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Style and the Concept of ‘Epic’ in The Odyssey

Previous tradition held that Homer, the ancient, blind poet who sang of a heroic age that was long past even in his own day, composed this magnificent poem. Contemporary literary theory disputes not only Homer’s claim to complete authority over the poems, but even the poet’s historical existence. However, regardless of its authorship The Odyssey has continued to play an important part in the development of literary style. However, it is primarily the epic style of the poem and the influences of this style that ensures The Odyssey is still regarded as a work of universal and enduring merit. Virgil, Milton and more recently James Joyce have all tried to emulate to a certain extent the epic style of The Odyssey, providing a testament to the enduring greatness of this ancient text and highlighting the importance of the legacy of epic style The Odyssey has left behind it. One dictionary actually defines epic as “a lengthy narrative poem in elevated language celebrating the adventures of a legendary or traditional hero, e.g. Homer’s Odyssey” – although the influences of The Odyssey are more far reaching than simply providing an understanding of the concept of ‘the epic.’ It is without doubt the epic style that the poem has developed that should be the primary concern of any reader of the Odyssey.

An epic text must have certain stylistic qualities if it is to succeed without confusing or alienating the reader. The Odyssey relies on familiarity and repetition to ensure that the reader is not confused by the rapidly developing narrative. The text is highly evolved stylistically and relies on a carefully developed structure. Characters are dignified with formal epithets. For example Zeus is “the Gatherer of Clouds”, Hermes is “the keen eyed Giant slayer”, Penelope is “fair” and “wise”, Athene is “the daughter of Zeus who bears the aegis” or sometimes “The goddess with the flashing eyes” and Odysseus is “God-like”. Even places are given a slogan. Ithica is “rugged” and Pylos is described as the “well built citadel of Neleus”. Although perhaps initially included because of the oral tradition of the time these epithets are vital to remind the reader who the characters are and what they represent. Another equally important stylistic intricacy that ensures we are never left confused despite the magnitude of the text is the use of phrases that echo one another such as “goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak” and “Tell me, Muse” which mark off discrete parts of the narrative. Any slight digressions, detailed lists or descriptions are framed using this structural device known as ring-composition, which is used frequently to ‘frame’ areas of text.

The poem achieves this through a stylistic device that functions in a way similar to the pathetic fallacy used in Tennysonian poetry. A Character’s internal consciousness is constantly reflected in the external environment. The peace and eternal life of the Gods is reflected in the tranquil, grand description of mount Olympus. Equally, descriptions of Odysseus throughout the narrative of his homecoming reflect his mood. For example, at the start of the first book we are told of “hollow caverns” in which Odysseus was detained; this reflects rather eloquently the hollowness of the ‘love’ between Kalypso and Odysseus.

The use of pathetic fallacy is just one way that imagery is used to create a sense of grandeur and ensure the poem is epic in nature. The continual use of extended (or epic) similes in the text ensures that the reader is drawn into the thematic depth of the poem and forced to acknowledge the underlying complexities in the subtext in a way a single comparison would not. In the passage where Odysseus slays the suitors the imagery is animalistic or at the least taken from the animal world. Odysseus is compared to a lion covered in blood, the maids are hanged like “doves” or “thrushes” and the suitors are compared to fish lying on the sand gasping for air. Repetition of the animal imagery consolidates our suspicions that we should regard the slaughter of the suitors as a brutal, animalistic action. Slight variations of the imagery such as the comparison of the scene in terms of bullock and then later cattle hint to the reader that the scene is meant to be understood in a wider, universal context and ensures that the poem retains its epic status.

Another important stylistic quality that goes to create the sense of epic which is fundamental to validate the assertion that The Odyssey is a work of universal and enduring merit is the function of what Peter Jones terms the “divine machinery.” Homer’s manipulation of the divine machinery gives the reader both a personal and omnipotent view of Odysseus’ world. In every human action the gods are involved. Obvious examples include Athene, who guides Telemachus and Odysseus, and the soothsayer, who gives a summary of the entire plot after being sent as an omen by Zeus at the first Ithican council. The divine machine is used to propel the plot along and ensure that we are given a wide ranging, epic sweep of the world in which our hero lives. Despite the obvious complications of trying to represent the personal human perspective and the omnipotent god-like perspective due to the paradoxical viewpoints, it is successful and gives us a fuller picture of our hero. However, despite the effectiveness of the shifting perspectives, the fact that Odysseus does not appear until book five does complicate the dramatic situation.

Like Achilles, Odysseus wished that he could have died on the plains of Troy so he would be infamous in his homeland and abroad. However, the two characters are portrayed in extremely different ways. The Iliad focuses on the rage and power of Achilles whereas The Odyssey is about intelligence and cunning. Odysseus is the “man of twists and turns” (polytropos) and unlike Achilles he uses his mental, rather than physical, strength to demonstrate his heroic qualities. Odysseus continually outsmarts the gods and their attendant creatures in situations that can’t be solved through brute strength. No one can resist the Sirens’ song by attacking them but Odysseus listens to their song and escapes by having his crew stuff their own ears and tie him to the mast. Similarly, Scylla and Charybis are unbeatable on a physical level, but Odysseus uses sound decisions and careful navigation to get his ship through. Odysseus is first and foremost a master strategist – but he also has many other facets to his character. Through the story we see Odysseus the father, the husband, the son, the master, the lover, the politician and the avenger. Through these many perspectives we are willing to accept Odysseus as our polytropic hero and a character that has three dimensions.

However, Odysseus does have great physical strength. No man but him can string his specially made bow and few would be able to kill the suitors with the ease Odysseus shows. Furthermore, his physical strength is confirmed by Menelaus who comments on his physical prowess in wrestling. However, this strength is coupled with a clever mind. For example, Helen tells us how Odysseus entered Troy, disguised as a beggar, on a mission of intelligence. Equally Menelaus recounts Odysseus’s behaviour inside the Wooden Horse when he has the presence of mind to keep the Greeks from revealing themselves. The wily Greek even manages to escape Calypso – something that hints at almost superhuman qualities. Athene relates to him and calls him epetes, agkinoos and echephron, suggesting further that Odysseus, through the combination of his intelligence and brute strength, is almost akin to the Gods.

There is a wealth of information in the text about Odysseus and the main characters of The Odyssey, and indeed most of the subordinate characters are nobles. However, when one tries to find out about the common people it soon becomes clear that there is very little evidence in the text. However, the inclusion of lower common details in the narrative is a stylistic quirk that helps set Homer’s Odyssey aside from other epic poems. We are allowed into Odysseus’ personal life, and therefore we empathise with him more. John Betts argues that the inclusion of these common details are below the dignity of an epic poem and that the inclusion of common details is clumsy. He uses the simile where Odysseus in the night before the killing of the suitors in his house is compared to a black pudding being turned back and forth to put forward the argument that that it is not grand enough in its description and it lowers the tone of the narrative. However, one cannot help but acknowledge that this low imagery gives the poem further thematic depth as it deals with the personal as well as the heroic. The Odyssey, unlike The Iliad, demonstrates to the readership the dexterous, wiliness and mental agility of Odysseus. He is the archetypal and perfect Greek hero, argues Pierre Grimal – the thoughtful, intelligent, philosophising, polytropic Odysseus is what makes the hero and therefore the poem a work of universal and enduring merit. He is not just a warrior.

Similarly, the Iliad also shows to some extent the domestication of epic through passages of text such as,

“So speaking glorious Hektor held out his arms to his baby

Who shrank back to his fair girdled nurse’s bosom

Screaming and frightened at the aspect of his own father

Terrified as he saw the bronze and the crest with its horse hair

Nodding dreadfully as he thought from the peck of helmet

Then his beloved father laughed out, and his honoured mother

And at once glorious Hektor lifted from his head the helmet

And laid it in all its shining upon the ground. Then taking

Up his dear son he tossed him about in his arms, and kissed him”

Or equally in Paradise Lost where we feel a similar pathos and communication with the protagonist, Satan, on a personal, human, domestic level as well as a military level when he is considering whether he should be forced to work under God’s command,

“Fork’s Halleluiahs; while he lordly sits

Our envied Sovran, and his Altar breathes

Ambrosial Odours and Ambrosial Flowers

Our servile offerings. This must be our task

In heaven, this our delight; how wearisome”

Virgil’s Aeneid very occasionally portrays the same personal rather than military heroic qualities. For example, Aeneas’ difficulties believing that the ethereal spirits revert to sluggish bodies and his consequent questioning of their dread desire for earthly existence is clear evidence of intelligent, logical reasoning. Once again we get a glimpse of a character’s psychological state through philosophising rather than a description of heroism through action in battle. However, once again it is hugely shadowed by the emphasis put on heroism in battle.

Odysseus, however, stands alone as the only three-dimensional character and it is in the main due to the personal, common details about him that are revealed to us constantly. A reader will engage with Odysseus mentally as well as try and engage with his acts of physical heroism. It is in comments such as,

“There is nothing nobler, nothing lovelier than when man and his wife keep house together with like heart and with like will. Their foes repine, their friends rejoice, but the truth of it all is with him and her.”

Here we begin to empathise with Odysseus on a proper emotional level. It is a poignant, philosophical moment where we feel, rather strangely, uncomfortable in being involved in what is a tender, very personal moment in Odysseus’ voyage. And again:

“But now, as he saw Odysseus close by and knew him, he wagged his tail and dropped his ears, though he could not now move nearer to his master. Then Odysseus glanced aside, wiped away a tear unheeded by Eumaeus, and hastened to put a question to him”

However, the real open humanness with which The Odyssey is written is what sets it apart and makes it an Epic with a universal and enduring merit. The Heroic spirit does play an important role in the Odyssey and adds to its epic quality. However, what really makes the poem epic and different from all epic poems since is the equilibrium with which the two sides of the hero complement each other. The domestic and the military go hand in hand.

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