INTRODUCTION Widely recognized as a foundational work of Western literature, the Odyssey is one of the oldest surviving Western literary texts. It is the second of two mythological epic poems attributed to the Greek poet Homer (c. eighth to seventh centuries BC). The poem details the adventures of the hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca, during and after his journey home following the Greek victory in the Trojan War, a conflict recounted in Homer's Iliad (c. eighth to seventh centuries BC). The Odyssey was composed in a stylized dialect of Ancient Greek, using dactylic hexameter, a poetic meter with lines consisting of six dactylic feet, each of which contains one long syllable followed by two short syllables. The poem comprises some 12,000 lines divided into twenty-four discrete sections, or "books." The Odyssey is often thought to provide a thematic counterbalance to the Iliad, which many critics designate as a work of youth while the Odyssey is seen as a work of maturity. The Iliad's preoccupation with war, belligerence, and the experiences of the male warrior class is contrasted with the Odyssey's focus on homecoming, hospitality, and the experiences of women and servants. Authors from classical antiquity to the present have revisited the themes, plot, and characters of the Odyssey in their own works, and the poem is regarded as a central text of the Western cultural tradition. BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION Nothing is known about the life of the Greek poet to whom the Odyssey is attributed. Ancient sources yield conflicting biographical accounts, but they usually describe Homer as a blind poet hailing from Smyrna or Chios in lonia, a region on the central eastern coast of modem-day Turkey. Modem scholars estimate that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed between 750 and 650 BC, but information recorded in antiquity about the author of these works is now considered to be unreliable. Even Homer's blindness, a consistent feature in ancient accounts, is considered by many to be a fabrication inspired by the Odyssey's depiction of the blind poet Demodocus. Some critics dispute the notion that the Odyssey and the Iliad are the work of a single author, and the "Homeric question," as the authorship debate has been termed, remains a source of considerable controversy. Scholars known as "analysts" believe that "Homer" may most accurately be considered a collective name for Greek singers who, over the course of generations, produced the poetic material that was subsequently used in the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Other critics, known as "separatists," argue for the existence of two authors, attributing the Iliad to one and the Odyssey to the other. "Unitarians" believe, on the basis of stylistic and thematic similarities, that the two poems were composed by a single individual. The complex arguments made by adherents of each of the three perspectives often overlap. For example, many scholars who do not consider themselves analysts nonetheless believe that the division of the poems into twenty-four parts was imposed long after their composition, and many likewise believe that the final section of the Odyssey-often called its "continuation"-was not composed by the author (or authors) of the rest of the poem. Questions regarding the poems’ provenance are complicated by their obscure textual history. Little conclusive information exists about early Homeric manuscripts, which were likely recorded following a period in which the poems were transmitted orally. A "definitive" edition may have been commissioned by the sixth-century-Bc Athenian tyrant Peisistratus for performance at the Panathenaic Festival. For some generations thereafter, the poem was formally recited by a guild of singers known as the Homeridae. The earliest Homeric manuscripts to survive in fragmentary form date from the third century BC, and many Alexandrian scholars edited and studied the poems during the following century. The earliest extant manuscript of the Odyssey in complete form did not appear until the tenth or eleventh century AD. PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS The Odyssey begins ten years after the conclusion of the Trojan War, during which time Odysseus has failed to return to his homeland of Ithaca to reclaim his place as king. In the meantime, his household has been occupied by a group of suitors who hope to marry his wife, Penelope, and who grossly abuse her hospitality by carousing in the palace and helping themselves to food and wine. Penelope has remained faithful to her absent husband by deflecting the suitors’ advances, but as time passes Odysseus's death seems certain, and the suitors become more insistent. The poem's first four books, often called the Telemachy, focus primarily on the travails of Odysseus's son, Telemachus, as he attempts to banish the suitors from the household and then travels to Pylos and Sparta in search of news of his father. Aided by the goddess Athena, who appears throughout the poem in disguise to intervene in mortal affairs, Telemachus eventually makes his way to the estate of King Menelaus and his wife, Helen, whose abduction by Paris, prince of Troy, was the nominal cause of the Trojan War. After learning that Odysseus is still alive and imprisoned on Ogygia, the island of the nymph Calypso, Telemachus prepares to return home. Meanwhile, the suitors devise a plan to ambush and murder him upon his arrival in Ithaca. The focus of the narrative then shifts to Calypso's island, where Odysseus has been compelled to serve as Calypso's consort for the past seven years. His captivity finally ends when the god Hermes, sent by Zeus at Athena's behest, tells Calypso to release Odysseus. She reluctantly assents and sends him away on a raft, but the god Poseidon, angry with Odysseus for having blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, wrecks the vessel. Odysseus is subsequently discovered by the princess Nausicaa on the shore of Scheria, home to the Phaeacians, and he is received in the household of her parents, Arete and Alcinous. Some days later, Odysseus reveals his identity to his hosts and regales them with tales of his past exploits. Books nine through twelve, collectively designated as the Apologoi, contain Odysseus's first-person account of his adventures during his journey home from Troy. This section contains several of the best-known episodes from the poem, and provides a detailed account of the events that have delayed Odysseus's homecoming. Odysseus relates how he and the men under his command plundered the island of Ismaros, visited the land of the lotus-eaters, and fell captive to Polyphemus, whom Odysseus eventually succeeded in blinding, thereby incurring the wrath of Poseidon and dooming himself to ten fruitless years at sea. After many further incidents, including a year spent with the enchantress Circe and a visit to Hades to ask the advice of the deceased prophet Tiresias, Odysseus is washed onto the shore of Ogygia, by which time he is the only surviving member of his party. Odysseus ends his account with the story of his encounter with Calypso, and the sympathetic Phaeacians make preparations to transport Odysseus back to Ithaca. Most of the second half of the poem takes place on Ithaca and describes Odysseus's struggle to reclaim his kingdom. When Odysseus arrives on the island, Athena appears and disguises him as a beggar so that he will not be recognized. Odysseus infiltrates his household with the assistance of several loyal servants and Telemachus, who has managed to avoid the suitors’ ambush. Unaware of the beggar's identity, Penelope speaks with him and announces the following day that she will marry the man who can string Odysseus's bow and shoot it through a dozen axe heads. Several suitors try and fail, and the disguised Odysseus accepts the challenge and succeeds. He then reveals his true identity and, with the help of Athena, Telemachus, and two of his servants, slays the suitors and resumes his rightful place as husband of Penelope and king of Ithaca. As his epithet "the great tactician" implies, Odysseus embodies the qualities of intelligence and resourcefulness. Though a strong, ruthless, and courageous soldier, he stands in marked contrast to his compatriot Achilles, whose brutish aggression is the main focus of the Iliad. Rather than relying solely on physical strength, Odysseus employs deception and cunning to achieve his ends, often concealing his identity and adopting disguises over the course of the narrative. The fact that Athena, the goddess of wisdom, devotes so much effort to helping Odysseus and his family is a testament to his shrewd approach to life. Penelope, known as "the wise," has a similarly quick mind. One of only a few prominent female characters to be presented in unambiguously positive terms in Homer's works, Penelope is exemplary on the basis of both her intelligence and her loyalty to Odysseus. For much of the narrative, Penelope is able to do little but wait for her husband and fend off the advances of the suitors. It is in the latter capacity that she most conspicuously exhibits the cleverness for which she is known: telling the suitors that she cannot wed until she finishes weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, she proceeds to unweave at night what she has woven during the day, forestalling the suitors for three years. The story of Odysseus's homecoming serves at the same time as a coming-of-age narrative for Telemachus. Portrayed as a somewhat ineffectual figure at the beginning of the poem, Telemachus experiences a period of personal growth when he travels to gather information about his father. He gains confidence and knowledge from his conversations with Athena and with his father's comrades, including Menelaus and Nestor, king of Pylos. Eventually, he is able to help his father in the removal of the suitors, an event that signals his maturity and establishes him as a worthy heir to his father's legacy. Along with Odysseus, many characters from the Iliad recur in the Odyssey, from gods such as Athena and Zeus to mortals such as Menelaus and Helen. This recurrence helps evoke a sense of continuity between the two poems and encourages the common tendency among readers to regard the two poems as complementary halves of a comprehensive poetic worldview. Characters from the Iliad who are deceased by the time of the Odyssey, including Achilles and Agamemnon, appear in the poem as spirits during Odysseus's visit to Hades. A notable contrast between the two works is the relative emphasis in the Odyssey on characters from the servant (or slave) class. These characters are presented largely in terms of their degree of loyalty. There are bad servants, such as the handmaiden Melantho, who sleeps with the suitors and divulges to them Penelope's unraveling of the shroud, and good servants, such as the swineherd Eumaeus, who provides shelter to the disguised Odysseus and later fights alongside him against the suitors. MAJOR THEMES Issues of personal identity, manifested in the recurring motifs of disguise and recognition, are central to the Odyssey. Odysseus's famous act of trickery, using a wooden horse to infiltrate Troy, is mentioned in the poem, and he disguises his identity on many occasions throughout the narrative. He cannily identifies himself as "Nobody" to Polyphemus but then brings disaster upon himself and his men when, in a moment of pride, he tells the blinded Cyclops his true name. Later, he keeps his identity secret from his Phaeacian hosts until well into his stay with them, and he extemporizes at length about the fictitious life of the beggar whose identity he assumes when he returns to Ithaca. Moments of recognition are also significant, from the devastating consequences of the confrontation with Polyphemus, to happier moments, such as when Odysseus is recognized by his son, his servants, his wife, and his father at various points following his return to Ithaca. The most bittersweet instance occurs when Odysseus is recognized by his loyal and aged dog, Argus, who dies immediately thereafter. Throughout the poem, the primacy of identity is linked to a sense of active engagement with the outside world. Odysseus is repeatedly imperiled by obstacles and experiences-including the episodes involving Calypso, Circe, and the alluring call of the Sirens-that distract him from returning to Ithaca and threaten death or the loss of fame. The importance the ancient Greeks attached to maintaining one's reputation through worldly engagement is underlined during Odysseus's conversation with the shade of the deceased Greek warrior Achilles, who remarks that he would rather be a lowly servant on earth than a ruler of the dead. Also central to the Odyssey is the concept of hospitality, a preoccupation that reflects the poem's concern with domestic themes. The social contract of hospitality appears in various ways throughout the narrative. The suitors abuse the hospitality offered by Penelope at Odysseus's estate, overstaying their welcome, slaughtering the household's livestock, and harassing the female servants. Likewise, Polyphemus's mistreatment of Odysseus and his men is presented as a gross failure of hospitality: rather than offering aid to his guests, as custom dictates, Polyphemus traps them in his cave, consumes two of them, and goes to sleep. Other bad hosts include Calypso, who refuses to allow Odysseus to leave, and Circe, who transforms her guests into pigs-though later, after his companions are restored to human form and he has reconciled with Circe, Odysseus himself overstays his welcome, leaving a year later at the insistence of his men. The Odyssey's episodic, nonlinear narrative describes the events of more than a decade, a stark contrast to the straightforward, forty-day timeline of the Iliad. The Odyssey features nested narratives of varying length and importance, from Odysseus's four-book Apologoi to the poet Demodocus's tale of how the god Hephaestus caught his wife, Aphrodite, committing adultery with Ares in their marriage bed. Many of these stories have no direct bearing on the plot but serve to add thematic dimensions or to connect the work to the larger tradition of Greek mythological storytelling. The language of the Odyssey is characterized by the frequent repetition of certain phrases, a likely byproduct of the work's origins in the Greek oral tradition; for example, descriptive phrases such as "rosyfingered dawn" and "wine-dark sea" recur throughout the Odyssey. Significantly longer sections of text are occasionally repeated as well. This stylistic element often strikes modem readers as redundant, but in the context of oral recitation, it likely served as a mnemonic aid for the performer. Stock descriptive phrases may have also helped listeners to process the poem's content more easily while simultaneously giving the poet a substantial pool of readymade metrical units to use in a given passage. CRITICAL RECEPTION Much of the scholarship on the Odyssey to appear during the past century has addressed the Homeric question, which remains essentially unresolved. One of the most noteworthy developments in this field was the work of Milman Parry (1971; see Further Reading), who made a case for the fundamentally oral heritage of the compositional process used in Homer's epics. Parry emphasized the presence in the text of various poetic "formulas" characteristic of extemporaneous poetic recitation, which indicated that, however the poems were written, they undoubtedly drew upon a rich tradition of preexisting material. A. J. Podlecki (1961; see Further Reading) cited the complex structure of the Polyphemus episode as evidence that Homer was an original creator rather than a mere compiler of preexisting material. Colin Martindale and Paul Tuffm (1996; see Further Reading) asserted that the differences in diction between the Iliad and the Odyssey suggest that each is the work of a different poet. In a 1964 assessment of the Odyssey's ethical purpose, W. B. Stanford argued that the final section of the Odyssey, often regarded as inauthentic, is a necessary fulfillment of the poem's themes. N. Postlethwaite (1981; see Further Reading) analyzed the formulaic patterns employed in the same passage, concluding on the basis of various stylistic discrepancies that the continuation was probably composed by another author. G. P. Goold (1986) examined the ways in which the inconsistencies and contradictions in the depiction of the removal of arms from Odysseus's hall suggest the process by which the Odyssey was composed and inscribed. Other scholars have focused on specific points of interpretation in the narrative. John B. Vlahos (2011) challenged Eustathius of Thessalonica's influential argument that Penelope does not recognize the disguised Odysseus until book 23. Vlahos offered an "early recognition" theory in which Penelope first identifies Odysseus in book 19, before she announces her intention to marry one of the suitors. John Gutglueck (1987-88) argued that Odysseus's unwillingness to be bathed by Nausicaa's handmaidens stems from a fear of emasculation, the result of his earlier encounter with Circe. Darice Birge (1993) examined the narrative function of the stag hunt on Circe's island in book 10. Some criticism has adopted a broader approach to the poem. Howard W. Clarke (1962) studied fire imagery in the second half of the Odyssey and explicated its various symbolic functions. In a 1969 essay, Clarke analyzed humor in Homer's epics, suggesting that "the Odyssey has that kind of pervasive involvement with the world and its burdens that characterizes comedy." Ruth Scodel (1998; see Further Reading) discussed how the questions raised by Odysseus's prolonged concealment of his identity from the Phaeacians illuminate aspects of the poem's reception by its ancient Greek audience. Many scholarly essays present detailed explanations of the attributes and significance of individual characters, as in M. J. Alden's 1987 study of Telemachus's role in the narrative, David Bolotin's 1989 analysis of Odysseus's motives, and J. D. McClymont's 2008 defense of Circe. Critics have also presented broad analyses of the poem's thematic, formal, or sociopolitical elements. Scott Richardson (2006) examined instances in which the Odyssey's narrator misleads the reader, relating this sense of duplicity to the poem's depiction of an unstable and insecure world. Richardson's 2007 essay elucidates the nature of conversation in the poem, arguing that it tends to be deceptive and obfuscatory, rather than straightforwardly communicative. He maintained that this feature requires readers to pay considerable attention to indirect meanings in the characters’ conversations. Minna Skafte Jensen (1993) discussed the relationship between the Odyssey and the fairy-tale genre. Robert J. Rabel (2002) analyzed the rhetorical function of interruptions in the poem, and Samuel Eliot Bassett (1912) studied the structural role played by the first book in setting up the work as a whole. Bassett challenged negative critical judgments of the book and made a case for its effectiveness as a prologue to Homer's narrative. Peter W. Rose (1975) contended that the Odyssey expresses an ambivalent sense of class consciousness, which he related to the concerns of Homer's historical context. In her 1988 essay, Victoria Pedrick explored the ramifications of the recurring motif of the hospitality of noble women in the poem. Chris Emlyn-Jones (1992; see Further Reading) sought to clarify the poem's seemingly inconsistent depiction of the gods, situating it within the context of ancient Greek theology and culture. James Overholtzer
Source Citation
"Odyssey, An Introduction to." Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 166, Gale, 2014. Literature Criticism Online, Accessed 14 Dec. 2017.

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