There was quite the Classics theme to the twelfth London Literature Festival, held in October last year: a performance of Handel’s opera Apollo and Daphne, an abridged reading of Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey (the first ever by a woman) and the event that I was lucky enough to attend, An Introduction to the Odyssey, chaired by none other than Professor (Dame) Mary Beard.
In just over one hour, the audience was involved in a mass tutorial on an epic that has enthralled for almost three thousand years. Mary questioned, agreed, challenged and moved forward a fascinating discussion on the underlying messages of the Odyssey, in the company of four others who clearly loved the poem just as passionately as her: Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek at Cambridge University, Daniel Mendelsohn, classicist and author of the funny and moving An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic, prize winning author Madeline Miller, and Karen McCarthy Woolf, a poet and dramatist for BBC Radio 3 and 4.
To get us in the mood, we were first treated to an incredible two minute summary of all 24 books of the epic by Professor Goldhill. The other members of the panel then described to us how they came to the Odyssey; for Madeline it was as a rather unusual choice of a bedtime story read by her mother, for Daniel it was during high school, and Karen admitted to using it for harvesting ideas for her own writing. They all agreed however that as time went on, the least interesting element of the poem for them were the myths and monsters – although the blinding of Polyphemus and the escape of Odysseus and his men from the cave is the way most of us were first drawn to Homer as children. And that is probably why the attempt to try and simplify the Odyssey, the most complicated, back to front, twisty of tales, into a straightforward narrative about the bad against the good has resulted in less than wonderful Hollywood films.
The Odyssey is much more about identity and survival, coming home, and what home really is. And central to it all is the character of Odysseus. This much travelled man is endlessly fascinating. He is, after Achilles, one of the great warriors of the Trojan War and the brains behind the Horse; a leader whose soldiers follow him with a mixture of distrust and admiration, a cheating husband, who is still devoted to his wife, and a very skilful liar. In the age of fake news, the question for us has to be should Odysseus really be admired? It’s a tricky one, like the man himself.
The role of women in the Odyssey was also discussed in some detail. Despite the society that Homer knew and was a part of, he was able to write about women very well, especially the independent, strong females such as Circe, Athena and Penelope- all women relying on very sharp wits and iron discipline. Unlike Odysseus, Penelope had no time to feel sorry for herself, and it is clear that he had met his match in her – and that’s why he would rather die an old man in their bed, than take the “gift “of immortality.
In this and so many other ways, Homer makes Odysseus one of the most charismatic and inventive characters in Western literature. But there’s no doubt Odysseus has some very unattractive traits. He treats those he considers beneath him, either in intellect or status, as inferiors. His taunting of Polyphemus may be funny, but it is also cruel. Just like Polyphemus, he too can act in an uncivilised way, and is capable of terrible rage; this is not just towards those who you might say had it coming, but also those who didn’t, like the slave women who pay a gruesome price for their involvement with the suitors.
Despite everything, I’m fascinated by Odysseus, and it was clear by the end of the session, so were the panel. As Daniel concluded about his relationship with him: “it’s complicated”. There lies Odysseus’ appeal – he’s not predictable or perfect. He triumphs and he messes up, and then he goes and does it all over again. That’s why several thousand years after he first came to our attention, eight hundred of us packed out the Southbank Centre to spend an hour in his company. We still recognise him as one of us, and consider him a hero of a sort – and then afterwards, I got to meet a real life heroine…