Saturday, July 29, 2017

Classics Club 49: The Odyssey

The Odyssey is one of those classics with which I was already familair, despite never having read it before. But as the archetypal hero's journey tale it is not surprising that many aspects of the story have seeped into popular culture. Despite this there was plenty to surprise and interest me. The Odyssey does recount the adventures, or perhaps more accurately the  misadventures, of Odysseus as he attempts to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. The fact that it took him  ten years, as long the war itself, tells you it wasn't a simple journey. Complications, which include a fight with a cyclops, travelling to the Land of the Dead, narrowly escaping the call of the  sirens and a sea monster plus being trapped on the island of Calypso, abound and help to make The Odyssey a rollicking adventure story. Yet there is much more to the plot than this. The Odyssey is also the story Odysseus's wife Penelope and her efforts to remain faithful to him and especially to avoid marrying the many suitors who, convinced that Odysseus is dead, seek her hand in marriage. And it is also the story of Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope, who tries to protect his mother from the unwanted suitors and who sets out on a journey of his own, seeking news of his father. And much of The Odyssey focuses on Odysseus's actions once he has actually arrived back home in Ithaca.

The themes of The Odyssey resonated and gave me much to think about, despite it being set thousands of years ago, in a culture very different from my own. Admittedly the relationship between gods and  mortals isn't something I'm currently concerned about, but the importance of family relationships, the validity of disguise and deception even to attain a worthwhile goal,  the role of hospitality (generosity) and what, if any limits should be placed on it, the effect of temptation, the extent to which loyalty and perseverance are important and, perhaps most overarchingly,  the extent to which individuals are responsible for their own actions, are all relevant in today's society.

My biggest struggle with this classic, and the thing that prevented me enjoying it, was the character of Odysseus himself and the perception of him as a hero. I struggle to accept him as a hero at all, even a flawed one. Odysseus's flaws are many - arrogance, hubris, pride, an obsession with revenge rather than justice, and blood thirstiness - are just some of them. These character flaws are at the root of many of the misfortunes that he faces. The whole reason his journey back to Ithaca takes so long is that he has foolishly angered Poseidon, god of the sea, who then conspires to put many obstacles in Odysseus's way While he did exhibit admirable traits such as cleverness and foresight on occassion e.g. hiding his men underneath sheep to escape from Polyphemus's cave, and plugging his ears with wax and forcing his men to tie him to the ship mast before encountering the sirens, Odysseus was generally the master of his own misfortunes. And those misfortunes cost many innocent victims. Telemachus grew up without a father, Penelope had to fend for herself in a society where women had little power, and none of the men under Odysseus's  command made it home with him. To say nothing of the loss of life that occurred on Ithaca after his return. For me this was one of the most horrific aspects in The Odyssey.

All in all I'm glad I read The Odyssey, and not only because it is such an important and foundational work in western literature. Much of the writing was lovely and poetic, although this does vary between translations.  I used two - one by E V Rieu; the other by Robert Fagles. The non-linear plot device (beginning with Telemachus and Penelope,  switching to Odysseus, then travelling further back in time as Odysseus recounts his journey since leaving Troy, and finally merging the two strands Ithaca) arouses interest without being  confusingly complicated. I was interested by several of the minor characters, especially Penelope (I enjoyed Margaret Atwood's take on her which I read once I finished this.) However, the character of Odysseus disturbed me intensely, particularly his horrific revenge-fuelled actions once he returned to Ithaca. Even if they were justified by the standards of the time, I cannot in any way conceive of them as heroic. Rather than see The Odyssey as a heroic epic, I couldn't help but read it as a cautionary tale about the negative effects of one man's ill-conceived actions.

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