The Odyssey has been part of the Western literary canon for more than two millennia. We spoke with Daniel Mendelsohn, the classicist, acclaimed critic, and author of An Odyssey — a memoir that weaves together family, mortality, and Homer’s great poem — about why the work has survived for so long and the amazingly rich and subtle picture it paints of what having a home actually means.
Octavian Report: Why should we read the Odyssey?
Daniel Mendelsohn: There's a reason the classics are classics — and it's not because they have better agents than books that aren't classics. The classics are classics because they pose in a way that is lively and narratively interesting and challenging the most basic questions about human experience. The Greek and Roman classics are the foundation for our way of seeing the world. And therefore we read them because they tell us something true about life. In the case of the Odyssey, aside from everything else it is it's one of the great family dramas. It's about homecoming, it's about the meaning of home, it's about how you know and how you prove your intimacy with members of your family. It's about the bonds that connect family members over many years despite time and distance.
Beyond that, it's in a certain sense the first science-fiction narrative. It envisions an adventurer who's exposed to strange new civilizations (to quote the opening of Star Trek). Odysseus is the person from Greek civilization, from Western culture, touring abroad through alternative and new civilizations. And it is through his interactions with different models of civilization, from total barbarity to hyper-cultured behavior, that he comes to reflect on his own civilization and to determine where in that spectrum it falls.
Maybe science fiction is a little strong. It's certainly one of the first anthropological documents in the Western tradition. It's about somebody who's very interested to see how other kinds of cultures live. And through Odysseus, we the readers get to reflect on just what it means to be civilized.
OR: What is the civilization that Odysseus is coming from, and how do these other societies look in comparison to the one he has left?
Mendelsohn: It's like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” This bed is too big, this bed is too little, this bed is just right. And I think we're meant to feel that his own civilization, the Greek Bronze Age city-state from which he comes — Ithaca — and the civilization that it represents is, as it were, just right. On one end of the spectrum of civilization is the Cyclops, who represents a low point of barbarity. One of the great measures of civilization, certainly in Odysseus' own culture, is how you treat guests. And the guest-host relationship is one of the strong markers of this civilized society: you treat your guests well. It's a standard theme that's repeated over and over in the poem. Odysseus himself comes as a stranger, anonymous, and he's always bathed, fed, treated to dinner. And then they say, "Well, what is your name?" That is standard operating procedure. The Cyclops, by contrast, eats his guests. He's a cannibal, which is clearly the low end of the spectrum of civilization.
On the other hand, the last adventure he has before he returns home is set on the island of Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, who are hyper-civilized. They dance, they love music, they love poetry, they play games. They're unbelievably refined. They are sensitive to Odysseus, who's a guest in their household. They notice him crying. They ask him what's the matter. So, I think between the Phaeacians and the Cyclops, you get these extremes. And the Greeks whom Odysseus represents land somewhere in the middle.
OR: How many hands do you think were actually involved with the composition of the Odyssey? Do you think it was done by the same person or persons that did the Iliad?
Mendelsohn: It's impossible to say. We have no idea how these things were composed. The prevalent theory is that these epics evolved over decades, if not centuries, out of folkloric material that was like a snowball rolling down a hill gathering more and more episodes before it was finally, by one or more persons, shaped into the narrative we have. There's no way to speculate about how many bards or poets were actually involved in the creation of the poems we have today. But there's evidence inside the text that there are, as it were, different layers. It's like when you look at the side of a mountain and you see the different geological strata. The texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey are like that. There are ways to see the interventions and the inconsistencies that point to the seams, so to speak, where two episodes were sewn together. I don't think anyone can speculate on exactly how many people were involved.
We do know that there were a number of other epic poems in what we call the Epic Cycle, a cycle devoted to the history of the Trojan War, from its earliest distant origins — the judgment of Paris — to the actual fall of the city and its aftermath and the heroes’ return home. Of that cycle, we only have the Iliad, which treats one episode in the last year of the war, and the Odyssey.
There is, I think, not ample but good evidence that the other poems just weren't as good. Aristotle speaks disparagingly of a couple of these now-lost other parts of this epic cycle. If we imagine that the Iliad and the Odyssey came into being more or less in their current form in about the 700's BCE — and they are describing an event that took place in the 1200's or 1100's BCE, so it's 500 years from the Trojan War to the Iliad and the Odyssey — by the time of Pericles, the 400’s BCE, the Iliad and the Odyssey are totally canonical. They are constantly referred to — the Iliad, in particular.
We know that the number of papyrus fragments that come from copies of the Iliad outnumber Odyssey fragments by far. So the Iliad seems to have been copied out more, which means that it was probably used more as a school text. But what's so interesting about these two works is that they're already canonical very early on. It's not like some classics department in the 1800's decided out of a number of contestants that these two works were going to get the imprimatur. They were already classics in their own time.