The Massachusetts Medievalist on epic similes and building tension (Odyssey, Books 13-16)

This week, I’d like to veer slightly off course to think about literary tropes rather than epic structure.  Books 13-16 are very satisfying in terms of plot development: we get to see Odyseeus and Athena making their plans and then Odysseus and Telemachus reuniting. We get a lot of important exposition/backstory about where Odysseus’s father is, where Odysseus hid the Phaiacian treasure, how the suitors were foiled by Telemachus’s return from Sparta.  There’s an exciting, anticipatory sense of building tension in these books.  The feeling is like that of an action movie right before the big heist or the big mission — except Homer invented that feeling and our contemporary film directors just try to recreate and build upon it.

So instead of thinking about plot development or structure, I want to call your attention to what literary critics call the “epic simile,” which is basically an extended comparison using like or as. Homer uses them frequently throughout both Iliad and Odyssey (so they are also referred to as “Homeric simile”).  One of the most famous from the Odyssey occurs as Odysseus comes out from hiding to present himself to Nausicaa, the Phaiacian princess:

……And out he stalked
as a mountain lion exultant in his power
strides through wind and rain and his eyes blaze
and he charges sheep or oxen or chases wild deer……
(Fagles VI.142-145)

The “as” in l.143 triggers your awareness that we’re heading into an epic simile, wherein the lion is powerful, blazing, driving — but Odysseus is as well, thanks to the power of the comparison.

Odysseus and Telemachus are similarly compared to other wild animals during their reunion in Book XVI:

[They] wailed with cries as shrill as birds, like eagles
Or vultures, when the hunters have deprived them
Of fledglings who have not yet learned to fly
(Wilson XVI.217-219)

This simile is incredibly nuanced and interesting in that it compares Odysseus and Telemachus to birds of prey, but also shows those birds in time of weakness, when “hunters” (humans? or other animals?) have raided their nests and taken their young. The comparison thus presents the father and son as simultaneously powerful and vulnerable.

One final literary observation about this week’s section: did you note that our narrator refers to Eumaeus the swineherd in the second person?  Eumaeus (and no other character in the epic) is defined as “you.” Fagles states: “‘Good news,’ you replied, Eumaeus, loyal swineherd” (XIV.192, with a very similar line at XIV.408); Wilson tells us that “You answered him, swineherd Eumaeus” (XIV.166).  Much critical ink has been spilled about this point, of course. It creates something of meta-fiction, another layer of narrative structure, that the poet is speaking to an audience of one (Eumaeus) and the rest of us are just pretty much eavesdropping. So the fictively privileged audience member of this heroic, aristocratic epic is an enslaved agricultural worker.

More about slavery — especially Emily Wilson’s extra-textual remarks about it — in the next post. Enjoy the building suspense!

4 Replies to “The Massachusetts Medievalist on epic similes and building tension (Odyssey, Books 13-16)”

  1. I’ve always loved the power that the epic simile gives authors to explore and play with language that the content of their text might otherwise bar them from. When they’re done well then one word is enough to connect otherwise unrelated imagery seamlessly into the immediate action of a narrative. They’re easy to misplace, or make a mess with, but are so valuable for adding depth to the reality of a story for authors who know how to make use of them.

    Homer gives his readers something to think about by comparing Odysseus to animals, mostly because such a comparison seems so antithetical to Odysseus’s most emphasized trait throughout the majority of the epic: his cunningness. Cunningness requires the capacity to think beyond just instinct, an ability which may not be exclusive to humans, but which is certainly primarily associated with them. It seems like Homer is using these comparisons to deliberately undermine the character, in a way challenging the essence of what he supposedly is, which adds some additional depth to his identity for readers to explore and try to understand,

    The dichotomic* nature of the second extended simile you present is especially interesting. The selection of these specific breeds of birds feels incredibly deliberate. A different species of avian would create an entirely different metaphor, despite the fact that any breed of bird is prey to a human hunter and therefore nothing could alter the primary dynamic displayed within the simile.

    *Google tells me that this is a real word

    1. Yes, I’ve been thinking about those eagles/vultures and their babies quite a bit this week. Fagles uses the word “farmers” instead of “hunters,” but I wonder why humans would want to kill baby eagles or vultures? We certainly don’t eat them, and trying to raid an eagle’s or vulture’s nest sounds like it would be very dangerous (high up in tree or on cliff, irate animal with talons and beak nearby….). So here we have one of the many instances where I’d like to be able to read the original Greek to see what the word and its translation possibilities are. “Hunters” makes sense to me only if it refers to other animals — I’ve seen crows try to attack an eagle’s nest. But as Jamie notes, it’s “dichotomic,” definitely a word I will try to drop into conversation this week!

  2. I enjoyed the depiction of Eumaeus in Books 14 & 15. Homer certainly makes an effort to portray him as an exemplary character for the listener/reader to take note of. A significant number of lines are dedicated to this character’s backstory, and there are many references to his redeeming qualities, most notably his loyalty and love for his masters. Wilson notes in the 2017 translation that Homer’s use of the second person when referring to Eumaeus furthers the connection between this character and the audience, stating:

    No other character is addressed in the second person (“You, swineherd”), a stylistic detail that often creates a particular intimacy between the reader or listener and this odd character. (Wilson 55)

    The narrator’s complimentary description and direct remarks to Eumaeus made this character truly stand out. Homer even uses an “epic simile” to covey the special bond between Eumaeus and the ruling family of Ithaca when he is reunited with Telemachus.

    Just as a father, when he sees
    his own dear son, his only son, his dear
    most precious boy, returned from foreign lands
    after ten years grieving for his loss,
    welcomes him; so the swineherd wrapped his arms
    around godlike Telemachus and kissed him,
    as if he were returning from the dead. (Wilson XVI.17-23)

    The two similes packed into this short passage display the level of respect and fondness between the characters; their relationship comes across like that of close family members rather than of a master and slave. The level of comfortability between the two speaks volumes of Eumaeus’ character, as well as that of Odysseus’ family. Homer clearly intended for Eumaeus to resonate with the audience on an elevated level.

    1. Excellent points from Colin above — I would love to know more about systems and assumptions of slavery in the various periods of Ancient Greece (more on that in next week’s post, but heads-up right now that I don’t know much at all!). Eumaeus certainly does seem to love rather than resent/hate Telemachus and Odysseus, and the simile Colin points out is striking in so many ways — not the least that T’s biological father is finally right there, but it sounds like Eumaeus has been a successful and important father-figure for T during O’s absence. We hear E’s backstory – how he was kidnapped and sold into slavery – and yet (here’s where I have more questions) he seems to have accepted that narrative as his lot in life (determined by the gods as his fate?). There doesn’t seem to be a certainty or even a suspicion of slavery’s inherent immorality, either from our omniscient narrator or from any of the characters.

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