by Margaret Atwood
Canongate, 199 pp., $18.00
The Odyssey of Homer—far more than the darker and more comfortless Iliad—has been a book with great appeal. Readers, followers, and imitators have abounded. James Joyce’s Ulysses is only one of the more elaborate and fantastic of its variants, along with the enormous and yet more fantastic Odyssey: A Modern Sequel of Nikos Kazantzakis. The Greeks themselves always ranked it below the Iliad; that was the Great Poem, but later generations have often disagreed with their verdict.
The Odyssey is a complex work. It falls into two great divisions. There are the adventures of the hero Odysseus, making his weary way back from Troy to his distant home, the island of Ithaca, through a world peopled by perils, monsters, and magic. The more fantastic of the stories are related by the hero himself, after dinner, to an appreciative audience. They are sailors’ yarns, exciting and—almost—exceeding belief, and the poet prefers not to vouch for their truth. He was given the winds in a bag by a friendly deity, but his foolish men let them all out. He passed the Lotus Eaters, whose drowsy food enchains those who eat of it in a permanent drugged euphoria. He passed the fearsome whirlpool Charybdis, and the six- headed monster Scylla, who seized six of his men as they sailed past. They screamed to him for the help he could not give, as she devoured them before her cave; “That was the cruellest of all the sights I had to see.”
There was also his visit to the World of the Dead, to get directions and advice. It is the first European example of that great tradition of poetical visions of the afterlife, whose high points would include the Sixth Book of Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
There was Circe, too, who seemed so charming. She gave Odysseus and his men hospitality, and then—suddenly—she turned the sailors into pigs and shut them up in the pigsty. Later writers observe that sailors on shore do sometimes make beasts of themselves. Odysseus got her to change them back, and he shared her bed; but his men, not surprisingly, remained terrified of her. There were the Laestrygonians: first just a girl, the daughter of their king, who seemed so nice and so helpful, and who took them home to meet Mama; but the mama of a pretty girl (so true is myth to real life) proved to be a terrifying ogre.
There were some nice girls, too. There was the loving nymph Calypso, who kept the hero on her island, far away, “by the navel of the sea,” trying to make him marry her. There was Nausicaa, a king’s daughter, who also had her eye on the dashing stranger, when he suddenly appeared while she was playing ball with her girlfriends; but any possible romance was nipped by her watchful mother, and the hero, middle-aged and battered but still glamorous, was finally sent on his way …