Interdependency of Odyssey and Iliad

It is impossible to consider either of these two poems in isolation, as the two together have a unique position in the pantheon of world literature. The ancients generally considered that they were both by the same man, although there was often disagreement on points of interpretation. Longinus, a Greek rhetorician and literary theorist of probably the first century AD, provided an important early analysis of the two poems in comparison. He claims (IX, 11-15) that the Odyssey lacks the sheer sublimity of the Iliad, and that this was evidence that it was composed later, while Homer was an old man, and had lost the fire of youth. He continues to say that if the Iliad is a tragedy, then the Odyssey is a comedy. By this, he meant that the latter's emphasis on character and its happy ending mark it out as such. Literary criticism is not a branch of ancient thought that impresses the modern scholar, as most of it was so crude and banal, but this example does show that the ancients thought of both works as a pair which naturally went together, i.e. as distinct from the other epics of the mythological cycles, and that they saw a clear generic difference between them. We must be careful when talking about the idea of genre, because we have no idea how Homer himself would have viewed the two poems, whether a fixed idea of genre existed then, or whether it is valid to create genres when we only have two complete works from the time.

If we take a very loose view of genre, in that we only expect a different manner and matter in each, as their topics are different, more useful results can be reached. Some areas of comparison, such as the role of the gods in each, have already been touched upon. I will concentrate on the use of similes in each to elucidate a number of more general points about epic and Homer's skill in adaptation of his traditional material. The basic need in the Iliad for a large number of similes to maintain interest has been discussed, as has the more limited reliance on them in the Odyssey, and the possible parodic use of them. Further issues are germane. In both works, the imagery is never inserted at random or irrelevantly, but often with great subtlety. One particular simile in the Odyssey may illuminate the care with which Homer works his material. At VIII.522-530 Odysseus, distraught at hearing Demodocus' tales of Troy, is compared to a woman being dragged away from her dead husband's body by victorious enemies. Comparison with a woman is unusual and striking in a descriptive representation of a hero. Tears were seen as a feminine trait and thus the image is a poignant and unusual one. Also, there is the irony of the fact that Odysseus himself, as one of the sackers of Troy, would have been in the reverse of the woman's situation. By this technique, Homer subtly shifts the focus of the scene's pathos from Odysseus to the unknown victim of war without taking the audience's attention too far from the subject of the comparison. The sense of powerlessness is also appropriate to Odysseus' own plight, but his supplication is more propitious than hers: here again the simile offers points of similarity which are also points of departure and contrast. This more 'demeaning' type of imagery, less magnificent than most of those of the Iliad, is an effect consistently achieved throughout the work, with its greater emphasis on realism and avoidance of the same level of grandeur as its counterpart.

From what we know about other epics, from the fragments which survive (on which, see the Iliad study guide), other Archaic authors made no such extensive or sophisticated usage of imagery. This suggests that Homer was a master of his craft who far surpassed his contemporaries in his manipulation of standard material, and the novel and intelligent way in which he did so.

A final point about authorship can be made as a result of considering the Odyssey and the Iliad. Many have claimed that the two works are by different authors, citing the apparently irreconcilable differences between them. But it is notable that despite the large number of stories about the Trojan War throughout the Odyssey, there is not one which deals with the wrath of Achilles or other contemporaneous events, which are the topic of the Iliad. Such a clear avoidance of repetition of material strongly points to one author, especially with all the other evidence considered above. As Odysseus himself says (XII. 452- 453):

"It is hateful to me / to tell a story over again, when it has been well told."

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