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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 23: Thoughts on Book VIII

The first time I read The Odyssey, I'm convinced that Book VIII, like Book II of The Iliad (the notorious 'Catalog of Ships," must have struck me as a completely uninteresting placeholder book before Odysseus starts telling of his many adventures.

What an idiot I was.

True, Book VIII may not have the whiz-bang nature of the books immediately after it, but it's so clever and subtle that every time I read it I'm more and more taken by the various things Homer's playing at in it. As I feel that I am just reaching for things I can't quite describe, I fear this post may be even more disjointed and fragmentary than usual--please forgive me.

The first thing that occurs to me is the structure of the book: introduction, song from the bard, games, song from the bard, conclusion via song from the bard. The center being, thematically, if not numerically, Odysseus' rebuff of Broadsea wherein, for the first time, he makes claims to his own greatness. (Broadsea's name is translated in various ways, but he's the Phaeacian who mocks Odysseus--btw, isn't that list of descriptive names just lovely?) What we have here is a slow, steady progression of Odysseus revealing himself to his hosts--he cries upon hearing of his quarrel with Achilles before the fall of Troy. Then, when mocked as nothing more than a pirate, he reveals his athletic prowess in a way that positively shocks the on-lookers. Clearly, this man is someone. Then, after he calls out to hear the bard sing of his own stratagem of the Trojan Horse and he begins to cry again, King Alcinous finally asks his strange guest to reveal his identity. All of the events of this book seemed geared toward generating the great reveal--which, alas, doesn't happen until the next book. But it's as if Odysseus and Alcinous, who is indeed a wise and clever king and has been a surreptitious partner in moving the issue forward, are doing an elaborate pas de deux that will culminate in Odysseus act of self-declaration.

In the middle of all this is the story of Hephaestus and his plot to ensnare Aphrodite and Ares. At first, this seems like a random interjection meant to fill time until the reveal. But I think it's doing something more interesting. The story, in short, is about the triumph of Craft and Guile (Hephaestus) over the more simple-minded forces of Love (Aphrodite) and War (Ares). Earlier, we'd heard of Odysseus and Achilles and their quarrel over how best to take Troy--an argument which put Achilles' faith in his martial skills (Ares' territory) against Odysseus' desire to use craft, cunning and guile (craft being the domain of Hephaestus, and also Odysseus' patron Athena). And we can never forget that the Trojan War was instigated by Aphrodite in her promise of Helen's hand to Paris. And in the end, Odysseus' Craft brings about victory in a War fought about Love.

Homer is, I think, giving us this myth as a parallel story, almost an allegory, of Odysseus, who uses cunning and craft in his successful sack of Troy, as he himself has the bard recount, and who will later use even more stratagems to ensure the love of his wife and reclaim her from the suitors who are hounding her. (His claim of great prowess as an archer is another tidbit to keep in mind for later.) Odysseus even unknowingly compares himself to Hephaestus when he makes no claim to being a good runner because his legs aren't very strong--the exact claim Hephaestus makes when defending himself to his fellow gods. But his skill and cunning prove themselves to be the betters of both the forces of War and Love.

There's so much more to unpack here, but I think it's probably time to move on to some quotes so this post doesn't end up stretching on into eternity. I may very well come back to some of these issues, and I'm planning a post on Odysseus and his women, but there's one final woman who I want to have appear before doing so--namely, the witch, Circe, who's already gotten a name check here in a clever bit of foreshadowing. But, as I said, it's time for quotes!

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"What greater glory attends a man, while he's alive, / than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands?" Fagles translation, lines 170-1.

I cite these, not just because I think they're beautiful, which they are, but also because they reveal two interesting things about Laodamas and his people. Firstly, they apparently have never been to war, which was traditionally thought of as the greatest way to win glory. Indeed, one need only read what the bard sings of to know that this is definitely the case--he sings not of athletes, but of men at war. But, I hear you say (or not), certainly a man's achievements in war are based at least partially on being fleet of foot and strong of hand. Perhaps, I answer, but who was the ultimate hero of the Trojan War? Not Achilles or Hector of Ajax or any of the other warriors known primarily for the physical prowess. Rather, it's Odysseus who, while not a 90-pound weakling, is known instead for his mental acuity. His glory is known throughout the world, but it's a glory which comes from his wit and intelligence. There it is again--this theme of Odysseus as the master strategist who triumphs in the end.

"The tortoise tags the hare-- / Hephaestus catches Ares--and Ares outran the wind!" Fitzgerald translation, lines 351-2

Here it is again, put in such a simple eloquent way that all my rambling above feels rather unnecessary.

"But there and all my days until I die / may I invoke you as I would a goddess, / princess, to whom I owe my life."

Isn't that gorgeous? Also, keep it in mind--we may hear another traveler utter similar words about a very different subject before we've completed this story...

"Surely no man in the world is nameless, all told." Fagles, Line 620.

We're all somebody, aren't we? It also, like several other things in Book VII, foreshadow the stories Odysseus is about to tell of his travels.

There's also a striking and heartbreaking example of the Homeric simile around line 590 that I suggest you read again and again and again because it's just so damn beautiful. "As a woman weeps..."

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