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Book Review: The Odyssey
Major themes, lessons, and little parts I liked. Poor Argus.
I see why they typically have students read it instead of The Iliad in school. It is much more of a story and has a more fun narrative than you get from The Iliad. If you remember from my Iliad review, that was my main complaint about it. It felt like a somewhat pieced-together story, with large chunks that weren’t so relevant to the main arc of Achilles’s Wrath.
The Odyssey on the other hand tells a great story of Odysseus’s return to his home in Ithaca. Like The Iliad, Homer centers the story on one very brief time period, the days around Odysseus’s return. Everything that happens during the 20 years he is gone, you only hear via stories told by the characters within the poem.
The first thing that stood out to me was the narrative complexity. The story starts in the present day with Telemachus dealing with all the suitors trying to woo his mother, Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. The gods tell him that his father is coming home, and he should set out to learn about his father from his comrades at Troy since Telemachus was a baby when Odysseus left.
Telemachus sails to neighboring islands and hears some reflections on Troy and Odysseus from Odysseus’s friends. Then Odysseus enters the story right at the end of his journey, and he retells everything that has happened to him at a banquet on Scheria before being given a ship home. Once he returns home, he reunites with Telemachus, and the story continues.
I somewhat naively, I suppose, assumed that more complex narrative structures evolved over time. But this weaving narrative of past and present told through various stories and characters shows how wrong I was. It’s clear that we as humans have been honing our narrative capabilities for much longer, and stories were not historically trapped in a linear progression.
Themes and Lessons
Thanks to the narrative structure, we see much more of Odysseus’s growth as an individual than I felt we saw of Achilles in The Iliad. Like The Iliad, I’m imagining Homer telling this around a fire or a banquet to try to share some eternal wisdom about the world. There were two themes in particular that stood out as the potential primary ones:
Heed the Gods
At least half of the bad things that happen in The Odyssey are caused by Odysseus or his crewmen not listening to the gods’ advice or commands.
Aeolus tells them not to open the bag, they open it, and their ship gets blown back to shore. Odysseus tells his men not to eat Helios’s cattle, they eat them, and Zeus destroys their ship. Circe tells Odysseus not to wear any armor when passing Scylla, but he does, and six of his crew get eaten.
But once he makes it back to Ithaca, he and the other characters start listening to the gods. They follow Athene’s advice (mostly Athene at this point) and everything goes smoothly.
Notably, the book ends with one final instance of Odysseus doing exactly what the gods tell him to do, and it saving his life:
“Athene called out to Odysseus:
'Odysseus, favourite of Zeus, resourceful son of Laertes, hold your hand! Stop fighting your countrymen, in case you incur the wrath of Zeus the Thunderer.'
Odysseus obeyed her, and his heart rejoiced. Then Pallas Athene, Daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, still using Mentor's form and voice for her disguise, established peace between the two sides.”
Odysseus learns the important lesson we too are supposed to take away: listen to the gods, even if it doesn’t make sense. They know what’s best.
While ignoring the gods creates most of their troubles, the second most common reason anything bad happens in the story is hubris.
This is most apparent in the cyclops scene. They’ve managed to blind the cyclops and escape his lair, and while they’re sailing away Odysseus yells at him from the ship:
“Cyclops! So he was not such a weakling after all, the man whose friends you meant to overpower and eat in your hollow cave! And your crimes were bound to catch up with you, you brute, who did not shrink from devouring your guests. Now Zeus and all the other gods have paid you out."
Then the Cyclops throws a giant boulder at them and almost washes their ship onto shore. So Odysseus realizes he shouldn’t be a dick and stops shouting. Ah no actually he says:
"Cyclops, if anyone ever asks you how you came by your blindness, tell him your eye was put out by Odysseus, sacker of cities, the son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca."
What an idiot right? And sure enough, now the Cyclops knows his name, tells it to daddy Poseidon, and then everything bad that happens after is mostly caused by Poseidon being royally pissed at Odysseus.
There are some other minor versions of this too. Like when Odysseus beats up Irus in his home in Ithaca, it’s because Irus is being a braggy dick to Odysseus thinking he’s a feeble old man:
“Irus is going to be un-Irused. He was looking for trouble and he'll find it.”
But Odysseus eventually learns this lesson too, and it ends up saving him from letting his rage destroy his plan against the suitors:
“With that he passed by, and as he did so the fool landed a kick on Odysseus' hip, failing, however, to push him off the path, so firm was his stance. Odysseus debated whether to leap at the fellow and kill him with his staff or to lift him by his middle and smash his head on the ground. In the end he managed to control himself.”
Those were the main things I enjoyed, but there were a few other thoughts or parts I liked.
The Dog, Argus
This is such a sweet and heartbreaking scene. I’m not sure why Homer included it, maybe other than to highlight how awesome dogs are.
Odysseus had a puppy before he left, Argus, who he had trained. When Odysseus left, Argus was forgotten about, and it sounds like he had just been left out for dead:
“As they stood talking, a dog lying there lifted his head and pricked up his ears. Argus was his name. Patient Odysseus himself had owned and bred him, though he had sailed for holy Ilium before he could reap the benefit. In years gone by the young huntsmen had often taken him out after wild goats, deer and hares. But now, in his owner's absence, he lay abandoned on the heaps of dung from the mules and cattle which lay in profusion at the gate, awaiting removal by Odysseus' servants as manure for his great estate. There, full of vermin, lay Argus the hound.”
And while Odysseus’s wife and father can’t tell who he is through his disguise, Argus can:
“But directly he became aware of Odysseus' presence, he wagged his tail and dropped his ears, though he lacked the strength now to come nearer to his master”
But Odysseus can’t approach him or even acknowledge him, because it would break his disguise. He has to turn away so he doesn’t cry. And then…
“the black hand of Death descended on him the moment he caught sight of Odysseus after twenty years.”
This poor dog has been lying in piles of shit for 20 years waiting for his master. Then Odysseus comes back, can’t acknowledge him, and he dies. I’m not sure if it’s a happy ending or not for Argus. Is he happy he saw his owner one last time? Or heartbroken that he was ignored. I’m not sure, but it made me tear up a little bit.
Odysseus is kind of a weird dude. He finally meets his son after 20 years, and instead of telling him who he is he just starts being a sarcastic dick to him:
“Ah, I wish I were as young as you or as young as I feel; or that I were the noble Odysseus' son, or Odysseus himself, back from his travels. I would be ready here and now to let anyone cut my head off, if I didn't go straight down to the palace of Laertes' heir Odysseus and kill the lot of them. And if they did overwhelm me by numbers, single-handed as I would be, I would rather die by the sword in my own house than witness the perpetual repetition of these outrages, the brutal treatment of visitors, men hauling the maids about for their foul purposes in that lovely house, wine running like water, and those villains gorging themselves, just for the sport of the thing, on and on, and not likely to get anywhere.”
He does this many times throughout the book, pretending to be someone else and being rude while doing it. I don’t really get why he does it.
A very small thing, but there’s a passage where Penelope makes a plan and Telemachus sneezes, and then she says:
“'Go and bring this stranger here to me. Didn't you notice that my son sneezed a blessing on all I had said? May this mean that death is inevitable for all the Suitors!”
Clearly, the idea of sneezes having some sort of mystical quality (“bless you”) is very old.
I liked The Odyssey much more than The Iliad. As a “first story” outside of a religious context (I know Gilgamesh and RigVeda and some others are older, but it’s up there!) it’s great. I’m honestly kinda surprised there hasn’t been any serious effort to make a movie out of it in the last 20 years. Why do we have 12 different Spider-Mans and no Odysseus?
If you’re going to pick between the two, absolutely read this over the Iliad. And I’d go so far as to say it’s worth reading even beyond the historical context, it’s good!
You can read all my highlights here.
The painting at the top is Odysseus and Polyphemus