How to Love the Odyssey

Apr 16, 2013

I may as well admit that I didn't like the Iliad very much the first time I read it. It was Samuel Butler's translation and while it moves fairly quickly and is interesting, he didn't seem to have the music of Homer in his voice. Others like this translation very much, so I won't say anything more than that it didn't do much for me when I was a young reader. 

I should add that I did not have a teacher explaining things to me, but I'm not sure if that helped or prevented my pleasure. In one sense, the really important thing is to get that first read done. Read it, once, at some point in your life. Don't worry about enjoying it. Just read it. The pleasure it will give in later readings depends on this first reading. 

On the other hand, if you are a teacher, do try to help students enjoy it. Not by telling them how wonderful it is, but by helping them see it. 

The Odyssey was different for me, as it is for a lot of younger readers. The action of the Iliad goes nowhere, quite literally. They stay on the plains of Ilium, moving no further than the beach or the city itself. Even the gods, if my memory is working correctly, travel only between Olympus and Ilium (Troy). The Odyssey goes everywhere. It even goes places that are nowhere. Odysseus himself claims to have traveled from the island of Calypso (whose name means, "hidden") to Circe's island (Aiaia, more of a wild cry than a word), which is quite close to the sun (ie the end of the world), to the cyclopes island, to Scheria (an early Utopia), to Hades itself. 

Furthermore, Odysseus is always changing, transforming, moving, adapting. As Homer says in his prologue, "many were the cities that he saw, many the minds that he learned of, many the pains that he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea." Odysseus is the man of "many-ness" to coin a term that would thoroughly embarrass Homer. 

In an age like ours, having to deal with new challenges every day, bewildered by our quest for home, hardly believing we even have a home, wishing we could go to Calypso's island and forfeit everything for her sweet hidden pleasures, Odysseus is both easily accessible and utterly confusing. What an idiot to turn down Calypso's offer of immortality and marriage to her, a genuine, beautiful, endlessly beautiful, fair, well-proportioned, unchanging, eternally gorgeous, goddess. 

Yet he leaves Calypso's island. It's one of the most amazing decisions any literary character has ever made. And he knew exactly what he was getting into. He knew the pain Poseidon would send his way. Oh well, he said. I've suffered. I will suffer. I want to go home. 

Are you among the select few coming to Blowing Rock for the Odyssey Retreat? If you are, I've put together some suggestions to prepare yourself. If not, you might still enjoy doing these activities. 

Understand that this retreat is for lovers of great literature, especially Homer. It isn't going to be what David Hicks would call an "analytical" approach to the Odyssey. It's going to be a lover's contemplation. 

You don't have to love the Odyssey yourself, but you have to be willing to let me. Because I do. 

So here are some suggestions for approaching one of the five or six most amazing books ever written in the history of the human race (let that "think in").

Prior to the retreat:

  • Read the Odyssey once. As of today, you have time to read it at a nice pace of two books/week).
  • Read book one pretty closely
  • Read the prologue and ask, "What do I expect from this book based on what Homer says here?"
  • Do you?
  • Note the settings in the three main locations of book one. 
    • who is in each?
    • why?
    • what do they do? 
    • what dilemma do they confront?
    • how do they handle it? 

I will be using Richmond Lattimore's translation because I love the chanting rhythm it uses. If you sign up for the retreat, we'll send you a copy as part of the "package." But don't feel limited to Lattimore. I also liek Fagles and others, and every translation brings out something different. 

You don't need to do a lot to prepare. You could even come without having read it, though it would make it less fun. 

If you are interested in coming, seats remain available. Ask your spouse or your headmaster to send you as a reward for loyal service. I won't be offering lectures on how to teach, but I guarantee you you will learn some things about teaching from our time spent in Homer. He was, after all, the teacher of the Greeks (and therefore of western civilization). 

It will be a vacation that re-creates and restores. The food and setting will be incredible. But the book! Oh my friends, the book. Come read it with me!

Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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