A tale of twists and turns

We take the the Odyssey for granted.

Like with other essential heroes of the Canon–Ishmael, Sherlock Holmes, Jesus–the peregrinations of brave Odysseus are a kind of cultural birthmark, intimately known if less often read.

Think about it. Even if you’ve never read one Homeric hexameter you likely already know the “good parts.” The seduction of the Siren’s song. Passing between the devilish Scylla and Charybdis of the deep blue sea.  The cyclops, the Trojan horse, killing sacred cows. You get the idea.

But that only covers cultural assimilation of many of the Odyssey‘s best known scenes. Certainly a smaller though still sizable share of the world could get a passing grade if asked to sum up the plot:

  • The Trojan War ends thanks to our hero’s brilliant stratagem: the aforementioned wooden horse. (Has anyone ever pointed out how creepy it is that our most popular condom brand is playing with the idea of an invading army secreting themselves into a sanctuary? Remember, the whole point of the horse is that, once welcomed inside Troy, the Greeks get out of the horse.)
  • Odysseus sets sail for his home island, Ithaca, with ten ships. Various island-hopping adventures occur that whittle away at his fleet: cannibals, witches, sea monsters, and demigods all deliver glancing blows until at last it is Odysseus alone who washes up, a miserable castaway, on the island of a beautiful sea nymph named Calypso.
  • Cue seven-year sex party. This may well be the world’s first heterosexual male fantasy, as Odysseus is forced–Homer tells us in my translation “he had no choice”–to lie with Calypso every night, then weep away the sinful deed during the day while gazing out across the wine-dark sea.
  • When the gods intervene, Odysseus finally escapes and eventually, eventually reaches Ithaca.
  • Not all is well at home. Odysseus learns that in his absence a horde of suitors have invaded his palace. They woo his wife Penelope, raid his larder, and threaten his son Telemachus. Disguising himself, our hero pulls off one last deception by entering the palace, barring the gates, and slaughtering the lot.

Now, that “various island adventures” bullet is what most comes to mind when we think of the Odyssey. You might expect the bulk of the epic to be devoted to these many tales, but they encompass perhaps a fifth of the poem. What’s more, they are not chronologically told. The poem actually opens with a section scholars call the Telemachiad, which recounts the (far less memorable) adventures of Odysseus’ son in search of his famous father. It then twists and turns, much like its hero, between father and son, past and present. Here the action of the poem chronologically:


And here it is as told:

Odyssey timeline (2)

Today, telling a story out of order is not revolutionary. In media res storytelling is so familiar to us now, it is hard to think of a more conventional opening–particularly from film and ensemble cast TV. 

But in Greek epics, this was unheard of. In his excellent introduction to the Robert Fagles Odyssey translation, Bernard Knox writes:

Epic narrative characteristically announces the point in the story at which it begins and then proceeds in chronological order to its end. The Iliad opens with the poet’s request to the Muse… [telling] her where to start: “Begin Muse, when the two first broke and clashed, / Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.” She does, and the story is told in strict chronological order until its end… In the Odyssey… it begins, like the Iliad, with a request to the Muse to sound a theme… but instead of telling her where to start… it leaves the choice to her. “Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, / start from where you will.” And she does.

Knox sees Homer’s reason being one of pacing. By introducing the last adversaries Odysseus will face in his journey–the suitor rabble lingering in Ithaca–he frames the entire narrative with a final purpose, making the story less a picaresque series of episodes than an inevitable clash.

But even if it was done largely for its narrative value, there is something highly satisfying in the discombobulating cut-up presentation of a simple story about a man battered back and forth across the sea, just trying to get home.

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