Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul - The Odyssey Part 5

At last, we reach the end of The Odyssey. I don't know about you, but I'm going to miss it. As much as I liked Of Mice and Men, I think I can say that this has been my favorite book in our series so far.

The domestic drama takes a few odd turns in this final portion of the text. I think I'm probably not alone in noticing how different the first third of the book is from the last two thirds. Gone is the adventure stories with fantastical beasts, gods and the afterlife (mostly.  More accurately, gone are the fantastical beasts anyway and sparse are the gods and afterlife.)  The conclusion of the story is about Odysseus sneaking back into his life to drive out the suitors. I won't be so unkind as to call it uneven. But I did miss the Cyclops, Hydra, witches, bags of wind and sirens. Now we have omens of birds of prey carrying doves, deceit, some awkward fumbling returns to family, and lots of violence. In spite of this, however, a lot did happen this week. I know. I say that every week and it's not always true.

We start with Odysseus being a bit of an ass again. Odysseus and Penelope are reunited in person, but Odysseus is still pretending to not be Odysseus. The servant girl notices his boar hunting scar when washing his feet (I wonder if this was an Adonis allusion.) Penelope had a dream with a talking bird who kills all the geese which, of course, means that Odysseus is returning to drive out the suitors (Last night I dreamed about the angel statues from the Blink episode of Doctor Who.  What does this portend?  Sometimes a talking eagle is just a talking eagle.)  Penelope decides to hold a contest for the suitor who will marry her. Then there's a long passage about how the various characters have a rough night's sleep.

Although, as peculiar as I find Odysseus' behavior (maybe it's cultural. My point is, if I were in his position, I would say "Hey, everyone, I'm back!" and then call the cops on the suitors for trespassing. Maybe it didn't work like that in ancient Ithaca), I have to say that the suitors throughout have been really terrible. Now they're throwing cows hooves!  I can kind of see why it's going down like it's going down.

Oh, and guess who wins the contest. And while Odysseus still has the bow and arrow and all of the suitors assembled, we get the action movie ending. They kill everyone, bring out the disloyal servants, make them clean up the carnage, then Telemachus hangs them. Somehow, Penelope sleeps through all of this. I guess because she had such a hard time getting to sleep the night before and this is way before coffee.

Like so many great men in history, Odysseus wanted for foresight in killing the sons of prominent families in the area. The singer goes and stands in the doorway and sings cheery songs so the people passing by will not suspect that it's the Ithaca Chainsaw Massacre inside. So, the Greeks had dark humor too, I guess.

There's the weird thing about the bed being made out of part of a tree. We get a flash into the suitors arriving in Hades (which I thought was a nice touch) and Agamemnon kind of does a little rap star style bragging "You think Penelope was bad?!!? That's nothing. You should have seen Clytemnestra!"

Odysseus has a touching reunion with his father. Much as Odysseus suspected, the families of the suitors decide to raise an army and hunt down Odysseus but, again, Athena intervenes (disguised as Mentor again. And not until after one guy gets a spear in the throat.) In a clear reflection of the public's short term memory (with skills like that, Athena could have her own talk show on a 24 hour news network), the families forget about the dead suitors and decide to make Odysseus king again instead. Everyone's happy and justice is served (mostly.) Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.

Thanks to all who read along. I hope you enjoyed this book as much as I have or more if possible.

Next up is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I highly recommend everyone join in on this book. I've already started it and it's wonderful. I also recommend you get a copy and start reading ASAP. It's a long one. I think we're going to read it in approximately 75 page chunks. As usual, we will have a week for everyone to secure a copy before we officially start reading. Next Thursday I will post a reading reminder and announce the official start of reading (our first post on the reading will be the following Thursday.) But I would encourage all of you to get a copy and start reading as soon as you can. I think you'll love it, but it's over 500 pages and miles to go before nightfall.


  1. Finally done with this. I didn't dislike this book - but I remembered it being a lot better than I found it this time. Churning through the last few books/chapters was pretty harsh, and I got to wondering about what would have been the outcome if Homer had an editor. As much as we hear writers complaining about editors chopping up their work, and the other woes of getting published in our very competitive, cliquish literary climate, here we have an example of what gets shat out when there's no editor, no competitive publishing structure, etc. I think this may have been trimmed down to a novella, or perhaps even better, a 2 or 3 run magazine serial. While it is described as an epic, it really isn't. The parts that would make it an epic are unfortunately told as stories about the past, combined with a lot of admittedly fictional similar stories that Ulysses makes up to cover his identity. There is very little of the epic adventure that actually happens during the plotline of this book - basically Ulysses goes from island to mainland to home, and Telemachus goes on a little tour around the country to meet with some people. Then they both meet up at home and kill their annoying neighbors. This isn't an epic, it actually shares more similarities with modern novels that are very plot-weak - or even better, some modern movie scripts - think Titanic - almost no present-time plot, but a ton of over-analyzed and glorified memories.

    So, is this, as Paul postured, a coming-of-age novel centered on Telemachus' maturation? Hardly. While Telemachus sort of gets a little testy and assertive at the end, he is still very much under the shadow of his dad. It would be nice to think that he grew up a bit, but we really don't see that. Then again, Ulysses isn't really that "grown up" either - he seems pretty childlike in manner, and not in a good way - more of a brat, taunter, and bully.

    No, this book is somewhat surprisingly empty - if anything perhaps it could be an oral history or partial fictional biography. There isn't any resounding theme or message, and the end is fairly anticlimactic - all of the tension resolved by killing the suitors is far behind us as family is visited and peace is restored by the gods. I do want to go back and look at other observations I made earlier, and see if anything came of them.

  2. 1. Better almost any way than in print: I think this holds up. But then again, I'm not a fan of reading biographies. Still, I think this would make a better movie, stageplay, or musical than a book.

    2. No need to concentrate on the content: This is definitely the case, and is very apparent for the last third of the book, which doesn't have much real content to concentrate on.

    3. Rich man's tale for rich men: Yes, I think this holds up too - think of the beggar's brawl, and even more giving of gifts that the common man wouldn't be able to attain, much less give away.

    4. Ulysses is a pompous ass: Absolutely holds up. The scene when he is getting angry because his wife doesn't believe him and wants him to sleep outside the room, case in point, not to mention his willingness to fight the families of the suitors, when he had just offed their kin.

    5. Karma of bad decisions: Unfortunately, this doesn't hold up as well as one would have hoped. I would rather have seen Telemachus accidentally cause the death of Ulysses, than the pretty ending we were given. Pretty much Ulysses gets to just shrug off his mistakes after spending some time in the penalty box. Oh well.

    6. The women of Homer's world: Yes, I think this concept holds up - Penelope keeps her virtue, and only 12 of 60 maids are accused of disloyalty. Minerva seems to go from supplicant to troublemaker to peacemaker and be as fickle as ever, although she seems to have a hard-on for Ulysses.

    7. Points on the real Ulysses and the nature of the Afterlife - well, there's nothing much I can say on the real Ulysses, although it is shown over and over again what a great liar he is. With all those lies, what remains as truth is reasonably questionable. On the afterlife, we get Agamemnon and the dead suitors talking, so I still have lots of questions regarding whether there is any notable separation between the good and evil, whatever that may mean to those contemporary to Ulysses, in the afterlife.

    I think everything else I mentioned has been discussed already in this recap. I understand that the literary climate was different during the times when "The Classics" were written, but I'm hoping that some did a better job of editing themselves than Homer. Since we're about to embark on a 500 page whopper, I don't think that hope will materialize quite yet.

    One final note: These "Classics" are supposedly great writing. I must say that they tend to leave me wondering what History was thinking when all the other works were judged to be less than these. I refuse to believe that all other writing just sucked, and these were the best of what was left. I have a suspicion that the Church in its various forms had a lot to do with it, tossing out anything that was good or even decent, and allowing the mediocre, bland, ridiculous, and unthreatening to survive. A pity, really.

  3. ok, so I finally caught up. Again I'm dealing with the book that doesn't have it all, this time they left out the suitors going to Hades but what really bugged me was, in Ulysses grand speech or maybe right before it, he says that only two that stood by him (the whole time he was gone) were the swinehearder and cattlehearder. Doesn't mention his son, his wife or the 48 other people who were loyal to him. I see a whole different Ulysses today than I did the first time I read it when I was a teen. This guy was a full blown jerk!!!

  4. When I teach 'The Odyssey' each year, I have my students film short adaptations of scenes from the epic. More often than not, the kids choose the "Hollywood ending," which is hardly a surprise since it requires lots of killing and very little special effects in the way of fantastical beasts. One particular adaptation that sticks out in my mind had one boy as Odysseus, one as Telemachus, a girl as Penelope, and ONE boy as ALL the suitors. (They had a lot of Pythonesque fun killing him over and over again.)

    But perhaps the most poignant of the adaptations I can remember was of the scene in which Eurycleia washes the disguised Odysseus' feet, and becomes overwhelmed with emotion when she recognizes her master. Why 8th Graders would choose this scene, I will never know; but to be sure, it has stuck in my memory as the best of all the adaptations!