The Odyssey: A Review
Odysseus has been away from home for many years. Penelope, his wife, weeps for him daily, and his son Telemachus, who does not recall his father, chafes at the state of things at home – dozens of suitors have set up camp in the family's house demanding that Penelope choose another husband.
But then Athena (the gray-eyed goddess) prompts Telemachus to go in search of his father and put an end to the debauchery going on, so off he sails to find Odysseus.
Meanwhile, Odysseus has suffered much. After a raid on the Trojans, his ship – and life – are driven dreadfully off course. Odysseus encounters an array of challenges; island after island of strange monsters, Lotus Eaters, the terrifying Cyclops and a couple of goddesses who, at different times, force Odysseus to be their lover.
Once he arrives home, Odysseus is reunited with his old swineherd and son. And he devises a successful plan to get his house back.
And I know the book has been around for thousands of years, but I have a hard and fast rule to not spoil the conclusion of anything. So I won't tell you the end, except to assure you that it befits an epic poem.
So that's the outline – but what is this poem about?
Although we read about a long journey home, revenge, cunning, faithfulness and a whole array of human experiences, what is the one thing Homer wanted his audience to remember?
One of Odysseus' lines struck me as significant. When he is explaining to his son Telemachus that Athena has transformed him into a ragged beggar for the time being, to help him in his plan of recovering his home, he says “It is no hard thing for the gods of heaven to glorify a man or bring him low.”
Although it is quiet obvious Odysseus said this to explain his appearance, could it also sum up the last decade or so of his life? But then I remembered this is Odysseus talking, the same guy who had half a mountain thrown at him because he wouldn't stop taunting Cyclops. So perhaps Odysseus blames the gods for things that were his own fault?
However, I now wonder if it really matters. The actions of the gods seem like a backdrop for Odysseus' story. And in the end, I suppose it's not about Zeus and Co. ruining peoples' lives, or who did what – it's about Odysseus' journey home and using all his shrewdness and persistence to get there.
As for what I thought of the book, I am still thinking it over. (That is what you are to do with classics, after all.) I appreciated the translation, some of the lines had a truly poetic turn of phrase. I didn't instantly fall in love with the story or characters, but I am glad I read it; I want to know about the books and ideas that have shaped our world.
It has been said every time you read a classic you will learn more from it. This was the first time I perused The Odyssey, and I when I finished it, I was thinking about two things: heroes and gods.
I will be at opposition with several millennia worth of Odysseus fans by saying this, but since this is the part of the review in which I delineate my thoughts and opinions, I'll say it anyway: I didn't really like Odysseus. When I read a book I want to be able to like the hero, “be on their side” and watch them change into a better person. But I don't think Odysseus changed into a better person, he was still arrogant and bloody at the end of the book. He grew in cleverness, determination and stature (depending on when Athena disguised him) but he didn't seem to become more mature or wise. Of course, heroes can, and (realistically speaking), should be flawed, but there is a difference between flawed with some improvement, and flawed and getting worse.
It also bothered me Odysseus wasn't faithful to his wife, but then he didn't really have a choice.
Or did he?
It is never said the goddess Calypso would have killed him if he didn't give into her, but I suppose it is assumed as much. But the absence of it has made me wonder how much of that situation was Calypso’s fault and how much was Odysseus'.
Which leads me to the second thought: The deities were just plain silly; they flitted about in their blingy sandals, had messy love lives and zapped people with lightening. In short, their divinity is far too predictable – it's exactly the way humans would imagine a god.
But the thing is, the one true God is so otherworldly and so unlike a human's idea of Him, some of his ways don't seem very . . . godlike. Sure He did some amazing things, but washing his disciples' feet? Healing sick outcasts and hanging out with the dregs of society? Passing up a chance to be king? (John 6:15). The gospels show us God is not always what we expect him to be. Although I've thought about it before, reading Homer helped me realize this in a way I hadn't previously.
And now I've just finished editing this review for the third time and I feel it won't be getting better any time soon, so it is time to post it. (If you're wondering what it looked like before all that editing, don't. Just don't.) I'm not really satisfied with it; it asks more questions than it answers. And I'm wondering if I missed something. But then, does it matter? I've read The Odyssey only once, the next time I read it I will discover more about it. After all, a classic is a book you never outgrow.