Homer's The Odyssey
is so grounded in the foundation of world literature that it is largely beyond reproach, and likewise beyond praise. Homer's two epics, this and the Iliad
, are two halves of the same foundation: the journey out, and the journey back; the external conflict, the internal conflict; the war saga, the family saga. The two comprise such a vastness, that it would seem that most, if not all, Western literature are the offspring of Homer. From the Iliad
we have War & Peace
, Moby Dick
; from the Odyssey
we have (obviously) Ulysses
, Catcher in the Rye
, and even Anna Karenina
, which is the sort of family-odyssey counterpart to Tolsoy's other epic. With so much influence Homer has had on literature as we know and love it, it is nearly impossible to say anything about it: it is the Odyssey
! You know it before you read it, it is pervasive in our culture, it's alluded to everywhere. So what can I say? Read it! And importantly, read the Fitzgerald translation - much better than the Fagles one. The writing is alive and modern without being hackneyed and colloquial.
I have read the Odyssey
three times now, and I always find myself enjoying it immensely. Every re-read has a new treasure. There is no "ideal age" to read this, in fact, it seems to age with you perfectly. The parallel stories of Father and Son are moving in their own ways. While Telemakhos aspires to be as great as his father, he is something wholly different, but with rival grace and greatness. Unlike Odysseus, the war hero and great bravery of Ithaka, Telemakhos is more timid, but humble. He has a grace which his father lacks. On my first journey through the Odyssiad, I was vexed by the story of the son, I wanted to get to the story I knew: Odysseus and the Cyclops! the Sirens! Scylla and Charybdis! Circe and Kalypso! While these stories are exciting, they lack the emotional impact of the parallel story at home in Ithaka. Odysseus is the original trickster, the eternal youth-at-heart, impervious to personal growth but with a compensatory charisma what make people forgive his lack of poise (Poseidon excepted). We can observe in Telemakhos a true progression, and a truer emotional character than his father.
Telemakhos' family life is source of constant internal struggle. His relationship to his father who he has never met is a mix of god-like worship, regret and doubt. He was born while Odysseus was at war in Troy, and knows only his father as the figure of legend. Because the figure of his father is so tall, he is debilitated with self-doubt and feelings of low-esteem. He is not taken seriously by the suitors despite his true claim to the house of Ithaka, and partially it is because he scarcely believes in his own entitlement to that house. Because of his complicated relationship to his father, his maternal relationship is likewise in an unsteady state. While he is deferential to his mother, he is somewhat distanced from her grief. His love for his father can only be a kind of superficial hero-worship, while Penelope's is genuine feelings of love and devotion.
Very little is explicit in Homer. He is removed by centuries from the psychological analysis of his characters, and he gives no clues as to what his characters think or feel, he only tells us how things appear, things acted, things done. Telemakhos' journey is the journey of knowledge, and knowledge is a source of pain to him until Odysseus reveals himself in Ithaka. As in the story of Hamlet
, knowledge is a wound, a paralysis to action. The more he learns about his father, the less Telemakhos' feels capable to deal with his absence. While he is largely free to action in the start, removed from real entanglement in his mother's bed, convinced of his father's death, as he learns more about his father and about his likely chance of return, his poise is shaken. He cannot in good conscience marry off his mother, but can neither hold off the suitors alone. His father becomes more and more real to him through the stories of Nestor and Menelaos - men who he respects, removed from the island of Ithaka.
The story of Odysseus is the story of, literally and metaphorically, struggling to stay afloat. He is caught in the fray of fates: Poseidon poised against him, Athena for him, and Zeus ultimately but reservedly in line with his daughter than with his brother. Odysseus's pride is his greatest flaw, and it ultimately undoes his own cleverness. While the narrative saves him from death at sea, the message of The Odyssey
seems to me a caveat against pride. The suitors are prideful and disrespectful even to the gods and they are sent packing to Hades, Odysseus is prideful and is kept away from home for twenty years despite his accomplishments and reverence. Odysseus, like Othello, believes in his own mythological persona. In his re-telling of his story, he shuffles blame off of himself, largely blaming his crew's thoughtlessness or the gods' rage for his misfortunes. He learns later of his fault from Kalypso, though he seems still too prideful for his own good. Like the trickster he is, he can't help himself but to take credit for his tricks: unmasking his "Nohbdy" disguise to credit himself with Polyphemos' blindness. But it is Odysseus who is blinded, by his own hubris.The Odyssey
is a must-read for everyone. And nearly everyone has read it, so that recommendation is moot.