Review: ‘The Odyssey’

odyssey

The Odyssey

by Homer

  • Date finished: July 21, 2013
  • Genre: Epic poetry, Classic
  • Year: 750-675 BC (I think that makes this the oldest book I’ve reviewed on this blog)
  • Project: Big Books Project
  • Reading List: Summer 2013, Newsweek’s Top 100 Books
  • Grade: A-
  • Thoughts upon reading:

First, let me just say: I finished another book in my Big Books Project in just over a week – woo! The Odyssey was a surprisingly quick read; I’m not going to say it was easy, but it didn’t take me the weeks on end that I originally anticipated. Me + busy schedule = low tolerance for epic poetry. However, The Odyssey was both entertaining and not too terribly difficult to read, and instead of feeling like I was back in school, I found myself actually enjoying my time with Homer. Imagine that.

However, The Odyssey is known for being the easier of the two Homeric poems for a good reason: compared with The IliadThe Odyssey is actually presented in prose (not verse). Plus, whereas The Iliad deals primarily with war, drawn-out battle sequences and the rather confusing history between Troy and Greece, The Odyssey is a story of adventure. Poor “long-tried, royal Odysseus” is trying his damnest to get home to Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan war, but keeps getting held up by all matters of mishaps: wicked crew-killing storms, a Cyclops, sirens and plenty of gods and goddesses in disguise, helping and hindering Odysseus’ way. The Odyssey is an iconic tale – we’re all familiar with parts of it – and knowing its basic landmarks makes slogging through someone as difficult as Homer a little more enjoyable.

I’m not going to lie, I liked The Odyssey ten times more than The Iliad. Granted, I read The Iliad when I was a freshman in college – for fun – so lord knows why I did that. I know I made an effort to understand, but I didn’t really enjoy myself. Like I said, though, I whizzed through The Odyssey. Here are some of my standout observations:

  • Take a closer look at that book cover I posted above. Those crew members are throwing Odysseus all kinds of shady, nervous glances. They’re probably thinking: “Shit, this guy is totally going to get me eaten by a cyclops during this trip.”
  • Things I learned: Odysseus is sort of an arrogant ass and he likes to play mind games with people. I’m not sure I’d want to be his friend. Case in point: if you hang out with him too long on the open sea, you’re probably going to die.
  • The introduction to my version pointed out that much of the prose is riddled with phrases that reflect the poem’s oral traditions. Bards passing on the story of Odysseus (before the whole thing was written down) used certain, easily-remembered phrases over and over again to help them remember. Thus: “rosy-fingered dawn” (which leaves me with a weird feeling after reading it too much) and “royal, long-tried Odysseus”. Gets annoying after awhile.
  • Personally, I found the portrayal of women fascinating in The Odyssey. Women don’t have the greatest reputation during this time. Helen’s fickle ways are what started the whole Trojan war in the first place, after all. Women are also strictly regulated to the home, specifically to their loom, which women (of all social stations) are apparently always working at, at all times, even when doing other important things like talking or eating. Master multi-taskers, those Greek women were. All that aside, women are portrayed as both temptresses and the root cause of strife (the sirens, the goddess Calypso), as well as a symbol of steadfast loyalty (Penelope). While Odysseus is clearly at the center of The Odyssey, women are the ones who move it along. Even Odysseus’ main man on Mt. Olympian isn’t a guy at all, it’s the goddess Athene, the goddess of both warfare and womanly crafts.  Fascinating stuff.

It wasn’t until halfway through that I remembered that The Odyssey serves as the basis for one of my favorite movies, O Brother Where Art Thou. HOW COULD I FORGET, YOU ASK? I don’t know. I’m amazed by how faithful the Coen Brothers’ adaptation actually is, even if it takes place worlds and ages away. From Odysseus/Ulysses Everett McGill’s pride, to the suitors/”bonnified” fiance courting Penolope/Penny, it really is wonderful. In fact, I really want to watch that movie, like right now.

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