

The story is a great one, but not of our time. No one is writing contemporary novels, stories, poems or songs with these themes. It doesn’t speak to us in the way the Iliad does. Rexroth was right about that.

Still, I’m glad I read it, and glad I read it now, rather than 20 or more years ago.

One passage seems particularly worth preserving; Odysseus, in disguise, addresses his wife’s suitors:

Of all creatures that breathe and creep about on Mother Earth, there is none so helpless as a man. As long as heaven leaves him in prosperity and health, he never thinks hard times are on their way. Yet when the blessed gods have brought misfortune on his head, he simply has to steel himself and bear it. In fact our outlook upon life here on earth depends entirely on the way in which Providence is treating us at the moment. Look at myself. There was a time when I was marked out to be one of the lucky ones, yet what must I do but let my own strength run away with me and take to a life of lawless violence under the delusion that my father and my brothers would stand by me? Let that be a lesson to every man never to disregard the laws of god but quietly to enjoy whatever blessings Providence may afford.   [book 28, ~130]

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