Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Odyssey - Homer

Having got through Homer's Iliad, I recently set about reading the poet's other celebrated work, The Odyssey.  This was E V Rieu's translation, which was done in a "prose" style.

The poem essentially documents the wanderings, adventures, fortunes and misfortunes of Odysseus (and others) in the aftermath of the Trojan War.  The main thrust of the plot is the quest of Odysseus to return to his home in Ithaca, and his later measures to address the ominous events which had taken place there in his absence.

During the story we are immersed in the world of the palaces  The settings are varied and the story derives much of its richness from the grandiosity or beauty of the locations, and the way in which these are introduced and described. Ironically, this world, as much as it bears some resemblance to historical reality, was shortly to decay and eventually disappear.

In part due to the exotic and evocative settings which form the backdrop for the various portions of the poem, the Odyssey, there is very much a fantasy and/or fairy-tale character to the work, with passages referring to bounteous orchards, streams, forests, springs, exotic fruits and other idyllic features. The mythological element is strong. The constant and elaborate presence of the gods and assorted mythical beings and creatures accentuate this impression.

In other ways I was reminded of some of the stories written by Hermann Hesse, although the precise motivations behind Odysseus' travels were not always the same as those nurtured by Hesse's characters. One can readily appreciate from reading this work how influential Homer has been, subconsciously or otherwise, on many generations of writers, novelists and poets.

For all the tranquil and picturesque landscapes, the Odyssey is not without its violent and disconcerting episodes. The encounter with the Cyclops, and especially his culinary inclinations, certainly raised my eyebrows.  One thing to note is that the story is slightly confusing from a chronological viewpoint, in that much of the plot is related "retrospectively" by Odysseus to the Phaeacians. Once the reader has untangled the order in which the various stages happened, then he or she will be fine, and it should make perfect sense.

The Odysseus is, on the face of it, not submerged by portentousness and gravitas, and some of the dialogue between characters has charm. Moral questions are tackled in a milder and less onerous manner, and this ensures that it is digestible and enjoyable, even if intense concentration is desirable in order to derive the most from it.

It is a gripping and absorbing story, and is well worth reading, and not just for people who have already experienced the Iliad.

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