I've heard and read about Homer for many, many years and finally realised I had to find what he was all about. Now I know. He is the Leonardo Di Vinci of literature. After so many centuries Homer is still the man.
I hope that those who read my review will forgive me because I would like to talk mainly about Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. When I read the Odyssey for the first time, I thought it was a wonderful adventure book with beautiful and dangerous women and I laughed with that half-wit of a Polyphemus, one of the cyclops. But near the end something was missing, it was not what it should be.
Odysseus came home. His son Telemachus and his swineherd were glad and his dog could finally die with the comforting knowledge that his master was among the living. Why didn't Penelope make a joyful sound ? Why was she so silent ? I shrugged my shoulders and said:'women!'. It's only years later I began to understand a little. So many people died in the Trojan war. The many adorers of Penelope were slaughtered by Odysseus with no compassion at all. The silence of Penelope was a reproachful silence. She was wondering how many more dead people it would take before men could live in peace. We still ask that question.
Poor Odysseus. First he spent a decade fighting in a war he didn't want to go to in the first place. Then he spent ANOTHER decade trying to slog home.
And in one of many spinoffs of "The Iliad," the classical, archetypical trickster-hero spends the entire epic poem "The Odyssey" doing his absolute best to get home, despite the entire universe conspiring to stop him. Like the poem before it, it dances in odd chronological side-steps, with stories within stories, yet the presence of an intelligent and wily hero (just consider how he fools the Cyclops) keeps the story as fresh as ever. And Fagles' translation is a masterful piece of work.
It begins ten years after the end of the Trojan War. Odysseus has been missing ever since the war ended, and everybody assumes he's now dead. His son Telemachus is moping, and his wife Penelope has been fending off her ambitious suitors for several years. The goddess Athena, after interceding on Odysseus' behalf, begins guiding Telemachus to find news of his long-absent father.
Turns out Odysseus is actually alive, and has been the captive of the lovestruck sea-nymph Calypso for seven years. But when he finally gets away, he ends up shipwrecked on a far-off land (due to Poseidon being angry at him), and relates his bizarre story to the people who rescue him.
Among his adventures: his encounter with the Lotus-Eaters and a cruel man-eating Cyclops, the Laestrygonians, the sorceress Circe (who turns his men into pigs), the deadly Sirens, Scylla and Charibdis, and the wrath of a god when the crew eats sacred cattle. But even after all this weirdness and twenty years away, Odysseus is still determined to return home and reclaim his family and kingship.
Out of all the stories spun off from "The Iliad," "The Odyssey" is probably the most famous. Perhaps this is because it's one of the least tragic, despite the high death count -- with some divine help from Athena and Hermes, Odysseus can actually get home to Ithaca, his wife and his now-adult son (who is not king, for some reason -- a puzzling detail that I never quite understood).
It's also more colorful and magical than other such stories -- instead of mundane human enemies, Odysseus' story is awash in magical, mythical creatures both fair and foul. There are gods, sorceresses, man-eating monsters and a six-headed creature over a whirlpool. In fact, the story doesn't truly settle back to the "ordinary" life until Odysseus finally gets back home, and has to deal with more human enemies: all the men who want to bonk his wife.
And Odysseus' determination to get home is literally legendary. He's already an endearing character, being a clever trickster-king and a formidable warrior -- but his love for Penelope and his unshakeable, unswerving determination add a depth and intensity to his personality. Telemachos comes across as kind of pouty and sulky at first, but becomes a sort of secondary hero when he learns that his father is not actually dead.
Robert Fagles' translation is a pretty good one -- he maintains the quality of oral poetry ("under her feet she fastened the supple sandals, ever-glowing gold, that wing her over the waves") while being very fluid and easy to read, without getting tangled up in rhyme or line length. There are some phrases that are awkward and anachronistic, but overall the experience is quite lovely.
"The Odyssey" is a timeless, enchanted epic, expanding on one of the most likable characters of the whole Trojan War -- and his magical, terrifying, decade-long adventures are still fascinating literature even today. A masterful must-read.