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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 4 -- Thoughts Questions & Musings on Book I

Now that you've finished (or nearly finished) Book I of The Odyssey, I thought I should post some questions and ideas here--maybe get a conversation going in the comments section, over on Twitter (#odysseyreadingclub) or on our new Facebook page (just search for the Odyssey Reading Club). So now, in no order except for that which they occur to me, my thoughts on Book I:

First of all, it positively flew by, didn't it? It's been so long since I've read Homer, and I've never had the leisure to read him in such discrete chunks. It was lovely. (Also fortunate, since I've read 3 translations just to make sure I could answer any questions anyone has. [Read: because I'm a huge nerd.])

Secondly, where the hell is Odysseus? This is the first work in the Western canon about one man as opposed to a situation or a group, and he can't even be bothered to show up for Book I? I raise it as a joke, but it is an interesting thing to ponder, especially considering (spoiler alert) it'll be around March before he finally enters the book proper. Obviously a classical audience (and even a modern one, to some extent) would be expected to know something of the Ithakan king before Homer starts telling his tale, so he doesn't need to start off by describing him in great detail. But he doesn't even pop in to say Hello! What we do get, though, is a lot of people (gods are people, too) talking about him, in glowing terms no less. I wonder if we're being set up here--"Come, listen to all the wonderful things everyone has to say about Odysseus so that I can catch you off guard when I introduce him later." Worth thinking about.

Zeus' focus on the Aegisthus/Clytemnestra/Agamemnon/Orestes story is rather instructive, I think. [Agamemnon, the greatest of the Greek kings, leader of the forces at Troy, comes home only to be killed by his long-suffering wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. His son Orestes then proceeds, after a few years, to kill his mother and step-father.] This story is one of the most famous in Greek myth and is part of a larger cycle of tragedy initiated by Agamemnon's grandfather. Essentially, the family is cursed. However, Zeus here focuses very explicitly on the elements of the story that parallel those of Odysseus' own life and family. Instead of taking a lover in his absence, as Clytemnestra does, Penelope remains devoted to her missing (presumed dead) husband. So, instead of Aegisthus, we have a bunch of suitors who hang around and won't go away. Instead of a vengeful Orestes, we have a mopey Telemachus. The scenario could be the same, but, as Zeus points out, it is the actions of the people involved that have created very different results. Penelope here is the center refusing to give way.

Athena and Zeus both praise Orestes' actions, however, as showing manliness of a sort, and Athena desperately wishes Telemachus weren't quite so passive. Her exhortation seems to have some effect on Telemachus, although by the end of Book I he hasn't quite resolved to go in search of news about his father. It's interesting to note that Telemachus apparently doubts his paternity (or, at least, doubts whether or not he's anything like his father--that's always been unclear to me), but his uncanny ability to see through Athena's disguise to the divinity underneath proves to us, that he truly is the son of the clever Odysseus. Whether he is truly able yet to take his rightful place as his father's successor as King of Ithaca seems somewhat doubtful, though he definitely starts on that journey.

So, just in Book I, we have possible themes of the power of storytelling versus reality, freedom of ethical choice versus character as fate, and the process of growing up and accepting both the powers and burdens of adulthood.

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Now for some random quotes I found pretty:

"Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus, / tell us in our time, lift the great song again." lines 17-18, Fitzgerald translation

I love this line in almost all translations, but this is my favorite, with its sense of being a story told since time immemorial and passed down even to us in this day.

"Who, on his own, / has ever really known who gave him life?" lines 250-1, Fagles translation

As true today as it was 2000+ years ago. We never really know our parents, do we? Not as people--and our children never really know us, in turn.

"It is always the latest song, the one that echoes last / in the listeners' ears, that people praise the most." lines 404-5, Fagles

And we moderns think we invented novelty and the constant need for something different and exciting. Silly us.

"Now the suitors turned to dance and song, / to the lovely beat and sway, / waiting for dusk to come upon the there... / and the dark night came upon them, lost in pleasure." lines 480-4, Fagles

I just think that's purty. Love the "beat and sway"--so musical and fitting.

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So, what did you think? Did I miss your favorite line, or not pick up on some theme you thought important? Let me know--this book, like all books, great or modest, is better when discussed with friends.

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Comments

  1. Good questions all. I like this idea that Odysseus' entry into the story is preceded by so much talk about him. I think of it like the reputation surrounding a great man. One always hears about him before one actually meets him (if one ever does).

    So much of this story, I think we'll find, is about how to be excellent, as understood by the ancient Greeks. Penelope is the perfectly devoted wife, and cunning in her own ways; Telemachus must overcome his childlike weakness to become a man, searching the world to find himself. Odysseus, older and wiser (wily), uses his skill to return home to his wife and kingdom.

    I'm interested in how the Greek sense of excellence is different from our own. Odysseus is far from what we today would call a moral paragon, but I think we can understand why he is yet admirable.

    Obviously, there is a whole lot more to this work, and even this book, than what I've put down here, but that's what I was thinking about in my reading.

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    Replies
    1. I really like the idea of the different kinds of excellence on display, especially as it also includes (I think) Orestes, who, while not a main character, is certainly held up as a paragon of some sort. Would *we* do the same? I doubt it.

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  2. Comments from Glenn Sumi--who gave me the idea for this project:


    #OdysseyReadingClub Book I:

    Fascinating structure. Poet invokes Muse. Gods chat about mortals. Athena fills in backstory, pleads her case to Zeus, comes up with a plan then swiftly plants the seed of action with Telemachos.

    I love that we hear so much about Odysseus but don't see him ourselves. It's the ultimate lead-up to a big entrance, no?

    The passages that resonate with me include:

    "My mother says indeed I am his. I for my part / do not know. Nobody really knows his own father." (215-216, Lattimore)

    How profound. I prefer the Fagles translation, though:

    "Who, on his own, / has ever really known who gave him life?"

    That "who gave him life" is broader, and that "on his own" and "has ever REALLY known" (emphasis mine) is heartbreaking.

    I also love Athena's:

    "You should not go on / clinging to your childhood. You are no longer of an age to do that." (296-297, Lattimore)

    What a succinct, powerful command to grow up. And then she tells him the story of Orestes, which links it to the opening.

    I also like the casual way Telemachos informs us Penelope has brought in diviners - girl's been waiting a long time, and wants to know what's going on.

    And look how efficiently Homer sums up servant Eurykleia's life near the end of the book: who her parents were, how much Laertes paid for her ("twenty oxen"), how he didn't slept with her because of his angry wife. And those details near the end - folding the tunic, hanging on peg, pulling the door with a silver hook - really make the scene come alive visually. Such an intimate end to a book that begins with the grand gods!

    Overall, I like the directness of Lattimore's translation, but it's not as rich and suggestive as Fagles, so I may pick up that other edition.

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