Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Odyssey

I got sucked into this story. About a third of the way through I was hiding it under the covers with a flashlight, staying up past my bedtime. And for once the discussion about authorship and possible oral composition didn't kill the story, but added to my admiration. This swashbuckling story and sublime language was most likely composed orally over several centuries and only later written down? I can't read in Greek, but the intricate narrative structure, composed of flashbacks and tales within the tale was definitely a unified construct - whoever finally wrote it down must have had a hand in the final presentation. I loved Fitzgerald's translation, as well - it is beautiful in itself, and much less wooden than Lattimore's (although I understand that Lattimore's is much closer to the Greek).

I loved Helen and Penelope - they had such powerful roles within their own household, and yet in the larger sphere were strangely powerless. Helen was witchy, godlike, and foreign. Penelope was crafty, and faithful, and distrustful - the female counterpart to Odysseus. The traditional double standard for men and women's behavior was infuriating as usual. I actually sympathize with Clymmenestra who is held up as the vilest of women - If my husband sacrificed our daughter for favorable winds to go to war, I'd kill him too.

I also enjoyed the gods in the story - and the contrast between say, Athena and Poseidon. Poseidon is hostile towards humans in general - and would prefer to stop all sea voyages; while Athena is the god of civilization, of craft, and is far more sympathetic towards humans in general. The gods are so human. I like how they aren't greatly involved, almost rooting from the sidelines for their favorites. I was reminded a little of the episode in Job, where God and the Devil make a bet on poor Job; only here, the god's don't struggle for allegiance, but for the success or failure of their favorites. Athena, in particular is interesting, for she has strict limits on how far she will intervene, even for her favorites. She will weight the dice, or help plan a ruse, but refuses to take actual part in the fray. The heroes in the story are independent actors and not merely pawns. The ending was pretty ruthless - but it actually stopped short of total carnage. I never realized how much Dante borrowed from Homer - and even Shakespeare's plots echo Homer's with improbable disguises and sleep potions (did he have access to Homer, or was this just the narrative tradition?)

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