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Literature Review: The Odyssey
Sometime near the end of the eighth century BC, Homer wrote the Odyssey, which is the second oldest extant work of Western literature. Another epic poem, it is in part a sequel to the Iliad and centers on the Greek hero Odysseus and his journey home after the fall of Troy. And though the story is mainly on Odysseus, other characters include much of the Greek pantheon, Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, wife, Penelope and the Phaeacians. As with the Iliad, the Odyssey has a legacy that spans such works as Euripides’ Cyclops (the only extant satyr play), a Japanese-French anime, Ulysses 31 (which turns it into a space opera), O Brother, Where Art Thou? an episode of The Simpsons and a 1997 miniseries that starred Armand Assante, Greta Scacchi, and Isabella Rosellini.
Ten years after the Trojan War, Odysseus has still not returned home; his son, Telemachus is 20 years old and his wife, Penelope, must deal with 108 suitors who wish to marry her. However, Odysseus is still alive on Calypso’s island, where he has spent seven years. But she is persuaded to release him and he finds his way to the Phaeacians and explains what he’s been doing since Troy fell before going home to Ithaca.
Not only is the Odyssey an interesting tale, but is quite an easier read than its predecessor the Iliad. The story gives Odysseus quite a bit more character, rather than being one of the many against Troy taking a backseat to Achilles in the previous one. In fact, it’s seen that his greatest weapon and heroic trait is his intelligence and ability to use his wit in order to come out on top. Coupled with a name that literally means “trouble” in the manner of giving and receiving and it’s apparent that he needs said wit and intelligence. But at the same time, it’s shown that his greatest flaw is his pride and arrogance. And all of this can be seen in his dealing with the Cyclops Polyphemus. On one hand, his intelligence is displayed in telling him that “nobody” is his name so that when asked by why he’s screaming, Polyphemus must say that nobody hurt him. However, on the other hand, as he’s sailing away, Odysseus shouts that nobody can defeat him, yelling that he’s the “Great Odysseus,” which the Cyclops hears, causing him to throw a mountain at him and pray to Poseidon. Other uses of his intellect can be seen when he’s finally come home and figures out a story to tell everyone on the fly so they’ll all think he’s someone entirely different.
But the story also has a lot in the way of hospitality as a thematic element, in the way that it’s constantly violated throughout the story. Firstly, there’s the whole problem with the suitors not only mooching for all that time that Odysseus was away, but eating everything and screwing around with most of the female servants. It gets so bad that it’s practically the will of Zeus that they be dealt with, which doesn’t mean being kicked out in this culture, it means death. And there’s also going back to Odysseus’ dealings with Polyphemus. He and his crew eat some of the Cyclops’s cheese and then insist that they’ll come back and offer him wine as a gift. But the Cyclops violates hospitality and eats some of Odysseus’ men and since the rules of hospitality have gone by the wayside, then it’s justified for Odysseus to get the Cyclops drunk and blind him.
And this brings about some notable irony. Polyphemus’ blinding caused him to get his father, Poseidon to enact revenge against Odysseus, which was the whole reason he took so long to get home. However, Polyphemus violated the divine law of hospitality, which Odysseus himself honored as well as inflicted punishment on those who violated it in the way of Polyphemus and the suitors. In effect, this makes Odysseus more honorable than a god who doesn’t respect a law that he made along with the rest of the pantheon in the first place.
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