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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

Authorship of The Odyssey is attributed to a person called Homer. Not much is known about him. Some scholars believe there were two Homers, one who composed The Iliad and another who composed its sequel, The Odyssey. It has even been suggested-sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously-that Homer was a woman.

The general view is that Homer was the last in a long line of poet-performers who recited or chanted or sang stories of the heroic past. He was from the Ionian area of Greece. He probably couldn't read or write. The Iliad and The Odyssey reached their highest form through his telling of them. He used familiar material that had been passed along through the ages by word of mouth, but he shaped this material and embellished it. These two epic poems were probably written down by someone else around 750 B.C., five hundred years after the fall of Troy.

These two stories are all about the Trojan War, the war between the Greeks (Homer calls them the Akhaians) and the Trojans. The quarrel began when Helen, the beautiful wife of king Menelaos, was stolen away to Troy by Paris, the son of Priam, king of Troy. The wronged husband rounded up an army. He got his brother Agamemnon and powerful friends like Akhilleus (Achilles) and Odysseus to do the same. These Greek kings sailed with their troops to Troy, made war on the Trojans, and then laid siege to the walled city of Troy where the Trojans holed up. The siege dragged on, and eventually the war reached a stalemate.

The Greeks were about to give up when Odysseus had them build an enormous hollow horse, fill it with soldiers sworn to silence, and leave it outside the city walls, apparently as a parting tribute to the might of the Trojans. When the Greeks had sailed out of sight, the Trojans brought the horse into the city. Under cover of darkness, the soldiers emerged from the horse, attacked the city, and opened the gates to their comrades who had sailed back to shore. Troy fell. All of these events are said to have taken ten years. The Iliad (the Greek word for Troy is Ilium) focuses on the two best fighters in the war: Akhilleus, representing the Greeks, and Hector, the hero of the Trojans. The Odyssey is about the adventures of Odysseus on his way home from the war.



The gods of the Greek civilization are important in the stories. These gods behave like the kings and queens in The Iliad and The Odyssey. They have human form and very human behavior; they fall in and out of love, are jealous, cruel, angry, vain, and manipulative. But they're one step higher than even the highest Greeks because they're immortal, and they demand from the race of men a certain respect.

Odysseus is admired by the gods for his coolness under pressure, his quick and convincing lies, his detachment, and his persistence. But men can go too far, and the gods are severe in punishing hubris (arrogance) or neglect of respectful rituals. Similarly, among mortals the worst crime is lack of loyalty. Loyalty, wisdom, hospitality, and friendship are high ideals for the Akhaians.

The singer-poets are thought to have accompanied themselves on a simple instrument made of strings pulled taut over some sort of resonator, perhaps a tortoise shell. This instrument was strummed for an occasional rhythmic accent. Since they were reciting and improvising, they made use of "epithets," descriptive tags to fill out a line of verse as well as provide detail about character. Thus, Homer called Odysseus the "raider of cities," and Menelaos is referred to as "the red-haired captain."

The singer-poets also used set pieces such as some of the repeated stories and long comparisons-epic similes-you will find in the poem. These epithets, repeated stories, and epic similes gave the singer-poet a breather. A jazz musician repeats familiar phrases between improvisations. A practiced public speaker uses some tried and true anecdotes. Similarly, Homer's poem is a mix of fresh and standard material.

When The Odyssey was finally recorded it was written by hand on a scroll, probably made of papyrus reed. From the original, copies were made, first on papyrus, later on vellum, which was animal skin specially prepared for writing. Neither of these materials lasts forever, and what gets copied and preserved is a matter of changing taste. But Homer was a champion in the struggle for literary survival. When scholars took stock of surviving Egyptian papyri in 1963 they found that nearly half of the 1,596 individual "books" were copies of The Iliad or The Odyssey or comments about them. During the Classic Age of Greece-the time of the playwright Sophocles and the philosopher Plato-if a Greek owned any books at all, they were likely to be a papyrus scroll of The Iliad or The Odyssey. He would also probably have memorized long stretches of the two poems. Even today The Odyssey is more widely read than any other classic of Greek literature. The ocean spray, the exotic islands, and the story's adventures are infectious. People have even boarded ships and tried to retrace Odysseus' journey, book in hand.

New translations keep coming along. There are more than thirty to choose from in English alone. Some translations, like the popular one by W. H. D. Rouse, are in prose, which some readers may prefer. This guide is based on Robert Fitzgerald's translation because it, like the original, is in verse, and also because its language is easy and down to earth. Since references to the twenty-four books that made up the story are standard, this guide can be used with any translation.

You will find some variation in the English spellings of the Greek names in The Odyssey. Fitzgerald uses a k instead of a c to emphasize the hard sounds of Kirke (Circe), Kyklopes (Cyclops), Klytaimnestra (Clytemnestra), and Akhaians (Acheans). Fitzgerald gives a guide to pronunciation by using stress marks, which helps you hear that, for instance, Penelope (accents over the last two e's) rhymes with catastrophe, not with cantaloupe. Fitzgerald says The Odyssey can no more be translated into English than rhododendron can be translated into dogwood-that really to experience Homer a person must learn Greek. Fortunately he went ahead and translated it anyway. His Odyssey is full of life-it is a terrific story.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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