Tuesday, October 23, 2012

2012.10.49

Henry Power, Homer's Odyssey: a Reading Guide. Reading guides to long poems. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 150 p. ISBN 9780748641093. $27.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Christodoulos Zekas, University of Crete (chriszekas@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Anyone embarking on the study of Homer's Odyssey may get lost in a story which runs for over 12,000 lines as well as in the vast amount of the related scholarship. Therefore, introductory works are very useful for students and the general public alike. These treatises can be categorised as follows: (a) critical readings which follow the story closely, (b) a presentation of the main issues concerning the poem, concisely or in detail, (c) a selection of scholarly articles, and (d) commentaries, either associated with the original text or with a translation.

The book under review seems to be a hybrid form of (b) and (d), i.e. it aspires to offer a brief introduction to some of the key issues vis-à-vis the Odyssey along with commentary to selected passages. According to its title, Power's work is a reading guide; it is included in the series 'Reading Guides to Long Poems' goal of which is to highlight "the importance of the long poem for our literary and national heritage" (p. x). In the Series Preface we also get the definition of a long poem by the editors as "one which exceeds the limit of a single sitting, requiring sustained attention over a considerable period of time for its full appreciation" (p. x); all these suit the Odyssey perfectly.

Chapter 1 ("Mapping and Making") is a general introduction to the poem. It starts off with a definition of epic and moves on to describe the general features of Homeric poetry in terms of orality, date of composition, style, and differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although the present study is associated with the 1965 translation by Lattimore and not with the original text, it is a welcome surprise that a few words are devoted to the Homeric metre (p. 4-5). In addition, Power offers a summary of the Odyssey, and encourages the reader to go through the entire epic in order to appreciate its structure (p. 6). This summary ends with the note that "The poem concludes open-endedly" (p. 11). Even though this remark is obviously right, I am not sure what it may really mean for the individual reader without further explanation.

Chapter 2, as its title suggests, proposes "Four Ways of Approaching the Poem", i.e. memory, "the collision of cultures", Odysseus as a hero, and the "earthy tone" of the Odyssey. Certainly, memory is intrinsically associated with the story and is thus rightly put at the beginning of this chapter. I find it however difficult to accept that "What principally engages the reader in the first half of the poem is the uncertainty as to whether Odysseus will continue to remember his homeland" (p. 12). Under "collision of cultures", Power discusses matters of folk-tale, geography, food, hospitality, and the agricultural background of Odysseus and his men along with his tendency towards colonisation. Next, he treats Odysseus' metis, which ranges from cunning to martial prowess, and from craftsmanship to ability in storytelling, while under the heading "earthy tone" Power addresses the focus on domestic and social life in the Odyssey as opposed to the martial subject matter of the Iliad. Given the limited space of this chapter (eight pages), the author inevitably makes a selective presentation of the most noteworthy features that relate to content. Yet, since this part of the book concerns ways of approaching, I think that a section on the poem's sophisticated narrative structure would be fitting here.

Chapter 3 ("Selections from the Odyssey") represents the core of this reading guide, and aims at giving "a sense of the poem's variety" (p. 20) by offering a first-hand appreciation of the (translated) text. Accordingly, Power selects five Books of the Odyssey (1, 6, 9, 13, 23), which amount in lines to a little more than one sixth of the epic as a whole. In each section he puts forward a short introduction followed by Lattimore's translation and brief comments in footnotes under the text. The introduction examines the major issues of the book in question, embroidered with references to Homeric criticism (from ancient critics to modern scholars), along with remarks on the reception and translation of the poem. The brief commentary comprises explanatory notes that for the most part relate to the story, matters of characterisation, mythology, material culture, and institutions of the Homeric society (hospitality and supplication). Apparently, the predominant feature of this commentary-in-footnotes is conciseness, and the author does a very good job in guiding the reader quickly through the main areas of interest. Not everything, evidently, can or should be included here; however, I find that the following additions would be useful. When it comes to Odysseus' characterisation (p. 64 fn. 504, cf. p. 59 fn. 302), Power could have benefited from the observation that in crying out loud his name to Polyphemus Odysseus behaves like an Iliadic warrior,1 and also that the hero espouses a more cautious attitude after he reaches Ithaca in comparison to his stance in the adventures.2 Finally, in reference to the human perception of the role of the gods (p. 54 fn.142, p. 63 fn. 479, p. 65 fn. 551-2, 553) a rather significant, in my view, point that the author leaves out is the so-called 'Jörgensen's law', i.e. the idea that humans have a limited perspective of the divine, and thus misinterpret the action of the gods.3

Chapter 4 ("Contexts for Reading") is one of the most interesting parts of the book. It examines the reception of Homer, and the Odyssey in particular, in criticism, translation, and literature, and consists of four sections: (i) Oral Poetry and the Homeric Question, (ii) Some Views of Homer, (iii) The Odyssey in English Translation, and (iv) Literary Responses. The first part constitutes a concise presentation of the Homeric Question touching on its main parameters, i.e. the hybrid nature of the Homeric Kunstsprache, the repetitive style, dating, Parry's oral theory, and the relationship between oral composition, performance, and the fixation of the text. In keeping with the English scepticism about the prevalence of the orality approach, Powers rightly brings forth the limitations of our scholarly knowledge and invites the reader to "appreciate the aesthetic value of this strangeness", sc. the repetitive style and inconsistencies in the story, beyond the mnemonic techniques of Homeric poetry (p. 98, cf. p. 103). As a sequel to the Homeric Question, the second part of this chapter considers aspects of Homeric criticism in antiquity and in later times. After discussing the contributions of Plato and Aristotle, Power somewhat abruptly moves to the Renaissance and looks at influential critics and significant philological trends from the 16th century onwards. The Renaissance saw the Homeric poems "both as the origin and the exemplar of epic poetry" (p. 100), whereas the Enlightenment divided scholars into 'Ancients', who idealised Homer, and 'Moderns', who wanted to improve alleged discrepancies in the text. This tendency culminates with the 1795 Prolegomena ad Homerum by F. A. Wolf, the treatise which initiated the Homeric battles between 'Analysts' and 'Unitarians'. In the third section Power offers a critical overview of the English translations of Homer, and especially of the Odyssey, from the end of the 16th century to the present time. He is concerned with the versions of Chapman, Hobbes, Pope, Rieu, Fitzgerald, and Lombardo, to mention the most important, and his comments mainly pertain to style, language, and metre. The guiding principle that derives from this outline is that the Homeric translations into English are heavily influenced by their contemporary trends in literature and/or (Homeric) scholarship. The last section addresses the reception of the poem in literature from the 6th century BC to date, focusing on "two overlapping areas: the role of the Odyssey in the development of epic poetry, and the influence the poem has had on prose fiction" (p. 118). Thus, from Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica and Vergil's Aeneid Power moves on to Dante, Ariosto, Spenser, and Milton. Then, he deals with the reception of the poem in the 1938 Odysseia by Kazantzakis (who had also co-translated the two Homeric epics into modern Greek political verse), and in the 1990 Omeros by Walcott. Finally, he examines the affinities of the Odyssey with the Greek and Roman novels as well as with Fénelon's Télémaque, Fielding's Tom Jones and Joyce's Ulysses.

Chapter 5 ("Teaching the Text") is clearly intended for practical use. It is divided into five parts which correspond to the five Books of the epic, treated in Chapter 3. Each part comprises questions that can be put in advance of a seminar, and generally revolve around the function of narrative strategies, themes and characters. More than that, Power proposes group-teaching activities for the classroom, which could be rather stimulating for students, and exercises on the comparison of parallel passages from Vergil, Milton, Pope, Joyce, and Margaret Atwood. Given that methodology for teaching classical literature, and Homer in particular,4 is an area surprisingly underdeveloped, I think that Power offers here a valuable service to those involved in teaching and sets a starting point for further consideration and discussion.

Finally, Chapter 6 ("Suggested Further Reading") guides the reader through the most important studies in Homeric scholarship. The presentation is divided into sections on epic, oral poetry, the two Homeric poems, reception, and online resources, and includes short notes that highlight the value of each study. This is another useful contribution, which probably derives from Power's engagement with the teaching of the text to students.

In conclusion, the book under review constitutes a competent and concise reading guide to Homer's Odyssey. Power's prose is fluid and pleasant to read; yet the text could have been improved by more careful editing.5 These minor shortcomings, however, do not undermine the value of Power's work. The author is well-read on Homeric scholarship, ancient, earlier and modern alike, and succeeds in providing a step-by-step guiding through the central issues of the poem. Overall, this book will be useful as a brief introduction to the Odyssey, and is primarily intended for students who read the epic in Lattimore's translation; but also for those involved in the history of Homeric translation and the reception of the Odyssey in literature. Last but not least, Power's ability in making clear points and his progressive presentation of the material make this study ideal for anyone interested in getting to know and appreciating Homer's second "long poem".



Notes:


1.   C. G. Brown, 1996. 'In the Cyclops' Cave: Revenge and Justice in Odyssey 9', Mnemosyne 49: 1-29.
2.   To be fair, this is actually implied on p. 135. For a discussion of this issue, see R. B. Rutherford, 1986. 'The Philosophy of the Odyssey', JHS 106: 145-62.
3.   O. Jörgensen, 1904. 'Das Auftreten der Götter in den Büchern ι-μ der Odyssee', Hermes 39: 357-82.
4.   The only related study in English I am aware of is K. Myrsiades, ed. 1987. Approaches to Teaching Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, New York.
5.   I have noticed the following misprints or errors in Power's text (I did not cross- check the reproduction of Lattimore's translation in Chapter 3): p. 6 instead of "Olympus" read "Olympos" (cf. "Olympos" on p. 7); p. 9 instead of "Trincria" read "Thrinakia"; p. 25 fn. 70 instead of "when I have once / seen" read "when I have once more / seen"; p. 37 instead of "[VI.]66" read "[VI.]66-67"; p. 37 instead of "[VI.]277" read "[VI.]277-278"; p. 48 "there is a very rich subsoil". Delete "a"; p. 51 fn. 51-2 instead of "Iliad II.469-70" read "Iliad II.467-8"; p. 54 change fn. 151 to 152; p. 71 fn. 96, instead of "I.76" read "I.72"; p. 76 fn. 256-86, and p. 133 instead of "XIV.192-359" read "XIV.192-359, 462-506"; p. 81 instead of "XVII.502" read "XVII.501"; pp. 120, 121 instead of "Odyseia" read "Odysseia"; p. 127 instead of "IV.421-40" read "IV.521-50"; p. 129 instead of "XI.302-409" read "X.203-409"; p. 133 instead of "[XIII.]291-304" read " [XIII.]291-310".

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