earth bears none frailer than mankind.
--Odysseus, Bk. XVIII
How to summarize The Odyssey, which surely is among the handful of texts that might be called the greatest work of literature ever written? I have been reading this with my senior class, and--in my opinion, at least--it's been a lot of fun. The Odyssey is so rich that we could have spent months and months dissecting it; as it is, we've done it in six weeks and barely scratched the surface.
Those who have never actually read it may be surprised to learn that the string of adventures that give us the term "odyssey" for a long journey are confined to a relatively small portion of the book. Odysseus' encounter with the Kyklops Polyphemos, the goddesses Kirke and Kalypso (both of whom he bones), his trip to the underworld, Skylla and Kharybdis, all take up only four books out of the twenty-four. The beginning of the book is given almost completely to Odysseus' son, Telemakhos, struggling with the suitors who have taken up residence in his father's manor and undertaking a journey of his own to learn of his father's whereabouts. A long section in the middle is given to Odysseus at the court of King Antinoos of the Phaiakians (to whom he tells the story of his adventures), and the final half of the book is all about Odysseus back home in Ithaka planning the suitors' demise while disguised as a beggar. Yet, all these sections are great, and, in my opinion, The Odyssey's best moments actually occur when the pace slows down.
Though The Odyssey is typically read by freshmen, this translation by Robert Fitzgerald is much more complex than the one that's usually found in schools, and in my opinion is infinitely better. Fitzgerald's rendering of Homer's words is frequently gorgeous. Here is the moment when Odysseus' wife Penelope sees him, undisguised, for the first time in twenty years, after he's killed all of her suitors:
She turned to descend the stair, her heart
in tumult. Had she better keep her distance
and question him, her husband? Should she run
up to him, take his hands, kiss him now?
Crossing the door sill she sat down at once
in firelight, against the nearest wall,
across the room from the lord Odysseus.
There leaning against the pillar, sat the man
and never lifted up his eyes, but only waited
for what his wife would say when she had seen him.
And she, for a long time, sat deathly still
in wonderment--for sometimes as he gazed
she found him--yes, clearly--like her husband,
but sometimes blood and rags were all she saw.
One of the other teachers maintains that The Odyssey is a very simple book--I couldn't disagree more. The Odyssey continues to amaze us today, I think, because it's several books at once--it is an adventure story, a love story, a novel of manners, maybe even a proto-feminist book. It is about a man who misses his wife; it is about a man who comes to know his son; it is about a man who learns to put his warlike self aside; it is about the way that people are rewarded or punished by how they treat those in need; it is a story about fate and destiny and the gods.
I know that some of my students think it's awful and tedious, but I hope that one day they can approach it again and remember some of the things that we've talked about and realize how powerful it is. I know that it sort of bored me in high school; now I think that it's fantastic.