November 9, New York: The Odyssey was that rare schoolbook that was assigned multiple times over multiple years. I read it once in high school and then I think twice in college. I was fully sick of it on the last reading, rolling my eyes mightily and gesturing with my brows. That final reading was by far the best.
At USC I enrolled in the honors program called “Thematic Option”, which offered cross-discipline classes by extraordinarily talented professors. (One of those classes read Lolita.) The Odyssey was taught in one of these classes, paired with The Iliad and taught by Professor Anthony Kemp. The class was designed to give us as much context around the epics as possible. It was incredible. And all fueled by Kemp who, despite being the mightiest of classics nerds, was one of the most animated professors I’ve ever had and would, in fact, reenact sections of these stories like Hector being chased around the walls of Troy, screaming with a high pitched voice around the classroom. We went deeply into the Greek in these classes, and learned words like nostos or homecoming, the thing Odysseus desires most above all things.
The Odyssey is a masterfully constructed narrative. We are introduced to the story through a supporting character, the goddess Athene, who brings us to our hero. We meet him near the end of his story, and we see it all unfold in flashback. Meanwhile there is the parallel story of the Telemachy and then the final story with the suitors. This is no hard-driving tale from start to finish, it is stories within stories and timelines folded back on themselves.
We learned also in our class that one prevailing theory of The Odyssey was that though Homer may have written all this down, these stories were of an oral tradition, sung by the singers with their lyres. We even see, in the house of the king of the Phaikans, one such singer tell stories of The Iliad as one if its heroes listens and weeps. There were these epics, but in a given night the audience would hear only some part. “Singer, tell us the about Odysseus sailing unscathed past the Sirens!” Like a favorite pop song demanded from the wedding DJ.
The theory then extends that the oft-repeated phrases like “his armor clattering thunderously around him” or “resourceful Odysseus” or “white-armed Nausikaa”, these were all syllable fillers to help the singer keep thr rhythm. It’s not that the story was memorized as we read it in Homer, but rather the singers knew the thrust of the narrative and wove together these building blocks of syllables. In that way that you would always follow a “Throw your hands in the air” with a “and wave them like you just don’t care.”
Oh sure, you’ve read The Odyssey. But it buy it and read again. Buy the Lattimore, only the Lattimore, and Zeus, son of Kronos will look upon you with pleasure.