I am about to say something so staggeringly obvious that you will immediately click away and go visit some other, smarter blogger: when you finally read a classic, you usually find out what that classic is actually about, and what it’s doing, not what you always thought it was about. No! Wait! Come back! Let me explain. Since, in English, we use the word “odyssey” to mean a long and eventful journey, and since I’d heard about some of the events of Odysseus’s own journey (the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, the Lotus-Eaters), I assumed that that’s what Homer’s Odyssey was about. In fact, those famous parts of his journey take up only a small fraction of the work (books 9-12), and they are all retold to a rapt audience, not lived in the present tense. This is not the story of a long journey. It’s the story of a problem to be solved through the story of a long journey, through deception and metaphor, through twists and turns.
The Odyssey opens without any sign of Odysseus at all. In fact, we think he’s dead, either on the fields of battle or on the way home. His cunning, faithful wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, are too weak to fend off the crowds of wealthy and arrogant men who are vying take over Odysseus’s role as king of Ithaca, along with his land, his fortune, and his well-born wife. It’s been twenty years since the lord of the manor has been home; any rational person would allow a replacement. But Penelope and Telemachus are holding out the last faint vestiges of hope, trying to defend Odysseus’s ravaged property. This is the problem to be solved: how can we be rid of a crowd of well-armed, well-backed, complacent men?
Not until book 5 do we finally discover Odysseus himself, alive but a captive on Calypso’s island. The “nymph with lovely braids” (I picture her looking something like this) has him trapped, as far as I can tell, for sex. Hermes instructs her to let him go, and, reluctantly, she sends him off, only to be shipwrecked. This is another twist in the structure of the narrative. It’s obvious that Poseidon is angry at Odysseus, but why? Homer won’t reveal the reason until later. Here, on the Phaeacians’ island, he gets help and comfort from the lovely Princess Nausicaa, one of the many important women in this book. (More on that in a bit.) Athena ensures that he will receive a royal welcome, and after a few contests, the men call for a song.
A song. Which of course means a story. They bring out a famous bard, Demodocus, to sing for them and tell the story of how Hephaestus caught his cheating wife, Aphrodite, in the arms of Ares. (Is Odysseus’s wife really faithful, or will he catch her in the act?) Demodocus is blind. After his song, Odysseus sends him a cut of meat, saying,
From all who walk the earth our bards deserve
esteem and awe, for the Muse herself has taught them
paths of song. She loves the breed of harpers.
Then Odysseus asks Demodocus to sing about the Trojan horse — in fact his own wily invention — and on hearing the story retold, he melts into tears of heartbreak. What is Homer doing here? A blind poet (traditionally Homer was blind) telling about the Trojan war to a man who helped win it. Story within story, telling about story. Where does the nesting end?
Not yet. Because the next story to be told is Odysseus’s own. Book 9 begins his harrowing tale, told to the eager Phaeacians, of how he tried to make his way back from battle to Ithaca. He killed the Cyclops Polyphemus, as much with his wit as with force (telling the giant that his name was Nobody, so that when the giant cried out that Nobody was killing him, he got no help! Ha! Who’s on first?) but thereby earned Poseidon’s enmity (aha, now we find out.) He lost his bag of winds, given to him by King Aeolus. He was attacked by the Laestrygonians, saved his men from the bewitching Circe, and traveled all the way to the house of the dead, to receive prophecy from Tiresias. He sailed past Scylla and Charybdis, losing only a few men, and heard the song of the Sirens, strapped to the mast. And finally, when they thought they’d made it, they were stranded on the island of the Cattle of the Sun, which they had been warned and warned never to touch on pain of death. What do you think they did? (Hint: think Adam and Eve.)
Now Odysseus’s story — his retelling of his journey, his odyssey — is done. But the problem remains to be solved, and half the book is still in front of us, with its continued story, deception, metamorphosis, and blood. This isn’t what I thought it was going to be. It’s much more interesting than that.