I humbly declare this book to be the greatest literary work of mankind. If you don't learn Greek (worth it just to read this Meisterwerk, never mind the rest of the immortal trove of Greek literature) you can read it in so many translations that have become classics in their own use of the English language, Fagles and Murray, just to mention two. Oh, what the Hades, let's throw in a third, not just for its brilliant translation, but also owing to the exotic character behind it: no less than Lawrence of Arabia.
The Homeric poems were sung in a less-enlightened time, in comparison with the later Greek tragedies, and with the later epics too. Apollonius' Argonautica was composed, post Greek Tragedy, and his audience would have been, no doubt, familiar with Euripides' Medea. Questions such as how justice and revenge affect societies were addressed by Aeschylus in the Oresteia; likewise, the reception of the anthropomorphic gods, and their pettiness, was raised by Euripides in Hippolytus and the Bacchae. Furthermore, the real nature and brutality of warfare was also raised in the Trojan Women. Throw in how one state views another state, and questions of racial identity, and you have The Persians by Aeschylus, and Medea by Euripides. Additionally, if you include Philoctetes by Sophocles, and the issue of how youth should conduct themselves is also raised. If you consider, too, Ajax by Sophocles, and you find that the bloodthirsty myths of an earlier age are filtered through questions that C5 Athenian society faced. What is better, the brute force of an unsophisticated Ajax, or the sophistry and rhetorical arguments of Odysseus in Ajax? By the time we arrive at Virgil, and The Aenied, brutal events such as the death of Priam by Neoptolemus in Aeneid Book II, are tempered with a more enlightened approach. Neoptolemus is condemned for killing Priam, and rightly so, as mercy is important, and exemplifies the Romanitas of 'Sparing the humble, and conquering the proud'. However, Aeneas doesn't show mercy in his killing of Turnus at the end of Book XII.
I have always thought of “The Odyssey” as the story of a man tainted, infected, by the corrupting virus of war who has to undergo a sort of purging 10 year quarantine as he struggles to get home. And yet, in spite of everything, he returns home still as deadly and full of murderous intent as the day he set out from Troy. Indeed, as the day he first set sail from Ithaca. He is a carrier of the virus of war, rather than a victim.
Odysseus is one of the most deadly and dangerous characters in the whole of literature, as much for his friends as his enemies, and this intensely human quality withstands everything the Gods can and do throw at him, as his wife's suitors learn to their cost. Not vile, just deadly, in a very individual, human way that the others who appear in the Iliad, who are more symbolic of particular qualities than real, rounded characters, are not. He is deadly in the way that a fisherman is, dreaming of his Summer holiday afloat while he watches Christmas TV in Croyden, and a Great White, going about its blinkered business in the deep, unaware of what fate has in store for it, is not.
Odysseus is perhaps the first well defined representation of a human, individual character, as opposed to a hapless plaything of the gods or embodiment of some strength or weakness, in the whole of literature. His imagination, his cunning and his indomitable will, his determination that if anyone is going to die, its, first of all, his enemy, and failing that, the guy standing next to him, makes him more dangerous than the most horrible monster, the strongest giant and the most seductive witch the gods can chuck at him. What chance does a bunch of soft, complacent suitors, unused to the possibility, the probability, even, of sudden death that Odysseus has not only seen but dealt out, have against him on his return to Ithaca, carrying the plague of war and violence in him?
I see “The Iliad” as a rhetorical piece of writing. It is no accident that Odysseus is the most beloved of Athena, goddess essentially of being clever and Achilles is notably not (unlike Heracles, Perseus, Jason et al). Achilles time is passing, the sheer logistics of the Trojan campaign which Homer bangs on about in depth are evidence of that. The stylised combat is in tension with the use of tactics, the honourable but suicidal tough guy has no place. It might be personally satisfying but you're going to lose wars that way. But how to convince proud people of this? Odysseus starts off wanting peace and hating war, this is the seed of his cruelty. This is, I think, actually our modern view of warfare as well, the less we revel in it, the more we demand overwhelming victory.
For a number of years in my youth, I didn’t want to read translations – I just felt that the presence of a third party between me and the author’s words seemed more opaque than transparent. Getting a bit older, I started to worry less about the issue (as well as a lot of other things) and generally just read what I feel like reading, though I still remain vaguely conscious of the translator at work when reading a translation. "The Odyssey" was one of those cases that made me read the translation, because I don’t read Greek.
I think that reading Tolkien must have helped me in dealing with the patronymics, since I didn’t have much difficulty with them. Are both Agamemnon and Menelaos referred to as Atreides? I seem to remember this happening in my reading, though it was usually clear which one the passage referred to.
Long before reading “The Iliad”, I picked up a lot of the story from operas: Berlioz, Gluck, Tippett, and, yes, Offenbach, not to mention the musical “The Golden Apple” by Jerome Moross and John Latouche. That last one sets “The Iliad” and “Odyssey” in late 19th / early 20th century America, very enjoyable, especially if you recognize the parallels. Right after finishing “The Iliad”, I listened to Sir Arthur Bliss’ "Morning Heroes", his tribute to his fallen comrades from the Great War. Its settings include two passages from “The Iliad: Andromache’s” farewell, which I linked to in Alexander’s version, and the passage in book 19 where Achilles arms himself for battle. I wanted to get a sense of how Homer’s poem spoke across the millennia to others caught up in war.
We see the same evolution in various forms of warfare since, consider how the longbow had a rather unsporting effect on chivalry or how air combat tactics changed between World War 1 and World War 2. I think this is most obvious when Homer, trying too hard, goes on about Odysseus's macho credentials as if he's saying, you can study for your exams and still play on the school football team. It seems like those bits are added under some pressure to avoid Odysseus seeming effeminate or weak and keep his argument on track.
It’s quite a carefully balanced piece of "writing" Odysseus is; Achilles isn't so much criticised as, well, literally laid to rest. No one would call Odysseus a pacifist, least of all me, and nor have I suggested that, but he certainly doesn't show any psychopathic lust for war. He goes out of his way to avoid war and conflict, but once he finds himself in that situation, he uses his brain, rather than any kind of blood-lust or crazed all-out assault to achieve his objective, which is to end it as quickly as possible and get home to his wife in one piece.
It is not his responsibility, in all of this, to look out for the Trojans.
As for the Trojan Horse, it woks out as the least costly solution, in terms of human life, at least for the Greeks, to their Trojan problem, which has been dragging on, at great cost in life and suffering to both the Greeks and the Trojans, for many years. As for what happened to Troy after the Greeks got in, that was a forgone conclusion from the beginning, and not the fault of Odysseus. I'm sure he would have been totally satisfied with a civilised arrangement at the beginning that allowed everyone to save face and go home happy and alive. The Trojans resisted and paid the price of all cities that resisted a siege, right up until relatively recently. They knew what would happen to them and would have done the same themselves, in similar circumstances. It was the rules of war, at the time. It made sense to torch the place, kill and enslave the inhabitants, because it made them an example to other cities in the future that might think resistance was an option.
Surrender was usually by far the wisest, if not a wholly palatable course of action, faced with a foregone conclusion. The opposite of a pacifist is not a psychopath. I think if you showed a little more empathy (a quality alien to psychopaths, of course) for the situation and the times in which Odysseus found himself, you might see things slightly differently.
As a tale, the Odyssey is a far better tale then “The Illiad” - the latter I find is more like a bloated Viking saga "he was son of X who gloriously killed son Y who was also a glourious son of a noble called C" - more personal/psychological in its themes and hence more identifiable as a figure, throughout the story Odysseus is contrasted with other figures like his friend Achilles/Agamemnon, and in his travels he never trusts a person without testing them first a far-fetched tale and only then does he either destroy them or uses them to help him. It is one of those stories I love returning to again and again. A tip to other potential readers of “The Odyssey”: trying listening to the story on audio - as it was originally intended for - it's an even more enjoyable experience.