Monday, March 26, 2018


Maureen Alden, Para-Narratives in the Odyssey: Stories in the Frame. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. 416. ISBN 9780199291069. $110.00.

Reviewed by Matt Hosty, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is a follow-up to Alden's 2000 volume Homer Beside Himself, which examined the uses of 'para-narrative' in the Iliad. A para-narrative, for Alden's purpose, is any story or anecdote that is 'set beside' the events of the main narrative: for example, the main narrative of Odysseus making his way home to Ithaca is suspended in Books 9-12 by a series of para-narratives in which he relates his adventures. Para-narratives may be lengthy and substantial, as in the case of the Cyclops story, or short and throwaway (as with, e.g., Odysseus' wrestling-match with Philomeleides at 4.343-5).

A brief Introduction (for more detail on the central concept of para-narrative, the reader is fairly directed to the longer introduction to the previous volume) is followed by eight more chapters, each of which collects a number of para-narratives relating to a central theme or concept. These are, in order: 2. the idea of return; 3. the story of Orestes; 4. Penelope; 5. Telemachus; 6. Odysseus himself; 7. the songs of Demodocus; 8. the Cyclops; and 9. the 'lying tales' Odysseus repeatedly employs to persuade or test a listener. As can be seen, some of these chapters focus on the object of the para-narratives—the character or topic on which they serve to cast light—while others focus on the subject, the topic which is being exploited as a means of elucidation. This inevitably leads to some ground being covered twice: the Cyclops story (subject, Chapter 8) functions, in Alden's analysis, as a way of configuring and reflecting on the character of Odysseus (object, Chapter 6). All eight main chapters are broken down into sections, sub-sections, and in fact sub-sub-sections: on p. 44 we enter Chapter 2, section 9.7.1. These morsels are often very short, sometimes only a paragraph, giving the book in aggregate a strangely choppy and disconnected feel. (In the space of pp. 207-15, for example, the reader encounters twelve separate section headings.)

The main chapters are followed by seven detailed tables of comparative material, a bibliography, a very thorough index, and an index locorum. The book itself is well presented, with an elegant cover and a clear and readable typeface; I noticed very few typographical errors. (The transliteration of Greek names is strangely inconsistent, however. Alden mostly uses Latinised versions, but we find e.g. Theoclymenos, Nērikos, Aigialeia. On p. 178 the sons of Eurytus include Clytios and Iphitus. And, as in the previous volume, Alden insists on 'Diomede' as the son of Tydeus throughout, which I do not understand.)

Para-Narratives in the Odyssey is learned, detailed, and crammed with interesting facts and observations. At times Alden seems to be adding information for the fun of it, rather than to bolster her arguments: e.g, the lengthy footnote on the varying crimes of Tantalus, pp. 58-9 n. 184, or the observation that the kredemnon was also issued to troops in WWII, p. 29 n. 59 (a fact that has no real relevance to Leucothea's kredemnon protecting Odysseus from drowning, but is undeniably nice to know). Citation is exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting: Chapter 2 is 60 pages and 243 footnotes; the first mention of the common name 'Nekyia' for Book 11 is backed up by six ancient sources and one work of modern scholarship. No reader is likely to feel short-changed by the amount of material the book contains.

What one does miss is any real sense of an argument, or indeed an overarching structure. Alden does not develop a theory as the chapters progress, and there is no conclusion (indeed, it took me a few seconds to realise I had arrived at the final page). This is fundamentally a work of collation: a guided tour of the Odyssey's para-narratives, taking us in a wide Telemachean loop before bringing us back to the Hotel Ithaca in time for dinner. There is rather a lot of summary—section 2.9.6 on pp. 42-3, for example, is just a synopsis of the Circe episode—and at times we wander from our route: even with a broad definition of para-narrative, some of the passages discussed hardly qualify. (On p. 146 Alden gives a brief and useful précis of scholarly perspectives on Penelope's decision to hold the contest of the bow—but the contest is a part of the main narrative, and it is not clear why our attention is being drawn to it.) In fact, there is very little of the poem we have not visited by the end of Chapter 9. But para-narrative is undeniably a wide-ranging and important concept, and it is not as though the Odyssey cannot support another visit.

Alden's interpretations of specific scenes and passages are always interesting. Some of them, inevitably, did not convince me. She places great emphasis on subtle echoes and correspondences between widely separate parts of the text, whether imagistic (Odysseus standing naked on the threshold of the hall with his bow reminds us both of the Cyclops sitting at the entrance to his cave with his rock, and of the archer-god Apollo striking down the Achaeans with his arrows of plague) or verbal. In her story at 4.242-64, Helen mentions that she recognised Odysseus easily, even in his disguise. Another character who sees through Odysseus' disguise without trouble is Argus the dog. At 4.145 Helen calls herself 'dog-faced'; and, at 4.277-8, Helen goes round and round the Wooden Horse saying hello—just like a dog might (p. 166). This is a brilliant piece of pattern-spotting, but one concerned more with hidden messages that Homer has concealed in his text than with the effects of the poem on its listeners. If we catch the clue, does it force us to imagine Helen dashing round the Horse in circles, jaws agape, tongue flopping excitedly, pausing now and then to fling herself at its timbers? Or is the dog here only for scholars, and not for the audience? Nausicaa and her maids make Odysseus think about food because he remembers his mission to retrieve the daughters of Anius, who could produce food at will (pp. 258-9), rather than because they are upper-class young women enjoying a picnic on the beach. Callimachus would salute. At other times I found myself delighted by a connection, but unclear how to explain it: Alden interprets many of Penelope's actions in Books 18-21 as a chain of allusions to the Athenian festivals of the Plynteria and Arrephoria (pp. 149-52). The links she draws are fascinating, but how did they get there? During the Pisistratean recension (p. 15)? Does this mean that all of these actions, including the entire sequence in which Penelope is given a makeover and sent out to impress the Suitors, were absent from the poem before the sixth century BC? In which case, what happened in their stead? How were they woven in, and on what scale? Alden does not even raise the question.

One line of interpretation is particularly unhelpful for the poem qua poem. Alden reads Odysseus' tales after the feast on Scherie as masking an irritated message to Alcinous: Tantalus, teased by unreachable food, is Odysseus being tantalised by the unfulfilled offer of return (pp. 60-1); Aeolus' bag of wind looks like a great deal but puts Odysseus no further than when he started, just like Alcinous' inflated promises (p. 40); the Laestrygonians ignored their guests' wishes and devoured them instead, so perhaps the Phaeacians are going to eat Odysseus (p. 42)...? But all this eyebrow-raising fatally sabotages the emotional structure of the Scherie interlude: having passed the Phaeacians' tests, of which we were warned at 8.22-3, Odysseus has been promised his trip home. His farewell to Nausicaa at 8.461-8 marks his farewell to Scherie, and his critical revelation of his name at 9.19-20—the thing he guards most jealously on Ithaca, even from his wife and father—indicates that he now feels himself to be safe, among men he can trust. For him to then launch into a series of passive-aggressive hints about how it would be nice if we could speed this along, please, makes him look graceless and his hosts look stupid—especially since, as we are told, 'the Phaeacians miss the underlying point of his catalogue' (p. 112) and eagerly demand more stories. 'Would that (the craftsman) had never designed it, nor would design another such', Odysseus exclaims of Heracles' war-belt at 11.613: 'his wish expresses the hope that he will not have to design another ghost like Heracles' (p. 62). We are shown a weary, bored Odysseus, desperately spinning out more rubbish in the hope that after this tall tale Alcinous will finally call a taxi. Why should the audience care, when even the hero does not?

Alden's writing is consistently clear, brisk, and lively: there is no jargon, no great tangled nightmare sentences of fifteen sub-clauses in a heap. There are nice flickers of humour—I particularly enjoyed her dry observation that 'eating your guests is an extreme way of detaining them' (p. 38). The book is a pleasure to read; even the passages of plot synopsis zip along. The discursive style and richness of incidental information, coupled with the device of selecting and explaining specific passages as they arise, makes one feel that Alden really wanted to write a commentary, and chose para-narrative as a suitably wide tray into which she could put all her various insights. And those insights, my objections above notwithstanding, are very much worth the reader's time. My worry is that readers will be misled by the book's technical-sounding title into assuming it is a tightly focused monograph on some thorny aspect of narratology, and will therefore avoid it unless looking for very specific information; whereas in fact almost any scholar with an interest in the Odyssey could benefit from going on Alden's guided tour, and moreover is likely to enjoy the experience, even if they may well disagree with bits of it.

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