I thought that The Odyssey by Homer (trans. by Robert Fagles) was much more readable than The Iliad (also trans. by Fagles) was. It was driven by far more action, and the ending was happy. I found it a delight to read, as I did The Iliad. And yet, I was surprised by how much I didn’t love The Odyssey. I liked it, but since I loved The Iliad, I was expecting The Odyssey to be similar for me.
I found myself comparing the two ancient epics as I read, and so this review will compare them throughout. I loved The Iliad so much I wrote three posts about it here (the story), here (what I loved), and here (thoughts on Fagles). There may be spoilers below, but I highly encourage you to read the epic poem anyway; I doubt “spoilers” would spoil it for you.
Emotion versus Story
While The Iliad begins with emotion (Rage, nonetheless), The Odyssey begins with a character. Consider the opening lines:
The Iliad (Fagles, page 77):
Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleu’s son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Acheans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
The Odyssey (Fagles, page 77):
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove-
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.
Launch out on the story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will – sing for our time too.
(Bernard Knox, in his introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation, does point out the difference in approach even in these very introductions. For example, in The Iliad, the narrator has a specific point in mind; in The Odyssey, the narrator doesn’t care where the muse begins, as long as the story is told.)
To me, comparing the opening paragraphs of The Odyssey and The Iliad shows the great dichotomy between the two epic poems. One is violent and angry; the other is painful but hopeful. One is about war; the other is about peace. One is about hatred and self-centeredness; the other is about familial love. One focuses on epic, god-like emotions; the other is an epic story.
Early in my reading, I observed this apparent distinction and mentioned it to my husband, who read The Odyssey years ago as a student. He disagreed when I said that The Odyssey is not about emotions.
“Just wait for the reunion,” he said. “It is about emotions.”
He was right. When Odysseus met Eumaeus, his still-loyal swineherd, I felt his gratitude just as he did (Book 14). Homer even begins to refer to Eumaes as “you” which seemed so touching and personal. Eumaeus was a true friend, after all those years. When Odysseus was later reunited with his son, his father, and finally his wife, I wanted to cheer for joy. Finally! He made it!
The Odyssey, as I said yesterday, does suppose a happy ending. Since Odysseus’s story is a parallel to our own journey through life, we should be grateful for that.
Obviously, the two poems tell two completely different stories: The Iliad is a war story. The Odyssey is an odyssey. (Thanks to Homer, we have that word to describe it!)
Reading The Odyssey
I liked reading The Odyssey. I really did. But I did not love it.
I think what I loved about The Iliad, as I said when I discussed it, was the emotions. Achilles was a jerk, but his almost-inhuman rage provided a passion that just kept me engaged in the story. Almost until the bloody end (literally), The Odyssey lacked such passion.
Also, because there were many central characters in The Odyssey and they were all followed at various points, it sometimes felt disjointed to me. It was nicely brought together, and I can hardly fault Homer, but I was not enamored with it. Something felt lacking after the coherent passion of The Iliad.
Besides that, The Odyssey was an adventure story, and this, for me, is not such a good thing. At certain points in the middle, I felt that Odysseus would just never get home already. His shipmates were so stupid (eating the cattle that belonged to the Sun, among other things) that I just wanted to throw my book at them. And then the goddess would conveniently come to Odysseus’s rescue. I struggle with adventure stories sometimes because I feel they never end. (They into trouble; they get out of trouble. Repeat. This is why I struggled with Lord of the Rings when I tried years ago, and this is why I didn’t love The Hobbit, to be reviewed next week.)
I guess what I’m saying is that there is a Homeric classic for everyone. Some people probably love The Odyssey more because it focuses on the story, the characters, the reunion, and the happiness at the end. Are you looking for adventure? Are you looking for tenderness and love? Are you looking for adventures stories you won’t forget? Then maybe The Odyssey is for you.
On the other hand, are looking for expertly written emotional tragedy? (I think The Iliad was far superior in terms of writing, even though it was more challenging.) Are you looking for extremes? Are you looking for war heroes? Are you looking for passion? Then maybe The Iliad is for you.
I, personally, loved the passionate tragedy of The Iliad best.
If you’ve read both The Iliad and The Odyssey, which do you prefer? Or are they both favorites, just different in style?
If you haven’t read either The Iliad or The Odyssey, why not?