The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Richard Lattimore)

Odyssey cover

Before buying a copy of this in a secondhand bookstore, I had a passing familiarity with The Odyssey. My introduction to the story, as was the case with a lot of classic literature, was provided by the PBS show Wishbone (you have not lived until you’ve seen a Jack Russell terrier in a toga firing an arrow through twelve axe heads, trust me on this). Then in high school, one of my English classes read some selections from the poem – I remember reading the Cyclops part, and the stuff about Scylla and Charybdis, and I think also the stuff with Circe. But I had never read the entire story as a whole before now, and a couple things surprised me:

-First, like The Iliad, the timeframe of the story is actually very brief. The majority of the action – basically everything that happens to Odysseus right after leaving Troy – occurs as a flashback, told by Odysseus to his hosts after he washes up near his home after nine years. The majority of his adventures are recounted by him, rather than being seen firsthand by the reader. And now that I think about it, that suggests that the majority of the quintessential action of The Odyssey – Cyclops, the sea monsters, Circe, Calypso, etc – might not have actually happened at all. Odysseus is constantly making up stories in the poem, mainly to protect his identity, but the stories he makes up are so detailed, and so similar to the rest of the adventures that he assures his audience really did happen, that I’m just now starting to wonder if maybe Odysseus just invented all of those adventures to explain why he was gone for ten years. For all we know, he spent the entire decade shacked up with Calypso and realized that he’d have to come up with a better reason for never writing. Thinking about it, I totally believe that he would do this, because honestly…

-Odysseus is kind of a dick. First there’s the fact that he makes a big deal about how he was able to resist the charms of Calypso (“It was awful, Penelope! She kept trying to get me to marry her, but I was a good husband and so I just fucked her brains out for three years!”) and then goes and murders the twelve maids who were stupid enough to sleep with/get raped by Penelope’s suitors But I knew about all of that already, and was prepared for it. What I wasn’t prepared for, as hinted at above, was the fact that Odysseus seems to be a pathological liar. He technically had a reason to lie about his identity when he was making his way home because, I don’t know, the suitors might actually leave his wife alone when they found out that Odysseus was alive, but he also tells these elaborate lies for no reason. At the end of the poem, after he’s (spoiler!) killed all the suitors, he goes to visit his father to tell him that he’s not dead. He finds his father, and since his dad doesn’t recognize him, Odysseus is like, “Hi there! I’m so-and-so, and I knew your son. He came to visit me and told me all about his awesome adventures – hell of a guy, by the way – but then I heard that he died in battle or something. But he was really brave and really awesome” and his dad starts crying and then Odysseus is like “AAAAH! I GOT YOU! I’m really Odysseus, I’m alive and everything. Oh man, you should have seen your face!” What the hell, man? What was the purpose of that?

-I realized while reading this that The Iliad hadn’t really covered what happened to Helen after Troy was destroyed. I’d always assumed that she had been killed, but then, during The Odyssey, Telemachos is traveling to Sparta to find out if anyone’s heard from his dad in the past seven years or whatever, and he goes to see Menelaus, and Helen’s totally there, serving dinner and being like, “Hi sweetie! Remember that time you had to murder thousands of people and destroy a city because I was a shameless whore? That was so sweet of you. You’re the best!” and I felt so bad for her.

Verdict: three out of five stars

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