The Odyssey and Narrative Technique

The narrative structure of The Odyssey is important enough to deserve a fairly detailed analysis. The opening is particularly striking, starting in medias res. Homer eschews the more obvious linear structure and replaces it with a beginning that allows for a lot more subtlety and sophistication. By this device, the first and last words of direct speech of the whole poem can be spoken by the gods, thus allowing them to frame the action symbolically as well as literally. Also, the audience's attention is more immediately grabbed by such an arresting technique, allowing the poet to bring in other stories from the epic cycle of Troy as and when he chooses, rather than being restricted by the possible constraints of a strictly linear narrative structure.

After the prologue and the Council of the Gods as the introduction, there is another surprise, in that the story proper does not involve Odysseus directly at all, but rather concentrates on Telemachus for the next few books. An old view on this matter, which presupposed the dubious idea that there was more than one "Homer", claimed that the 'Telemachy' (or 'Telemachid') as it can be called, was no more than a separate poem, which had been bolted on to the rest of the work. A closer consideration will show that this is unlikely to be a useful way of considering the section. The Telemachy is excellently motivated by I.81-95, where Athena explains her divine intentions with regard to her protégé Odysseus, which require Telemachus' involvement in the plot. The inclusion of this long episode describing the deeds of Odysseus' son (Books I-IV) is deliberately made, thus negating the crude idea that it was no more than an attractive vignette, which the author(s) heedlessly attached. It allows Odysseus and his reputation to be established before we even see him enter the poem as a direct figure. Nestor (III.120- 123) and Menelaus (IV.333-346) both praise him highly, raising his worth as a heroic character far more than his relatively low- key entrance in Book V would do, and by relating their own homecomings, also bring in the theme of the 'nostos' or 'return home', which is, after all, the central theme of the whole work. The Telemachy also serves to bring Odysseus' travels into the wider context of a heroic world, where the fates of other heroes during and after their returns form Troy, such as Agamemnon at III.254ff, serve as foils to Odysseus' own. As such, the Telemachy should be seen as a carefully constructed programmatic introduction to the poem as a whole, written by a single author who had one organic idea of the entire work, rather than one part of a patchwork of collected tales which is out of place.

Another very important aspect of Homer's narrative technique is that of Odysseus' first person description of his adventures. We are informed by the direct narrative that some elements of his travels certainly did occur, such as the fact that he stayed with Calypso (I.14) and visited Circe (VIII.448). But it should also be noted that Odysseus is hardly averse to lying when the need suits him. For example, when he first arrives at Ithaca, he invents a story to the young shepherd he meets (actually Athena in disguise), acting in his usual prudent and circumspect manner (XIII.254ff). In addition, all of the more fantastic elements of his adventures - such as the lotus eaters and the details of his encounter with the Cyclops - are only recounted by him, and do not appear in direct narrative. In effect, Homer disassociates himself from the more incredible tales by putting them in the mouth of an unreliable narrator, who often has recourse to lies to protect himself. Of course, it would not do to disbelieve Odysseus entirely, as there is no evidence that he is certainly lying, but by use of characterisation and first person narrative, Homer makes the audience have second thoughts about the protagonist's veracity, which in turn has further implications on his character. Odysseus' tales also help to further break up the linear narrative of the first half of the work.

The plot is more straightforward in the second half of the Odyssey, but even here, the narrative is handled in such a way as to cause continual suspense. For example, there are several inserted tales told by Odysseus to various other characters which serve to alter the pace of the narrative and elucidating character and themes. The way in which Odysseus' own personality is displayed by his mendacious stories is obvious, but Homer uses them to achieve more than that. The tale to Eumaeus (XIV.199-359) brings out Odysseus' cautious desire to test the loyalty of his would- be ally, and Eumaeus' response, where he asks the stranger not to tell him stories of Odysseus just to please him. For here the swineherd's nobility of soul is manifest, since his sense of hospitality is not based on any expectation of benefit, it is just done because he is an essentially moral man. Bearing in mind the importance of guest- friendship bonds in the Odyssey, this inserted story is important in several ways. The same applies to the other

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