Reading Epics: The Odyssey by Homer


Very recently I finished reading Homer’s The Odyssey in its entirety for the first time. This is particularly significant for me because while minored in classical studies in university and learned a lot about the story of The Odyssey, I never actually read the entire text. I’ve made it a personal mission to read epics like these, having started with The Iliad, which I finished reading at the end of 2013.

Unlike other posts about books that I’ve been writing lately, this will not be a review. While I will be speaking about the merits of the translation I read, I’m talking about a classic piece of literature that is thousands of years old. It has more than earned its place in the canon of humanity’s literature, so it doesn’t really need a review to tell you its merits. It’s The Odyssey: you should probably read it if you’re interested.

The translation of the text that I read was the Penguin Deluxe edition, by Robert Fagles, with an introduction by Bernard Knox. The duo also worked on the print of The Iliad that I read, which was also published as a Penguin Deluxe edition.

While it may be tempting to skip the introduction and get right to the meat of the text — a temptation I encountered with both of Homer’s texts — I strongly advocate for reading Knox’s introductions to each text. There’s a lot of mythological, historical, and cultural context that it introduces to the reader, as well as a crash-course on reading Greek names as they are written in the translation.

There is a section of notes in the back by Knox that give further explanation for different parts of the book as well, but I didn’t use them due to the lack of endnotes referring to that section. I did appreciate the absence of endnotes however, since I’ve found in the past that references done in that way interrupt me more than they add to the experience.

Right off the bat, I appreciate the translations written by Fagles for this text. I have read other ancients texts that have been translated into English, such as Apollodorus’ Library of Greek Mythology and Apollonius’ Voyage of the Argo, and I found that I had a harder time with both of those. The texts weren’t very accessible and more of a chore to read. This is not the experience I have reading Fagles’ translations. While the nature of the text still makes it a more challenging read than most, I find that Fagles’ translates it in a way that I can become more easily engaged with.

It’s epic poetry, not prose, so like I’ve said I find it to be a more challenging read than conventional novels, but this accessibility allowed me to better appreciate what I was reading. This challenge I’m referring to is specifically how the story is conveyed differently in this form. A lot of repetition is used, due to the oral performance tradition of the text, and a lot of the language is more bombastic. For me, this meant that I still had to work harder to read through the text, which made the experience more mentally exhausting when done over long periods.

What I found interesting was that the more fantastical moments of the story — such as the cyclops Polyphemus, the Sirens, or the journey to the Underworld — weren’t the extensive portions of the text, despite these being more widely known aspects of the story. What I’ve better come to understand about the story is how much importance it puts on the cultural institution of guest friendship. Whether it is Menelaus welcoming Telemachus in his halls, the Phaeacians hosting Odysseus, or the violation of this code by the suitors in Odysseus’ home, the story is constantly concerned with it. This idea is, after all, the climactic conflict in the story.

Odysseus, even after returning home, must endeavour to drive the suitors out and punish them brutally for their misdeeds. A lot more of the poem is dedicated to this portion of the story than I had previously thought. It’s an interesting glimpse it the culture of the society at the time, and what they put value in when dealing with other people.

It was moving to see as well that, despite the age of the text, it has a small moment that highlights humanity’s longstanding relationship with canine companions. When Odysseus returns home he must do so in disguise, and as a result cannot greet is old dog Argos, who has waited nearly twenty years for his master to return from Troy. All Odysseus can do is shed a silent tear and hold himself back as Argos weakly thumps his tail, recognizing his master is home once again, before passing away where he lies. Despite knowing about this scene already, I found it quite heart-wrenching to read once the time came.

Though sometimes a challenge to read, especially over long periods, I feel fulfilled in having finished reading both of Homer’s great epics. I intend to continue onward in reading more classic pieces of epic poetry, though not all at once. My plans for the future are The Aeneid — which Fagles and Knox have also worked on — The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost. I’m going to take my time getting through them, as I feel it would be a bit much at once otherwise. I invite anyone to recommend other texts of a similar ilk that I should read. I’d love to hear any suggestions.


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