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Title: The Odyssey
Written: the 8th century B.C.
Translator: Robert Fagles (1996)
Publication Date: 1614 (in English), 1996 (audio)
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Narrated By: Ian McKellen
The Odyssey is one of the oldest works of literature still widely read n modern times, though for most of its existence, the story was more likely to have been heard through a performance than read. It is attributed to Homer, and that attribution went unquestioned and unchallenged for most of the last three thousand years. However, some modern scholars now believe that the story arose from oral traditions which were subsequently written down. The scholarship over the story’s origins is further complicated by the changing archaeological views regarding the Greek war against Troy. If the stories began as an oral tradition, we can guess relatively well when those stories began, inasmuch as we now know roughly when the Trojan War occurred.
Exposition (books 1–4)
The Odyssey begins after the end of the ten-year Trojan War (the subject of the Iliad), from which Odysseus (also known by the Latin variant Ulysses), king of Ithaca, has still not returned because he angered Poseidon, the god of the sea. Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, is about 20 years old and is sharing his absent father’s house on the island of Ithaca with his mother Penelope and the suitors of Penelope, a crowd of 108 boisterous young men who each aim to persuade Penelope for her hand in marriage, all the while reveling in the king’s palace and eating up his wealth.
Odysseus’ protectress, the goddess Athena, asks Zeus, king of the gods, to finally allow Odysseus to return home when Poseidon is absent from Mount Olympus. Disguised as a chieftain named Mentes, Athena visits Telemachus to urge him to search for news of his father. He offers her hospitality, and they observe the suitors dining rowdily while Phemius, the bard, performs a narrative poem for them.
That night, Athena, disguised as Telemachus, finds a ship and crew for the true prince. The next morning, Telemachus calls an assembly of citizens of Ithaca to discuss what should be done with the insolent suitors, who then scoff at Telemachus. Accompanied by Athena (now disguised as Mentor), the son of Odysseus departs for the Greek mainland to the household of Nestor, most venerable of the Greek warriors at Troy, who resided in Pylos after the war.
From there, Telemachus rides to Sparta, accompanied by Nestor’s son. There he finds Menelaus and Helen, who are now reconciled. Both Helen and Menelaus also say that they returned to Sparta after a long voyage by way of Egypt. There, on the island of Pharos, Menelaus encounters the old sea-god Proteus, who tells him that Odysseus was a captive of the nymph Calypso. Telemachus learns the fate of Menelaus’ brother, Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greeks at Troy: he was murdered on his return home by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The story briefly shifts to the suitors, who have only just realized that Telemachus is gone. Angry, they formulate a plan to ambush his ship and kill him as he sails back home. Penelope overhears their plot and worries for her son’s safety.
Escape to the Phaeacians (books 5–8)
In the course of Odysseus’ seven years as a captive of Calypso on the island Ogygia, she has fallen deeply in love with him, even though he spurns her offers of immortality as her husband and still mourns for home. She is ordered to release him by the messenger god Hermes, who has been sent by Zeus in response to Athena’s plea. Odysseus builds a raft and is given clothing, food, and drink by Calypso. When Poseidon learns that Odysseus has escaped, he wrecks the raft, but helped by a veil given by the sea nymph Ino, Odysseus swims ashore on Scherie, the island of the Phaeacians. Naked and exhausted, he hides in a pile of leaves and falls asleep.
The next morning, awakened by girls’ laughter, he sees the young Nausicaä, who has gone to the seashore with her maids after Athena told her in a dream to do so. He appeals for help. She encourages him to seek the hospitality of her parents, Arete and Alcinous. Alcinous promises to provide him a ship to return him home without knowing the identity of Odysseus. He remains for several days. Odysseus asks the blind singer Demodocus to tell the story of the Trojan Horse, a stratagem in which Odysseus had played a leading role. Unable to hide his emotion as he relives this episode, Odysseus at last reveals his identity. He then tells the story of his return from Troy.
Odysseus’ account of his adventures (books 9–12)
Odysseus recounts his story to the Phaeacians. After a failed raid against the Cicones, Odysseus and his twelve ships were driven off course by storms. Odysseus visited the lotus-eaters who gave his men their fruit which caused them to forget their homecoming. Odysseus had to drag them back to the ship by force.
Afterward, Odysseus and his men landed on a lush, uninhabited island near the land of the Cyclopes. The men entered the cave of Polyphemus, where they found all the cheeses and meat they desired. Upon returning to his cave, Polyphemus sealed the entrance with a massive boulder and proceeded to eat Odysseus’ men. Odysseus devised an escape plan in which he, identifying himself as “Nobody,” plied Polyphemus with wine and blinded him with a wooden stake. When Polyphemus cried out, his neighbors left after Polyphemus claimed that “Nobody” had attacked him. Odysseus and his men finally escaped the cave by hiding on the underbellies of the sheep as they were let out of the cave.
As they escaped, however, Odysseus taunted Polyphemus and revealed himself. The Cyclops prayed to his father Poseidon, asking him to curse Odysseus to wander for ten years. After the escape, Aeolus gave Odysseus a leather bag containing all the winds except the west wind, a gift that should have ensured a safe return home. Just as Ithaca came into sight, the sailors opened the bag while Odysseus slept, thinking it contained gold. The winds flew out, and the storm drove the ships back the way they had come. Aeolus, recognizing that Odysseus had drawn the ire of the gods, refused to further assist him.
After the cannibalistic Laestrygonians destroyed all of his ships except his own, Odysseus sailed on and reached the island of Aeaea, home of witch-goddess Circe. She turned half of his men into swine with drugged cheese and wine. Hermes warned Odysseus about Circe and gave Odysseus an herb called moly, making him resistant to Circe’s magic. Odysseus forced Circe to change his men back to their human forms and was seduced by her. They remained with her for one year. Finally, guided by Circe’s instructions, Odysseus and his crew crossed the ocean and reached a harbor at the western edge of the world, where Odysseus sacrificed to the dead. Odysseus summoned the spirit of the prophet Tiresias and was told that he may return home if he is able to stay himself and his crew from eating the sacred livestock of Helios on the island of Thrinacia and that failure to do so would result in the loss of his ship and his entire crew. He then meets his dead mother Anticleia and first learns of the suitors and what happened in Ithaca in his absence. Odysseus also converses with his dead comrades from Troy.
Returning to Aeaea, they buried Elpenor and were advised by Circe on the remaining stages of the journey. They skirted the land of the Sirens. All of the sailors had their ears plugged up with beeswax, except for Odysseus, who was tied to the mast as he wanted to hear the song. He told his sailors not to untie him as it would only make him drown himself. They then passed between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. Scylla claimed six of his men.
Next, they landed on the island of Thrinacia, with the crew overriding Odysseus’s wishes to remain away from the island. Zeus caused a storm that prevented them from leaving, causing them to deplete the food given to them by Circe. While Odysseus was away praying, his men ignored the warnings of Tiresias and Circe and hunted the sacred cattle. Helios insisted that Zeus punish the men for this sacrilege. They suffered a shipwreck, and all but Odysseus drowned as he clung to a fig tree. Washed ashore on Ogygia, he remained there as Calypso’s lover.
Return to Ithaca (books 13–20)
Having listened to his story, the Phaeacians agree to provide Odysseus with more treasure than he would have received from the spoils of Troy. They deliver him at night, while he is fast asleep, to a hidden harbour on Ithaca. Odysseus awakens and believes that he has been dropped on a distant land before Athena appears to him and reveals that he is indeed on Ithaca. She hides his treasure in a nearby cave and disguises him as an elderly beggar so he can see how things stand in his household. He finds his way to the hut of one of his own slaves, swineherd Eumaeus, who treats him hospitably and speaks favorably of Odysseus. After dinner, the disguised Odysseus tells the farm laborers a fictitious tale of himself.
Telemachus sails home from Sparta, evading an ambush set by the suitors. He disembarks on the coast of Ithaca and meets Odysseus. Odysseus identifies himself to Telemachus (but not to Eumaeus), and they decide that the suitors must be killed. Telemachus goes home first. Accompanied by Eumaeus, Odysseus returns to his own house, still pretending to be a beggar. He is ridiculed by the suitors in his own home, especially Antinous. Odysseus meets Penelope and tests her intentions by saying he once met Odysseus in Crete. Closely questioned, he adds that he had recently been in Thesprotia and had learned something there of Odysseus’s recent wanderings.
Odysseus’s identity is discovered by the housekeeper Eurycleia when she recognizes an old scar as she is washing his feet. Eurycleia tries to tell Penelope about the beggar’s true identity, but Athena makes sure that Penelope cannot hear her. Odysseus swears Eurycleia to secrecy.
Slaying of the Suitors (books 21–24)
The next day, at Athena’s prompting, Penelope maneuvers the suitors into competing for her hand with an archery competition using Odysseus’ bow. The man who can string the bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axe heads would win. Odysseus takes part in the competition, and he alone is strong enough to string the bow and shoot the arrow through the dozen axe heads, making him the winner. He then throws off his rags and kills Antinous with his next arrow. Odysseus kills the other suitors, first using the rest of the arrows and then by swords and spears. Once the battle is won, Telemachus also hangs twelve of their household maids whom Eurycleia identifies as guilty of betraying Penelope or having sex with the suitors. Odysseus identifies himself to Penelope. She is hesitant but recognizes him when he mentions that he made their bed from an olive tree still rooted to the ground. She embraces him and they sleep.
The next day, Odysseus goes to his father Laertes‘s farm and reveals himself. Following them to the farm is a group of Ithacans, led by Eupeithes, father of Antinous, who are out for revenge for the murder of the suitors. A battle breaks out, but it is stopped by Athena and Zeus.
The Odyssey has always been one of my favorite books, and my esteem for it has only increased since hearing this audio recording. There is something magical in the ancient story of Odysseus’s journey home and the reclamation of his household. He is faced with fantastical challenges, both from humans and the gods. He accepts what comes and strives on, ever reliant upon his own craftiness and with the help of his guardian Athena. This reading was my first audio journey through the novel and I can say now that there has probably been no better human utterance of “Ithaca, at last” than the one done in this recording by Sir Ian McKellen.
A ghost of the original language’s poetry still lingers on the edges of the story. There is something musical in the non-poetic English translation by Robert Fagles. You can still feel Homer’s cadence coming through in McKellen’s audio performance. Both Fagles and McKellen probably share credit for that. The rhythm is gonna get you if you listen long enough, and when that happens, you are bound to Odysseus until the journey’s end.
The themes of the story are timeless: Homecoming. Guest rights. Testing and struggle. Revenge. Restoration. Of course, when I put thought into that, the themes might be timeless because most of literature today is a branch or twig from the tree that Homer planted. Most of the students in antiquity were educated in the study of Homer’s two great works. It is difficult to appreciate now, but The Odyssey predates the foundation of the Roman Empire by nearly a millennium. In the centuries that followed the Renaissance, the same focus on Homer was true in the West. If the themes are timeless, then perhaps it is because The Odyssey, nearly as old as civilization itself, influenced what came after itself. How do you review a book like that?
Though wonderful, the story is not without its flaws. By a modern standard, the pacing of the tale is uneven. Homer keeps the action quick until Odysseus returns to his homeland of Ithaca. From there, the story drags a bit as he reunites with his son and plots the death of the men who are courting his wife. It was not a slog to reach the end, but I found myself repeatedly hoping that we could hurry up and get on with the inevitable bloody revenge. That said, once we got there, I did not regret the patience that was asked of me.
One aspect of this story that will probably not quite resonate deeply with modern readers is the theme of guest right. The cyclops Polyphemus is an example of a terrible host – literally killing and eating people who wander too close to him. However, much of Odysseus’s woes can be traced to his blinding of the cyclops in its own home. Calypso imprisons Odysseus, her guest, until finally pressured to let him go. The Phaeacians are excellent hosts. The suitors’ sin – worthy of violent death – is that they are terrible guests. Even when they offer to reimburse Odysseus, to save their own lives, their grievance is considered so terrible as to override pleas for mercy. The treatment of guests, and the behavior of guests, was tremendously significant in the ancient world. Much of that is lost in the modern world, though the sentiment can still be understood. I suspect some modern readers will not connect with the original text’s outrage here, and might think Odysseus, or the goddess Athena who is egging him on, overreact to the behavior of the suitors.
People have spent entire careers studying this book, writing papers, and just generally mining its depths for insight and meaning. For me, the thing that sticks out most in this work is its focus on stories. Whether it is through the narrator’s voice, or the voice of Odysseus, or the voice of other characters that we meet, the larger work is constantly driven onward by the recitation of smaller stories. They all matter and arguably they are the point. This is how information is communicated and it is how hearts are stirred to grief, pity, joy, or outrage. To be human is to be part of a story and to be a story teller.
If you are an enjoyer of stories, then I recommend this audiobook of The Odyssey. When dawn, with her rose red fingers rises, set out onto the wine dark sea, and give this one a go. Stick with it until the story captures you and then fight on until you reach the end. You will not regret it.