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The Odyssey, Books I-VIII
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And the tradition continues to build on itself....
Now that you have become familiar with Homeric epic through the Iliad, and have had an opportunity to see some thematic echoes (as well as some important narratalogical complications: unreliable "autobiographical" narration, "Cretan story," nested plots) in the Hymn to Demeter, you should be able to pick out the "squiggles" in the Odyssey --the clues embedded in the poem that tell you how to read the poem--fairly readily.

Some preliminary questions you should be asking yourself as you read are these:

  • Intertextuality: How does the Odyssey continue the Iliad? What continuities and/or discontinuities with the Iliad do you observe in the way the story is told (characters, role of gods, language, imagery, dramatic devices, simile, etc.)?
  • Form: Using the tools you gained from analyzing the Iliad, can you trace formal patterns in the Odyssey?
  • Worldview: How would you characterize the Weltanshauung (world-view) of the Odyssey? What do these tell us about how to read the poem?
  • "Telling": The question of telling (that is, the act of narration) is foregrounded much more in the Odyssey than in the Iliad (where narrative crafts such as singing and weaving were restricted to a few characters). What does this thread add to the poem?
  • Identity: The Odyssey is a nostos--a poem of homecoming. (When we were reading the Iliad, we discussed the concept of kleos poetry--poetry dedicated to the exploits of heroes, and composed in dactylic hexameter. We also talked about nostos--"return"--as a concept which, for Achilles only, was proposed as antithetical to kleos. Like kleos, however, nostos is also the name of a literary genre: the nostoi are the bardic works commemorating the homecomings of the victorious Achaians. For more details, see p. 4 of Lattimore's Introduction [you don't need to read the rest of the Introduction]). An essential part of returning home involves the hero's identity: how he has changed, how he is the same, how he reconnects with those who knew him before. Odysseus owes his ultimate success largely to the skill with which he negotiates his identity. Keep track of these "negotiations": can you trace a pattern? How does the poem make you think about identity? And who is the "real" Odysseus?

andra moi ennepe, mousa, polutropon, hos mala polla...
        (Odyssey I:1)
Start with the proem, or introductory stanza--here, the first ten lines of the epic. (To see it in transliterated Ancient Greek, click here.) As you know from the extensive discussion we had of the proem to the Iliad, the proem "sets up" many of the themes and poetic strategies that will be most important to a proper reading of the work as a whole. So you should take a particularly careful look at the proem.

Since you have the antecedent form of the Iliad proem to compare it to, go ahead and draw comparisons--then think about what the differences (and similarities) tell you about the Odyssey as a discrete artistic unit. Here are some questions you will want to ask of the proem:

  1. What is the subject of the poem (the equivalent to the Iliad's "wrath)?
  2. The adjective polutropos ("of many ways," in Lattimore's commendably ambiguous translation) has a similar "quasi-divine" connotation to Achilles' menis. But it is quite a different sort of defining quality for a hero to have. What does introducing it "up front" here do for the poem?
  3. What is special about Odysseus's homecoming, as it is sketched in the proem? What further issues are raised by the nature of his nostos?
  4. Who is not named in the proem? Why not?
  5. Why does the poet explicitly ask the Muse to choose a starting-point for the story? What do you think of the place "she" chooses to start in (l. 11 ff.)?

All this and much, much more when we meet on Tuesday.........

NB! Don't forget the following:
  (a) bring your ticket money to class on Tuesday;
  (b) check back with the H2D discussion boards (click here) to read my notes on what you said;
  (c) write your paper (due Friday at noon)! (For online self-help sheet, click here.)

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