10 October, 2007

Iliad vs the Odyssey

Reading The Odyssey is not much at all like reading The Iliad. Which is odd, because the same 750 B.C.-era blind bard supposedly wrote both.

The Iliad is an exhilarating read. Homer's perspective is foreign enough that reading this is like walking an intellectual tightrope. Exquisite care is required to comprehend and then apply to the reading certain Greek ideas, and even with this care, there remains an inexorable tension in the tale. The constant attempt to transcend mortality through heroism, while the reality of death is reinforced unremittingly by the encompassing war, gives the epic a tense and bleak feel at times. The book is undeniably dark, with its focus on the inexorability of death. Divorced from the theme, it is a grim and unattractive story - little more than a long sequence of beheadings and stabbings with no underlying purpose.

The Odyssey, however, is pushed forward by motives which are much more familiar to us now. Odysseus is propelled by his love of family and homeland; his journey is an attempt to gain those things dearest to him. He is guided in this quest by the virtue of hospitality - the supreme virtue practiced in the realm both of journeying and home life. A few of the themes from The Iliad are given cameo roles, but they do not thrust themselves so disconcertingly into the reader's attention as they do in the former epic. (This is not to say that the values of the Odyssey are never disconcerting, only that they aren't taken as a whole.)

The exhilaration gained from The Iliad's tension is replaced in the Odyssey by exhilarating language and an exciting variety of scenes. How often in The Iliad do we read of pear trees, olives, sacred groves, cyclopes, monstrous whirlpools, or anything of that type? But as vast the variety is, each scene draws attention to the importance of hospitality and the dire consequences resulting from sins against this virtue.

Variety in the Iliad would have detracted from the urgency of the theme. Death and dying are portrayed as inexorable, and the similarity of each warrior's death is in one of the technical means Homer uses to show that -as Achilles says - "death is the same for each man."

The Odyssey does not neglect the urgency of Odysseus' desire to return home. But the very nature of the theme allows variety to work well poetically in this story. Often when Odysseus encounters a new situation, he is greeted with either a breach or a reinforcement of the ways of hospitality. Each time this happens, the reader is reminded of Penelope and Telemachos and the suitors. A new type of tension arises with the question: How will Odysseus meet and root out these bad guests, these blasphemers against hospitality when he returns home? Will he return home and be successful in defending these values?

Perhaps reading the Odyssey feels less tense because it is the story of a single man. The massive outcry against death which drives The Iliad speaks to some part of us which is conscious still of the immortality we were created for and which is repelled by the thought of abandoning life. The Odyssey by contrast matters most to Odysseus. Though we can sympathize with his love for family, and though his journey to find that which is most meaningful in his life resonates with us all, for us it is by comparison a calm journey. The Iliad urgently questions the meaning of death. The urgency here however consists in a question more more hopeful and more easily answered: Will he ever get there? Will we ever get there?

It is a story of search for fulfillment, rather than of man's reaction to the threat of having this longed-for fulfillment threatened by the emptiness of Hades. The variety which makes the reading so immediately interesting reflects the variousness of every person's Odyssey in search of some sort of meaning. Guided like Odysseus by certain values, every individual is capable of searching for that which gives meaning to his life. After the tension and darkness of the Iliad, such a story can only seem profoundly hopeful.


Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Interesting musings.

I last read the Illiad & Odyssey when I was homeschooling my kids through high school. It was our read-aloud selection everyday after lunch.'

I much preferred the Odyssey to the Illiad mainly because Agamemnon seemed like such a jerk. Of course, I was reading from a Mom's perspective. "You wanna sulk in your tent? I'll give you something to sulk about. You are so on restriction!

I think my kids enjoyed it more than I did. They seemed to relish Homer's descriptive tags such as "bright bronze" and "ox-eyed Hera." And the boys at least seemed to enjoy the mayhem.

Therese said...

I know what you mean. He can be quite an infuriating character. He definitely was and is for me. But on this second reading, I was at least struck by the pathos underlying his tantrums. Yes, he acted like a whiny baby, but he eventually matures, and he makes that maturing more painful than would have been necessary by setting into motion events that end in Patroklos' death. But he is also searching for some semblance of immortality. And since that's a desire common to all mankind, I can at least sympathize with him on that count.

Even here at the University the guys seem to like the Iliad better than the girls. I like the Iliad, but for very different reasons. All that mayhem can really be annoying in large doses. And those descriptive tags, as you say, are jolly amusing.