Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
I have vivid childhood memories of the 1954 Italian sword-and-sandal film Ulisse (the Italian name for Ulysses, which is the Latin name for Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey). Who could forget Kirk Douglas tricking the one-eyed giant Cyclops? Or Douglas tied to his ship's mast, to hear the singing of the Sirens who otherwise would lure him to his doom?
So I was initially disappointed when paging through Homer's ninth century BC epic poem, the Odyssey, in the 1937 prose translation by W.H.D. Rouse. I expected a linear adventure story, the way I remember the movie, only more detailed. But almost all of the extraordinary adventures are summarized in four chapters in the middle of the book, in first person, as Odysseus tells his story to a foreign court. The Sirens, for example, are dealt with in four paragraphs.
The bulk of the Odyssey concerns the family of Odysseus at home in Ithaka. How boring is that? But I was mistaken.
It is twenty years after the end of the Trojan War. Odysseus, king of the smallish Greek island Ithaka, never returned; nor did his Ithakan sailors and soldiers. A second generation of local nobles has overrun Odysseus's house, pressuring Odysseus's wife Penelope to choose one of them to marry. They are essentially holding her hostage.
Odysseus's grown son, Telemachus, feels helpless to protect his mother and property against the mob. Fortunately, the goddess Athena decides to intervene, by taking on the appearance of a family friend who urges Telemachus to seek news of his father. Meanwhile, after the wreck that destroyed the last of Odysseus's ships and killed the last of his men, Odysseus washes up onto a foreign shore, the country where he will tell his fantastic story.
Odysseus returns to Ithaka, disguised as a beggar and intermittently assisted by Athena. Here he faces worse odds than in any of his previous adventures: alone against more than one hundred "suitors," as the belligerent uninvited houseguests are usually called. He begs at his own house: does Penelope recognize him?
Once again my reading was enhanced by the terrific taped lectures of Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, from The Teaching Company; her lectures about the Odyssey build on those on the Iliad. As Prof. Vandiver puts it, "What does Penelope know and when does she know it?"
To me: Of course she knows who he is. But there is nothing unambiguous in Homer's clever storytelling, and from antiquity many critics have opined that Penelope does not recognize her husband. The human interest and suspense of this sequence is unmatched.
The Odyssey has been called "the first novel." I can't think offhand of any other ancient story that lingers on a small number of characters and explores their dilemmas in the manner of a modern novel. Its author, believed to be the same man who composed The Iliad, is clearly more mature in this later work, as can be seen in his treatment of both human situations and the gods. I enjoyed the Odyssey as much as any novel I've read.
Copyright © 2009 by Heidi Boudro