95. The Odyssey

:row, bro, row:

I hadn’t read the Odyssey, Homer’s epicly legendary epic, since ninth grade. Of course, I hated it then – it was a horrible chore to get through, the language was dense and the poetic structure grueling. And it was long as shit. I always thought of it as something good to have read and interesting to talk about, but awful to actually read. Like Milton’s Paradise Lost.┬áBut I’ve read it again, for a class in college this time, and I really enjoyed it.

5 Reasons to Re-Read The Odyssey

1. Dude goes everywhere. Seriously. Everywhere. It’s one big trippy dream adventure. Kind of like the Yellow Submarine. Odysseus goes to the land of the Lotus Eaters, where the natives feed his crewmen flowers and they never want to leave. Circe turns his men into pigs. Odysseus goes down to hell to talk to a prophet who has to drink cow’s blood to talk to him. It’s trippy, man.

2. First person narrative. Most of the book is told in the first person, which is hard for any author to craft, let alone an epic storyteller with hundreds of pages worth of material. However, Homer also masterfully handles the third person, when he uses it, and just has such a grip on language.

3. Compelling protagonist. Odysseus is fascinating, but in no way is he perfect. His overwhelming pride and hubris is always present. He knows that he’s the “master trickster”, and it takes him most of his journey to figure out that he needs to humble himself a bit to live in the world and get back home. The transformation is great to watch.

4. Sharp imagery. Okay. Read this passage from the Cyclops’ cave.

He carried a huge load of dry wood to make a fire for his supper and heaved it down with a crash inside the cave. We were terrified and scurried back into a corner. He drove his fat flocks into the wide cavern, at least those that he milked, leaving the males – the rams and the goats – outside in the yard. Then he lifted up a great doorstone, a huge slab of rock, and set it in place. Two sturdy wagons – twenty sturdy wagons – couldn’t pry it from the ground – that’s how big the stone was he set in the doorway. (Od. 9)

I, at least, have a perfect mental image of the fire, the sheep, the huge cave and the men cowering in the corner. Of course a storyteller this great has to have great imagery, but I didn’t realize how sharp it was until this time around. That’s how we do, Homer. Very nice.

5. Cultural cross-references. Okay, everything references the Odyssey, from Joyce’s Ulysses to the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou. George Clooney makes a hot Odysseus, by the way. Other works based on the Odyssey include 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film) and Cold Mountain (a novel). Some serious cultural masterpieces.

As draining as it sounds, read the Odyssey again. I think you’ll find that it’s not only interesting and clear but way less dry than you remember it being.

July 9, 2010. Books, Culture, History, Rectangles. 1 comment.