The Odyssey - Homer, Robert Fagles, Bernard Knox Note that in what follows all book and line references are to the Fagles translation.

In the classic Star Trek episode “Errand of Mercy” there is a scene toward the end that my readings of The Iliad and The Odyssey brought to mind and prompted the comment made in the Comments earlier, i.e., “the Klingons are ancient Greeks.” The Organians have revealed themselves to be super-evolved, incorporeal beings and have put a stop to the “insane war,” as Ayelborne calls it, the Klingons and the Federation have begun. Kirk begins a self-righteous (and hypocritical) rant that the Organians have no right to interfere with relations between the warring parties before Ayelborne stops him in mid-tirade with the observation that he is claiming the right to wage war on an interplanetary scale, slaughtering millions (if not billions, considering the technology). Kirk stops, pauses and says, “Well, no one wants war.” At which absurdity, Kor, the Klingon commander (played by John Colicos) gives Kirk a look of utter disbelief. Later Kor expresses his regret that he and Kirk will not have a chance to fight and ruefully comments, “It would have been glorious.”

Here’s a link to the scene I’ve described on YouTube; note Kor’s look and how, later, he lovingly lingers on the word “glorious.”

This sentiment the Klingons will still hold a century later as in this episode (forget the title) of DS9: It’s the end of the Dominion War, and Sisko, the Federation admiral (can’t remember his name) and General Martok are celebrating the defeat of the Dominion and the Cardassians. Martok makes a toast to the killing of their enemies but he’s nonplussed when the Federation officers only half-heartedly join in. How can you not celebrate the glorious slaughter just ended, he wonders?

I bring up these examples because it occurred to me that the warrior ethos of the Achaeans would have suited the Klingons quite well. Both cultures value war – the proof of a man’s character is in his ability to fight well, capture prizes, and slay his enemies. Some Klingons are by nature Achillean, e.g., Kang; some are Odyssean, e.g., Koloth. But they all would have felt at home in Bronze Age Greece.

Alas, none of this has much to do with this review of Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey, it’s only something that struck me as I read and didn’t play a large role in how I responded to the story. Nevertheless, any chance to horn in a Star Trek reference is not to be missed (an observation I’ve made elsewhere).

As to The Odyssey, a little background is in order. Several years ago, I mentioned in my review of the Audio CD of Gilgamesh that I had not read the great, foundational classics of the Western Canon: Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey. I’m still avoiding The Aeneid, The Song of Roland and The Canterbury Tales, though I have a modern English version of the latter on my To Read shelf and I’ve contemplated getting Fagles’ translation of Virgil. For the most part, I’ve caught snippets of these works over the course of my academic life or I’ve watched their watered-down versions on TV or at the movies (if available). In celebration of finishing the book, I watched the 1955 Italian version (titled “Ulysses”) with Kirk Douglas and Sylvana Mangano (yowza!). It wasn’t bad. It followed the story more closely than I thought it would, though it glossed over the murder of the maids at the end, combined the characters of Circe and Calypso, and made Odysseus’ philandering a result of amnesia or, in the case of Circe, her resemblance to Penelope. So I was surprised to find that, of the 24 books, only eight dealt with the adventures most Americans are familiar with – the cyclopes, Circe’s island, the Sirens, etc. The first four books don’t even concern Odysseus at all; they’re an account of Telemachus’ visits to Nestor and Menelaus to search out news of his father. Fully half of the poem (books 13-24) occurs after Odysseus returns to Ithaca and recounts his schemes to reveal his identity and take revenge on the suitors.

Going into this review, I thought that I preferred The Iliad but now I’d have to say it’s a toss up. I’ve found that both speak eloquently to me but about different things.(1) Where The Iliad is a brilliant examination of the loathing and attraction we feel toward violence and the personal costs of war (see, for example, Chris Hedges’ [b:War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning|27502|War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning|Chris Hedges||835823] or Ernst Jünger’s [b:Storm of Steel|240485|Storm of Steel|Ernst Jünger||232965] for more contemporary perspectives), The Odyssey became a tale of a family recovering from war’s effects(2) and the importance of personal narrative.

As to the first theme, there are three axial characters around which the story revolves. The most often forgotten is Telemachus, Penelope’s and Odysseus’ son, still in his swaddling clothes when Odysseus left but now a full grown:


Telemachus’ story is of a young man trying to find out who he is. Consider that he’s been raised by an over-protective mother (1.409-14), old nurses and his father’s aging retainers. There’s a scene where Telemachus expresses doubts about his parentage to Athena (disguised as Mentes, a visitor to Odysseus’ house):

And young Telemachus cautiously replied, / “I’ll try, my friend to give you a frank answer. / Mother has always told me I’m his son, it’s true, / but I am not so certain. Who, on his own, / has ever really known who gave him life? / Would to god I’d been the son of a happy man / whom old age overtook in the midst of his possessions! / Now, think of the most unlucky mortal ever born – / since you ask me, yes, they say I am his son (1.247-55).

Telemachus isn’t expressing actual doubts as to who his father is. He’s looking at his life and what he’s accomplished and asking himself, “How can I claim to be Odysseus’ son when I allow these suitors to plunder his house?” So off he goes to see if he can discover news of his father, and in the process discovers himself:

Enough. Don’t let me see more offenses in my house, / not from anyone! I’m alive to it all, now, / the good and the bad – the boy you knew is gone. (21.344-7)

Even going so far as to defy his father’s orders about the straying maids(3):

…they marched the women out of the great hall – between / the roundhouse and the courtyard’s strong stockade – / crammed them into a dead end, no way out from there, / and stern Telemachus gave the men their orders: / “No clean death for the likes of them, by god! / Not from me – they showered abuse on my head, / my mother’s too / You sluts – the suitors’ whores!” (22.484-90)

The second axis is Odysseus:


When I was young, I liked Odysseus’ tale, but was never much interested in Achilles’. Of course, I only knew the bowdlerized version: No murdered maids, no sacking of Ismarus, no consideration that Polyphemus had a credible grievance against Odysseus and his crew, no dwelling on just what Odysseus, Circe & Calypso got up to on their islands, to sully my innocent child’s mind. An older self, however, is more cognizant of the man’s complexity: He’s a rapist, a murderer, a liar and a philanderer (i.e., the quintessential Achaean hero); yet … he’s charming, intelligent, and (despite his wandering eye) devoted to wife, son and father.

Book 5 begins with our hero’s wanton sacking and rape of Ciconian Ismarus, a little town on the Aegean’s north coast that hadn’t even been a Trojan ally but had the misfortune of lying along Odysseus’ homeward route:

The wind drove me out of Ilium on to Ismarus, / the Cicones’ stronghold. There I sacked the city, / killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder, / that rich haul we dragged away from the place – / we shared it round so no one, not on my account, / would go deprived of his fair share of spoils (9.44-9)

In Book 5 too, we find him mourning his plight:

With that the powerful giant-killer sped away. / The queenly nymph sought out the great Odysseus – / the commands of Zeus still ringing in her ears – / and found him there on the headland, sitting, still, / weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away / with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home, / since the nymph no longer pleased (5.164-70)

Yet not averse to enjoying the nymph’s embrace:

Even as he spoke / the sun set and the darkness swept the earth. / And now, withdrawing into the cavern’s deep recesses , / long in each other’s arms they lost themselves in love (5.249-51)

But, in the end and despite everything Poseidon and the other gods think to throw at him, Odysseus remains true to his wife, son and father:

Sunny Ithaca is my home. Atop her stands our seamark, / Mount Neriton’s leafy ridges shimmering in the wind. / Around her a ring of islands circle side-by-side, / Dulichion, Same, wooded Zacynthus too, but mine / lies low and away, the farthest out to sea, / rearing into the western dusk / while the other face the east and breaking day. / Mine is a rugged land but good for raising sons – / and I myself, I know no sweeter sight on earth / than a man’s own native country….

True, but time and again Odysseus turned his face / toward the radiant sun, anxious for it to set, / yearning now to be gone and home once more… / As a man aches for his evening meal when all day long / his brace of wine-dark oxen have dragged the bolted plowshare / down a fallow field – how welcome the setting sun to him, / the going home to supper, yes, though his knees buckle, / struggling home at last. So welcome now to Odysseus / the setting light of day, and he lost no time / as he pressed Phaeacia’s men who love their oars, / addressing his host, Alcinous, first and foremost (9.23-32 and 13.31-44)

The more interesting character is Penelope, the third axis:


Her gender makes it difficult to assert herself as an individual(4), but manage it she does in several scenes where she shows she’s equally charming, intelligent and devoted as her spouse, and a worthy companion for an Achaean king. Homer makes it believable that she would wait 20 years for Odysseus.

Penelope is at her best in Book 19 when she interviews Odysseus, who has returned home disguised as an old beggar, interrogating him at length about his connection with her husband. I am of the school that prefers to believe Penelope recognizes Odysseus by the end and engineers the crisis of the archery contest in Book 21 to give him opportunity to smite the suitors (see 19.408-9 for the lines which strongly suggest so).

Whether she recognizes him or not, Penelope exerts a measure of control over the situation throughout by keeping Odysseus guessing, asking him to interpret her dream about the geese (19.592-624), proposing the archery contest (19.643-81), cross-examining Eurycleia in Book 23, or facing each other at last and only relenting when Odysseus proves his identity with the story of their marriage bed:

Living proof – / Penelope felt her knees go slack, her heart surrender, / recognizing the strong clear signs Odysseus offered. / She dissolved in tears, rushed to Odysseus, flung her arms / around his neck and kissed hi head and cried out, / “Odysseus – don’t flare up at me now, now you, / always the most understanding man alive! / The gods, it was the gods who sent us sorrow – / they grudged us both a life in each other’s arms / from the heady zest of youth to the stoop of old age….

The more she spoke, the more a deep desire for tears / welled up inside his breast – / he wept as he held the wife / he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last. / Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel / when they catch sight of land – Poseidon has struck / their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds / and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming, / struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore, their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy as they plant their feet on solid ground again, / spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her the sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze, / that her white arms, embracing his neck would never for a moment let him go… (23.230-9, 259-272)

The second theme I want to briefly touch upon is “personal narrative.” You are your story. If you lose control of it, you lose control of yourself. The Odyssey abounds in stories: There’s Helen’s spin on her time in Troy (4.243-98), Eumaeus’ biography of his youth (15.437-541), the suitor Amphimedon’s version of events in his interview with Agamemnon in the House of Death (24.106-225), or Penelope’s own tale of how she coped with Odysseus’ absence (pretty much all of Book 19).

But the story-teller nonpareil is Odysseus – “the master of stories” (23.300). He spins no fewer than five versions of his homeward journey, beginning with the most fantastical in Book 8 – the one Homer knew his audiences would most like to hear: The perils of the Lotus Eaters, outwitting Polyphemus, the heartache of nearly reaching home on Aeolus’ winds, losing all but his flagship to the cannibal Laestrygonians, his yearlong dalliance with Circe, the Land of the Dead(5), the seven years’ imprisonment with Calypso, and finally finding himself washed up on the shore’s of Scheria, to be found by Nausicaa and brought to the Phaeacian court to tell his marvelous tale. (Succinctly recapped – though strategically edited – for Penelope and the readers in 23.354-87.) Elsewhere, Odysseus is a Cretan refugee (13.290-324, 14.219-407, 19.194-234, and at 24.339-52), and his sojourn considerably less god-fraught and magical.

Which is true (or truer)? Do any of them have a measure of truth? Or is there yet an unspoken truth we’ll never know? (e.g., Odysseus spent 10 years a slave of the Cicones after they had defeated his men…hmmm?)

Whatever the case, the truest line in the entire poem is – not surprisingly – Penelope’s:

One moment he seemed…Odysseus, to the life – / the next, no, he was not the man she knew, / a huddled mass of rags was all she saw. (23.108-10)

Whoever the man was, he was not the Odysseus that had left Ithaca 20 years before.


In Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, he writes about the fragility of knowledge. In the West, Homer was forgotten for nearly a millennium, and – in that sense – the Renaissance truly was a “rebirth” of knowledge, just as so much of what survives from our past is the result of accident. What we have are fossils, the ten percent that had the good fortune to be buried under the mudslide or caught in the flash flood and preserved. It’s mind numbing to consider how much we’ve lost.

Which is all the more reason to rejoice that we can read such master works as The Odyssey and The Iliad, and so I strongly recommend that you don’t wait until you’re in your mid-40s to do so.


(1) In the Bernard Knox’s Introduction, he mentions that a major theme of the poem is the importance of guest rites and ensuring proper relationships among warriors but – let’s be honest – unless you’re an anthropologist or historian, who really cares about such things today? Which raises the question of why we should bother to read something recited/written by people three thousand years dead. It’s because you find in it something of import or interest that speaks to you. I didn’t find anything in The Odyssey that affected me on an emotional level but I did find an interesting story about a family struggling to survive and a study about how people present themselves. When I go back to read this again (and I will now that I know how good it is), I’m sure I’ll find something else.

(2) See 8.585-96

(3) Before you think Odysseus gets off the hook, he had ordered that they receive clean deaths – the maids were stilled doomed.

(4) Even her son tries to keep her under wraps (21.390-9), and one can only imagine what she may have accomplished if Athena hadn’t been constantly putting her to sleep (ibid., and elsewhere).

(5) Two things of note here, though not directly pertinent to this review, are the contrast with Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, and Penelope (11.457-518) (see Agamemnon’s final words: “the time for trusting women’s are gone forever!”) and the famous interview with Achilles, where he doesn’t claim to regret his choice but does lament that life – glorious or obscure – is better than being king of the dead (11.554-59).