I am not a poet, but Homer’s Odyssey makes me want to write as beautifully and simply as he does. The Odyssey has become one of my favorite novels because of beautiful lines like: “Side by side the two men took their ease there on smooth stone benches” (125). Robert Fitzgerald’s translated version of The Odyssey shows how passion and good writing can make an ancient tale vibrant for contemporary audiences. Odysseus’s tale is the epic sequel to The Iliad. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is trapped on an island with the Goddess Kalypso, his son sets out to search for word of his lost father, Odysseus is released and goes through trials and tribulations as he heads to Ithaca, his home, where his loyal wife waits after years of separation. I also appreciate The Odyssey because the stories are arranged in selections that act like bite-sized gulps of literature. As a reader, I want to absorb amazing works from all time periods; in modern times we have more distractions than ever and stories told in short passages allow the reader to take in ancient oral stories such as The Odyssey and The Bible. These stories, which were originally written in times before the printing press, were written in small booklets which added up to a whole story. Even though the art form is ancient, this form can be used today. This framework is one of the reasons why The Odyssey succeeds with readers of multiple generations.
One way Homer created the effect of continuity was through movement in the sections. The Odyssey is arranged in twenty-four segments and each has a full story arc within its structure and a question left unanswered which makes the reader come back for more. Fitzgerald improved the original sectioned structure by including titles which indicate what the story is about such as “A Goddess Intervenes” wherein Athena speaks to Zeus about Odysseus’ plight (1-15). Homer started out this way because for the Grecians, everything started and ended with the Gods. Throughout the narrative words and phrases are used repeatedly to create continuity. While this could be a stylistic choice, it is most likely because in oral tradition stories were recounted word for word —it was a way to get the story started and a method the oral tellers used to recall the beginning of stories. In The Odyssey, this is shown by the repetition of references to Dawn or the sunrise: “When primal Dawn spread on the eastern sky her fingers of pale light” (19) and that continue throughout the novel (35, 58, 62, 70, 81, etc.). Repetition creates movement because the story flows back and forth from Odysseus’ time to his recollections. Homer also creates the movement of the entire piece by foreshadowing events such as: “How could a single man take on those odds? Not even a hero could” (292). By referencing the Gods frequently, repeating words and phrases, and using foreshadowing, Homer created movement through The Odyssey’s various segments which creates an overarching design.
Homer weaves setting into action, throughout the entire novel which creates feelings of different places by use of different textures; he wove movement and setting together to create remarkable tableaus: “He went up from the cove through wooded ground, taking a stony trail into the high hills, where the swineherd lived, according to Athena” (247). He creates a sense of movement by mixing moving action through the scenery and following it at a close angle as if it were a camera. The Odyssey did this in a way I’ve never seen before. One example is: “The tortoise tags the hare—Hephasitos catches Arȇs—and Arȇs outran the wind” (134). This line is fantastic in its simplicity, yet creates a vivid scene that has echoes down through literature.
The most memorable moment in this epic poem for me is when Odysseus returns to Ithaca in disguise and no one recognizes him except for his dog who is “Abandoned there, and half destroyed with flies, old Argos lay” (320). The next section is beautiful:
But when he knew he heard
Odysseus’ voice nearby, he did his best
To wag his tail, nose down, with flattened ears,
Having no strength to move nearer his master.
And the man looked away,
Wiping a salt tear from his cheek… (320)
Although the section is simple, it is like a passage from Thoreau—elegant and compacted. All great literature has moments where the reader feels for the main character, and for me, the main character’s dog. That Homer and Fitzgerald both took the time to focus on the love of the dog for its master showcases their exemplary writing style and humanity.
I recently read an article about a book by Professor Thanassis Papadopoulos and his team who, after sixteen years, are believed to have found the Palace of Odysseus in Ithaca. This leads me to wonder how much is myth and how much is truth about Odysseus—and who tells the story. I do not know if one man, Homer, or a troupe of writers crafted this epic poem. There have been questions about Homer just like there are about Shakespeare. I do know the story continuously builds; the twenty-four books of The Odyssey echo the type of story I want to tell. Before I read this, I did not know I could do that. Now I know that others have done it, and in the tone of The Odyssey and Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I am going to tell my story that way—with episodes inside the story. I think the readers of today would respond to and appreciate individual episodes which are self-contained stories—stories within stories which add up to a total experience.
You want to know how many stars? Really? It’s Homer’s The Odyssey. You’d be crazy to not read it now. 5 stars and lots of love – it’s one of our literature touchstones – a relic and a masterpiece!
Homer. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. The Odyssey. First Vintage Classics Edition, 1990.