Great Books of Western Literature: The Odyssey


1.  Introduction

In 1994, Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, in which he argued for the more conservative viewpoint that literature should follow the “art for art’s sake” ideal and not have it be subservient to some program of social engineering or political correctness.

After I moved to Chicago last summer, I found that the local library, together with the interlibrary system that stretches across the libraries of the Chicagoland area, is a wonderful resource.   I re-read Harold Bloom’s book and decided to embark on a program of reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the Great Books of Western Literature, in particular as set forth by

  • The Great Books of the Western World series by Encyclopedia Brittanica
  • Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

The Iliad, along with the Odyssey, is contained in the first volume of literature in the Great Books of the Western World series.    Along with the Odyssey, I read notes to the Odyssey by various scholars that were edited by Harold Bloom himself.    However, since the work was originally a work of oral poetry, I went and downloaded the LibriVox recording of the 24 books of the Odyssey to listen to them as well as read them.

For a synopsis of the work, I ask that readers turn to the Wikipedia article on The Odyssey and refer to the section on Synopsis.   I will focus on 5 themes of the work as I encountered it in my reading and listening to the work.

2.   5 Themes

a.   Post-Trojan Stress Disorder or the Perils of Peace

After reading the Iliad, one of the things you notice about the Odyssey is that it is not just an interesting work in and of itself, but it becomes doubly so if you compare and contrast it with the Iliad.

First of all, the Iliad is about the world of war, which we enter in its 10th year.   The Odyssey is the story of what happens to Odysseus, one of the leaders of the Trojan War, upon his return to Greece.   It takes him 10 more years to get back to Greece, however, and the Odyssey tracks his various adventures as he gets repeatedly thrown off course and sidetracked.   And yet, he always has the goal in mind to return to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus and after a decade of perseverance, he finally manages to do so.    In all of the physical travels, you get the sense when reading the work that part of the journey that Odysseus goes on is the transformation of his whole being which has been bent on war and his role as a warrior, and now must focus on peace and his role as a father and husband–not, however, until he commits a final war-like act by slaying the suitors of his wife Penelope that are eating him out of house and home.

The stories of the return of the heroes of the Iliad are collectively referred to as the Nostoi, or the stories of the return, and all of them show the difficulties in the warriors who have faced 10 years of war in returning to a life of peace and domestic concerns.    Agamemnon returns to his wife Clytemnestra and is killed by her, because he sacrificed their daughter in order to obtain favorable winds from the gods on his way to the Trojan War.    (This is the subject of a trilogy of plays by the playwright Aeschylus, by the way, which comprise another one of the Great Books.)    So the passage from war to peace is not an easy one, and is fraught with peril.

b.  Reconciliation of the male and the female

One of the psychological shifts that has to go on in Odysseus’ mind is not just the shift from war to peace, but the way in which he interacts with women.    In the Iliad, women are, as they were in much of Greek culture, not the equal of men, but are considered as property and part of the “spoils of war.”   In fact, the opening of the Iliad starts with a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon over that king’s taking the woman Achilles has won as one of the spoils of war.    We only see one real female character of consequence in most of the book, and that is Helen, and she is perhaps the largest spoil of war over which the entire Trojan War is being waged.

Odysseus has to come from that world to the world where he has to interact with women as a father to a daughter, as a husband to a wife, and a son to his mother.    The relationships he has with women such as Nausicaa, or with Circe, help pave the way to his ability to maintain once more domestic relationships with women.

c.  From War Epic to Science Fiction

If we were to consider the Odyssey from the standpoint of view of modern fiction, it would probably be more of a work of fantasy or science fiction, rather than the Iliad, which is more of a war epic.    This is because of the various fantastical adventures he goes on with giant Cyclops, singing Sirens that lure men mad with their songs, and other unusual creatures of mythological lore.    It lends an atmosphere of fantasy or “augmented reality” if you will, rather than the gritty reality of the Iliad.

d.  From Physical Hero to Mental Hero

Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, is strong, brave, and has a lot of positive qualities you would want in a leader during a war, although he does have the weakness of pride which almost proves his undoing.     The Odyssey, on the other hand, is a work which has Odysseus as a hero, and he has a lot of positive qualities that are more mental than physical, such as the ability as a storyteller and a liar, which are more needed against the supernatural foes he runs up against as opposed to the physical foes that Achilles faced in the Iliad.    He, like Achilles, has his weaknesses, such as the hubris or over-confidence that he sometimes displays, such as when he taunts the giant Cyclops after successfully leaving in a boat from their island.     The giant boulder the Cyclops throw at the boat almost causes it to capsize, showing that his boasting, a form of hubris, almost proved his undoing.

e.   From the Arrow to the Circle

The action of the Trojan War in the Iliad may start in Olympus and in Greece, but it ends with the Trojan War, and the attempt to destroy that city.    The action of the Odyssey, however, turns this arrow of action backwards and, after the peregrinations of Odysseus, finally returns him to the place where the adventure started back in Greece.   However, although he is returning in place to the starting point, he is returning to that point 20 years later, and much has happened in those 20 years, including the growth of his son from a boy into a man.    Luckily, there are some things that are constant, such as his wife Penelope’s faithfulness to him, and that is what causes the book to have, as we would say today, a happy ending.

3.  Conclusion

There is some debate as to whether Homer wrote both works, but I think those who think he did not write both are doing so because of they find it difficult to find that one man could write works of such contrasting themes.   But when you read the two works, you know that they are written by the same man, because the rhythms of the sentences, with their repeated words, phrases, or indeed entire passages (like the descriptions of animal sacrifices) leave one no doubt that the same genius is at work.

Of the two works, I must say that the Odyssey has a power over me that the Iliad did not, but that is probably because of my own penchant for science fiction, which escapes certain boundaries created by the rules of realism in order to tell larger truths about the world in which we live.   For that reason, it is one of those works I would enjoy re-reading. Just as Odysseus’ adventures made him a larger person because of the experience, reading about his adventures in the Odyssey also makes me a different person, a larger self, than I was at the beginning of the story.    That is why it is a Great Book of Western Literature.



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