Having been a fan of Greek mythology since childhood, I had always meant to read the work of Homer, but I somehow never got around to it. I was given a copy of the Odyssey, translated by the late Robert Fitzgerald, when I attended a session at the Honors College I would later attend. For some reason, however, I didn’t actually receive the book until the session had ended. Great timing, Indiana University of Pennsylvania! I started in on it a few times after that, but never could remember how far I’d gotten. Finally, fifteen years later, I’ve finished the epic poem. I already knew the basic story, but what really struck me was how different the pacing was from most retellings I’ve seen. They tended to focus on the wackier parts of Odysseus’ voyage, including the battle with the Cyclops, the visit to Circe, the encounter with the Sirens, and the contention with Scylla and Charybdis. In the actual poem, however, these adventures take up only a few books, with much more attention given to Odysseus’ homecoming and plans to defeat the men who had taken over his home. By modern standards, I’d say much of it was fairly slow-paced. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by how touching Odysseus’ reunions with his family and old friends actually were. Regardless of who he really was, Homer definitely deserves the reputation he has earned.
One thing I was kind of curious about was the interpretation I’ve seen suggested before that Odysseus might have exaggerated his exploits. The contents of the ninth through twelfth books, which include everything from his visit to the Lotus Eaters to his stay with Calypso, are narrated by Odysseus himself to entertain and inform the Phaiakian court. And we know from elsewhere in the epic how adept the hero is at coming up with elaborate tall tales and half-truths on the spot. We have confirmation for his blinding of Polyphemus and stay on Ogyiga from Zeus way back in the first book, but we only have Odysseus’ word for much of the rest.
I’d say it makes a more interesting story if we take Odysseus’ accounts at face value, but it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for him to have mixed fact with fiction.
I still need to read the Iliad, which I understand isn’t as big on the monsters and magic. Actually, Eric Shanower, who prefers the Iliad, at least once said that it was more like L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, with the Odyssey more similar to Ruth Plumly Thompson’s. The Aeneid is on my informal reading list as well, but I’m not sure how soon I’ll get to either of them.
Incidentally, I recently had a dream in which someone was complaining about how the Romans called Odysseus “Ulysses,” which must have been something on my mind at the time. I do think “Ulysses” doesn’t have anywhere near the same epic feel as “Odysseus,” although maybe that’s more because of other usages of the name than anything else. Ulysses S. Grant was an important historical figure, but he was no epic hero, you know?