This week, #LesleyHomer will investigate books V-VIII of theOdyssey, which introduce the hero and set the stage for the most famous flashback in literary history. We finally meet Odysseus, four books in, and he’s NOT super heroic when we first see him — in fact, he’s crying for home. Wilson tells us that “By day he sat / out on the rocky beach, in tears and grief, / staring in heartbreak at the fruitless sea” (V.157-159). He does perform some more standard masculine achievement later in book five — he single-handedly builds an amazingly seaworthy raft, and then sails it expertly, unsleeping. Fagles provides this stunning image:
The wind lifting his spirits high, royal Odysseus
spread sail — gripping the tiller, seated astern —
and now the master mariner steered his craft,
sleep never closing his eyes, forever scanning
the stars….. (V.295-299)
The contrast between the man crying on the beach and the man sailing the raft emblematizes Odysseus’s character. In the epic’s famous first line, Wilson calls Odysseus a “complicated man” (Fagles says “the man of twists and turns”), and he is indeed complicated. He is mourning the loss of his home and family, but this heartbreak doesn’t keep him from sleeping with Calypso on a regular basis. He initially ignores the advice of the sea-nymph Ino, but eventually realizes he’ll need to do as she instructed, leave his wrecked raft, and swim for shore with only her scarf to protect him. He cries some more at the various festivities at Alcinous’s palace, but rises to the challenge of masculine performance in athletics, easily beating all of the young whippersnappers at the discus throw (Wilson VIII.187).
I’d venture that it’s precisely this complicated-ness that makes Odysseus so appealing to us, thousands of years later. He’s full of contradictions in his thoughts and actions, and those contradictions make him seem human. I certainly wouldn’t say that Odysseus is realistic but he does seem real to me. There are a number of moments in the epic when I’d like to strangle him for his arrogance and sexism, and an equal number where I’m cheering him on and would fight next to him if I could.
I mentioned in the intro post that Homer uses epithets throughout the epic both as mnemonic devices and as literary descriptors. While Athena is always “gray-eyed” and the sea is always “wine-dark,” Odysseus’s epithets change according to the the rhythm needed in the poetic line and according to the translator’s choices. For instance, Fagles uses “long-enduring Odysseus” (V.190) and “worldly Odysseus” (V.237). Wilson seems to avoid epithets in their classic adjective-noun pairing as much as possible; for instance, she refers instead to “Odysseus, / informed by many years of pain and loss” (V.169-170). Other translators have settled on “crafty,” “clever,” “wily,” or “wise.” Overall, Odysseus is characterized not by his martial skills or physical strength but by his experience, his wisdom, and his creative thinking (in book eight, we hear the Bard sing of Odysseus’s plan to construct the Trojan Horse – the tactic that won the Trojan War when more traditional military strategies had failed). His is heroism of brain, not brawn.
Finally, Books V-VIII set up Odysseus’s narration recounting his last ten years. Book VIII ends with Alcinous asking Odysseus who he is, where he’s been, and where he’s going. The last time anyone saw Odysseus was at the end of the Trojan War, and the next set of books will provide Odysseus’s answers to those questions in flashback – thus providing one of the first framed narratives in western literature.
I’m hoping for some more comments and questions on this post than last time (thanks, Colin!), so here are some starter ideas- please use the comments function to ask questions and share ideas!
What are you thinking about Athena’s character and her role in the narrative? How does she inform your ideas about the gods in this text/culture? Can we discuss her as a “female character” (like Penelope or Nausicaa) or does divinity trump gender?
The nymph/minor goddess Calypso: does she qualify as an antagonist? Is she a positive or negative character? Or maybe both simultaneously?
Any ideas about the character Demodocus, a blind poet (just like Homer????), and his role in Odysseus’s diplomatic maneuverings?