The Odyssey

The Odyssey is one of those works of fiction which I think might really intimidate people. I was put off the idea of reading it when I first tried – probably because my version was translated from a French translation and was the dullest thing in existence. But really, there is no need for it to be dull; the translation by Robert Fagles is really good and makes reading it enjoyable, the way it was intended to be.

It’s also a good idea to read it aloud, which gives you a feel for the poetry of it as well has having the benefit of helping you not to lose your place. If you really don’t want to read epic poetry, I would finally advise watching the excellent O Brother Where Art Thou, by Joel and Ethan Cohen, which is The Odyssey set in the Deep South in the 1930s. It is really well done and it’s also surprisingly fun to watch if you’ve just read the book.

The 1930’s version of Athena. Really.

The tale of The Odyssey is that of its namesake, Odysseus. After participating in the seige at Troy (which he didn’t want to do) for ten years, Odysseus wants to go home to Ithaca, where he is king. However, he upsets the god Poseidon, who controls the seas, by blinding his cyclops son and consequently gets held up at a number of places and encounters a great deal of dangers. These include sirens, the island of Calypso (who seems to keep him as some kind of sex slave) and the isle of the lotus-eaters, who live in a perpetual, lazy bliss.

These are sirens. Sirens are not mermaids. They’re a lot scarier than that!

It’s told in some really interesting ways. It begins with Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, getting fed up with the suitors who court his mother Penelope and setting off to find his father. We hear most of what happens to Odysseus when he is washed up on an island and invited to tell a story, so actually a great deal of the poem is people telling their stories in a similar way to the way Homer is telling the story to us, the readers or listening.

Finally, the characters are really interesting. Odysseus is no hero – he is a bit of a coward and more of a cheat. He gets into his trouble with the Cyclops partly because he doesn’t act as a good guest (there is a great deal about the correct forms of hospitality in the Odyssey) and partly because he uses cunning. Also he kills a lot of fairly innocent women when he gets home, which I’m not sure was acceptable at that time. Penelope also deserves a mention. Everyone knows about Penelope’s loom; how she was a really patient wife who refused to give up on her husband. But that is really not all there is to her – she is also cunning. When Odysseus returns home, she refuses to believe that he is her husband, and also tests him. She is fantastic. That is all.

The Odyssey might take you a while to get through, but it is certainly worth it. Just make sure you have a good translation. It is fun and interesting, and shouldn’t be too hard going.

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