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The Odyssey, like The Iliad, is pre-eminently a poem of action. It resembles other heroic poetry, as well as sub-heroic oral narrative verse, in the way it engages the listeners or readers with the poem and involves them imaginatively in it. In such poems the thrill of action is important, but it is attended by a notable concern for what humans do and suffer and the many ways in which they face their challenges. While the plot is advanced by strong, dramatic action, the poem also goes into detail about the characters' thoughts, words, and feelings. Indeed, there is almost no human emotion which Homer does not present in his characters or arouse in his listeners/readers. Human emotions are an important theme of the epic.
As in The Iliad, the framework of myth is used here to discuss such themes as endurance, courage, pride, vengeance, and the role of destiny in human lives. The plot of The Odyssey recounts Odysseus' supernatural adventures on his way home from the Trojan War and his epic battle with the suitors who have plagued his wife during his absence. But, it is also the story of Odysseus' own development, especially his gaining of humility and patience. Each of his encounters changes him and teaches him more about himself, until he is ready at the end to prove himself to his enemies.
The Odyssey serves in some sense as a sequel to The Iliad, and the relationship between the two poems is obvious throughout. At the very beginning of The Odyssey, when the gods are discussing Odysseus' fate as he languishes on Calypso's island, they turn almost immediately to the fate of his old comrade, Agamemnon, who has been murdered by his wife's lover. This episode broaches the topic of what happens to the heroes of Troy. The original audience would have known all about the Trojan War and would have understood any reference to it. So now it lies in the background as the tale of Odysseus and Ithaca is recounted. Other Iliadic events are often related, and certain characters appear here who have played a substantial part in The Iliad as well. There is a constant interpolation of the past and the present, which includes not only events from The Iliad and the Trojan War, but also occurrences involving other humans and gods.
An important theme, which cannot be ignored, is the role of gods and fate
in human lives. In the very first Book, there is a council of the gods,
at which Zeus says that mortal men must not blame the gods for their misfortune,
as it is they themselves who bring about their own downfall through misdeeds.
This remains a contentious issue throughout the epic. Most of Odysseus'
adventures seem to be ordained, and he is constantly aided by Athena.
But at the same time, it is he himself who has brought about his long
absence from home by inciting the wrath of Poseidon. In The Odyssey,
fate, interference by the gods, and human action combine to form an epic
that is gigantic in scale.
The Odyssey deals also with the normal conditions of society in peacetime and the importance of the "oikos," or household. The household is almost a self-contained unit with its head, family, dependents or retainers, heralds, and slaves. Odysseus comes back to such a set-up. He slays the suitors in order to re-establish order in his own "oikos," which was being corrupted. The first four Books and Books 13-27 deal with household and form a substantial portion of the epic.
An epic deals with a large canvas, and, as such, there are numerous minor themes. While Odysseus dominates the poem, his wife and son play important roles as well. The growth and development of Telemachus from an inexperienced, naive youth to a hero is a minor theme. His mother Penelope's endurance and prudence, in contrast to Clytemnestra's infidelity and cruelty in The Iliad, is another theme of some importance.
The suitors occupy quite a large part of the epic, and their unheroic, impudent behavior is in great contrast with the noble qualities of the heroic ideal. They are a part of the generation that did not fight at Troy, and they have not learned the lessons that war teaches. The descriptions of their transgressions and the necessity of their punishment are a minor theme.
The Odyssey deals twice with the ancient theme of the witch who detains the hero on his return by making him live with her. She need not be malevolent, but she hinders his desire to go home. In The Odyssey, she appears in two quite different forms as Circe and Calypso. Circe has a ruthless, cruel side, while Calypso is more gentle and charming, although she keeps Odysseus hidden in Ogygia for eight years.
Another minor theme is the loyalty of some of the servants to Odysseus. Odysseus' relationship with Eumaeus is especially delineated. Later, Eurycleia and Philoetius are also presented as loyal to the hero. Odysseus is capable of winning steadfast faithfulness, and this contributes to his heroic stature.
The mood is exciting, which is typical of an ancient epic. The excitement is seen especially in the first half, when the canvas is very large and includes numerous fabulous events. There is adventure, mystery, suspense, and even terror, especially in the recounting of Odysseus' supernatural adventures on the way home from the Trojan War. In the second half of The Odyssey, from Book 13 onward, the age-old tale of the wanderer's return is told, and the mood becomes more low-keyed and domestic. Thus, the tale of an enduring wife, a revengeful husband, a maturing son, and villainous suitors is combined with stories of monsters, ghosts, nymphs, and giants. Two distinct moods, one of supernatural, epic excitement and another of human drama, are merged effectively in The Odyssey to produce an epic poem that possesses diverse colors.