If you’re like me, you read excerpts of Homer once in public high school, probably in a readable prose translation from the mid-twentieth century, and then promptly forgot about him. Likely, it would have been the story about how Odysseus escaped the cave of the cyclops. Maybe you also have heard of some Homeric stories elsewhere, like in the Percy Jackson novels. You may even have the shiny, red-orange Penguin Deluxe edition of Robert Fagles’ Odyssey translation that renders it in actual poetry. If you enjoyed any of these, you were enamored by its captivating story; if you didn’t, you were probably bogged down by the seemingly endless twists and turns and extraneous details which, in the end, didn’t seem to matter.
What all of these approaches have in common–excerpted high school readings, prose translations, modern YA adaptations, and love-hate relationships with the story–is that their chief concern is with the plot of the Odyssey (though Fagles himself is interested in more). An emphasis on plot drove twentieth-century translators to start rendering, or even paraphrasing, Homer in prose. It’s also what makes people interested in popular reworkings of the epic. And it is usually what makes or breaks the modern reader’s opinion of Homer.
But what if the merits of the Odyssey are not primarily found in its plot? The original audience would have likely gathered around a performing bard having already heard of the story, and so would have considered the Odyssey important for reasons other than the plot. Large-scale originality in plot did not become popular until the early modern era, and this is especially true in the oral culture of early ancient Greece. Of the many purposes of the Odyssey, what I want to highlight here is that the epic is deeply interested in the bard himself. In Book I of the Odyssey, we come to Odysseus’s Ithaca to find a rowdy group of suitors that are waiting for Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, to finally marry one of them, on the assumption that Odysseus is dead. In Odysseus’s estate, we find the “famous bard” Phemius being forced to sing in the midst of the suitors (I.177-79, 375). Notably, the bard is singing of “The Achaeans’ Journey Home from Troy, / all the blows Athena doomed them to endure,” paralleling what the real-life bard is actually going to sing about in the rest of the epic–not just in the parts about Odysseus’s return, but even in the first four books about Telemachus (I.376).
Perhaps you have tried to read the Odyssey from the start, but you gave up because the epic takes four whole books before it even gets to the title character. Scholars call these four books the “Telemachy,” as a parallel to the “Odyssey” of Odysseus. If you were to ask what the Telemachy has to do with Odysseus, the answer is that, through it, the real-life bard shows his readers and listeners the fate of each of Odysseus’s contemporaries, thus framing the eventual arrival of Odysseus in a certain light. As Telemachus travels around the Mediterranean, he discovers the fates of the rest of the kings of Achaea: Nestor is still an old rambler; Agamemnon made it back alive but was killed immediately; Menelaus is regnant and married to a chastized Helen. But after much traveling and questioning by Telemachus, no one can say where Odysseus is, and whether he is alive or not. This creates the perfect segue into Book V, where we are introduced to Odysseus.
But it is not only in small, tangential ways that the Odyssey considers the bard. It is not just that Odysseus is the subject of both fictitious bards and the real-life bard Homer, what we find is that Odysseus himself is a bard.
In Book VIII, Odysseus is on the island of the Phaeacians, and a day of feasting and competitions ensues. The blind bard Demodocus sings about “The Strife Between Odysseus and Achilles, Peleus’ Son,” at which Odysseus secretly weeps (VIII.89). King Alcinous, seeing him weep, starts the physical competitions as a diversion. The rounds of physical competition culminate in a youth taunting Odysseus’s strength (keep in mind the Phaeacians don’t know the identity of Odysseus yet). Odysseus retorts that there is “not a bit of grace to crown his words,” and throws a discus well beyond any other, humiliating the youth (VIII.202). Alcinous recognizes that the Phaeacians have lost to his mystery guest in terms of strength, so he switches to song:
So our guest can tell his friends,
when he reaches home, how far we excel the world
in sailing, nimble footwork, dance and song. (VIII.284-86)
In comes Demodocus again, first singing about Ares and Aphrodite. Afterwards, Odysseus asks Demodocus to sing about the Trojan Horse, the one that Odysseus himself devised ten years earlier on the plains of Troy. But after Odysseus starts weeping again, Alcinous insists on hearing Odysseus’s own story. In the next four books of the Odyssey, we have Odysseus, as a bard, telling his own story–one longer than and superior to Demodocus’s. Thus, with Odysseus having outclassed them in both athletics and music, we remember the Phaeacians neither for strength nor for song, but for their sail, the only ones capable of sending Odysseus home–indeed, Odysseus remembers them only for their ships as he talks to Telemachus in Book XIV.
The events of Book VIII prompt us to view Odysseus himself as a bard. Odysseus values Demodocus “more than any man alive,” and compliments him saying,
How true to life,
all too true… you sing the Achaeans’ fate,
all they did and suffered, all they soldiered through,
as if you were there yourself or heard from one who was. (VIII.546, 548-51)
Yet even more “true to life” is Odysseus himself, the one who has actually suffered through all that was said. But this also has larger implications for how we should view Odysseus. Readers typically see Odysseus as the noble hero of an epic journey. But perhaps the epic also wants us to consider Odysseus as a wily storyteller, who gets himself out of trouble through his stories. In Book IX, the Phaeacians want more than a good story—they need a reason for why Odysseus showed up at their island with no coin, no companions, no clothes. Odysseus, on the other hand, needs to convince them to give him clothes, wealth, and sails to go home. Thus, Odysseus’ first-person travel narrative from Books IX–XII might be better understood as a long and prolonged half-truth to get the Phaeacians to give him what he wants.
Taking a closer look at the start of Book IX, we find Odysseus described as polymētis (“of many counsels”), which Fagles translates “the great teller of tales,” further framing Odysseus as a bard. Odysseus then starts his tale with a tribute to the bard, recalling how bards start their stories with a tribute to the Muse (cf. ”Sing to me of the man, Muse” in I.1), again pointing to Odysseus taking upon himself a bardic role.
This presentation of Odysseus as a crafty storyteller is borne out throughout the rest of the Odyssey: there is not a single other time that Odysseus tells a story about himself in which he tells the full truth. He lies to Athena (Book XIII), the loyal swineherd Eumaeus (XIV), and his wife Penelope before he slaughters the suitors (XIX). He even portrays himself as a liar in his own story he tells when he lies to the cyclops to escape the cave (IX). But even after he brings justice upon the suitors, he still lies to his wife Penelope by not telling her the full story of his exploits with other women (XXIII). Finally, to wrap the epic up, he lies to his old dying father about his identity before crying and embracing him (XXIV). In many of these stories, he says that he is a Cretan—and, remember, Cretans are known for their lying (cf. Titus 1:12; to krētizein [crete], became synonymous in Greek to lying).
All of this assumes that the Odyssey was written with authorial intent. It’s been almost a century since Milman Parry’s groundbreaking work demonstrating that the Homeric epics are heavily dependent on oral tradition, calling into question whether we can even talk about a “Homer,” or real authorial intent. The observations made above demonstrate that there is depth within the Odyssey, and therefore there must be at least some level of authorial intent, unless these observations are all coincidental or unfounded within the text. This doesn’t prove that there was one “Homer,” and in fact I’d be more than happy to speak of an oral Homeric tradition with a later written editorial process, for I’m most concerned with the Odyssey itself, in all its depth, and not how it might have been put together.
If you understand the Odyssey to be the journey of a dignified hero, perhaps this cunning portrayal of Odysseus should reshape how “moral” or “noble” you think he is–or perhaps whether those are appropriate categories at all. Having seen Homer’s persistent presentation of Odysseus as a bard, willing and able to spin his story to the needs of the moment, we should not attempt to make the Odyssey more “noble,” like Alexander Pope did in his influential 1725 translation, where he put the whole epic into iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets. Nor do we need to reduce the Odyssey to a mere hero-centered plot like the 20th century prose translators that tried to turn Homer into novelistic prose. Rather, we can understand Odysseus as a smart and admirable man relative to the customs of his day. The original audience wouldn’t have cared if the bard, and Odysseus, told stories that were verifiably “true” or not—this is a modern concern. With a strong interest in empirical truth, we moderns admire characters who do not lie to get their way–something heightened by being part of a Western culture which has rightly inherited a distaste of lying from Christianity. Yet, whilst admiring him in a relative sense, we are to reject Odysseus as a moral example in this way, and to ask if he is not hiding his complicity in the things that he experiences, like the death of his crew. And by implicating the flawed character as the storyteller, we are free to ask if Homer and all authors of immoral stories are similarly accountable for the things in their narratives.
If you’ve read this far, hopefully you’ve been convinced that a large part of the Odyssey—indeed, the most famous parts of the epic—is told by an unreliable narrator. Many Christians would reject any literature that has an unreliable narrator as unnecessarily postmodern, but we actually find the first unreliable narrator all the way at the beginning of our Western canon! Does an unreliable narrator necessarily mean a work is questioning the idea of any absolute truth? Not necessarily; instead, an unreliable narrator such as Odysseus can help us understand our own limited perspectives as creatures relative to truth. Although Odysseus may be obscuring things whenever he tells his story, there is no way any man could ever deliver a totally unvarnished version of events–Nestor, Agammemnon, and Menelaus would all probably have spun the yarn differently.
And perhaps more importantly, these observations show us that the Odyssey is not just an interesting plot following an “epic” character—it is about the nature of a bard, and the nature of storytelling itself. For Christians that owe much to either Plato, Augustine, or the Puritans, there is a difficult relationship between fiction and faith. If the Christian views fiction as merely extremely obscured truth (Plato), immoral (Augustine), or plain falsity (Puritans), there seems to be little reason to read fiction. But the Odyssey shows us that storytelling is part of the human life: the “twists and turns” (polytropos, Odysseus’s epithet in I.1) of tale travel with us, and can have powerful effects. It is storytelling which causes the Phaeacians, as well as the real-world audience, sympathize with Odysseus’s suffering, and thus sympathize with the storyteller as well–and this sympathy is, perhaps, one of the greatest virtues of literature.
Evan Zhuo (BA English Literature Wheaton College, IL) is an intern at the Davenant House and an M.Div. student at Westminster Theological Seminary.
All references to the Odyssey are from Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1996). ↑