Bryn Mawr Classical Review 3.5.18

R.B. Rutherford, Homer: Odyssey XIX and XX. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. $59.95 (hb). ISBN 0-521-34517-0 (hb). $19.95 (pb). ISBN 0-521-34760-2 (pb).

Reviewed by Alex Pearson, Episcopal Academy.

An undergraduate or graduate student who has already had a little experience with Homer will get the most use of this commentary; however, more advanced Homerophiles will ignore this small but potent book at their own risk: its pages swarm with ideas, hunches, questions, and references to an astounding range of primary and secondary works.

Rutherford writes in his Preface, "I hope that this book will be usable by readers of Homer at all levels. I have tried to make it as self-contained as possible, and to enable readers to use it with no other books on their desks apart from a Homeric dictionary such as Autenrieth's or Cunliffe's, or Liddell and Scott, and a text or some version of the rest of the Odyssey." These minimal ingredients make a full meal for thoughtful readers; however, if you happen to have access to an excellent university library with a full complement of classical scholarship from the early Nineteenth Century up to the publication date of this commentary, you can make yourself into a Homeric scholar by chasing down all Rutherford's references. A copy of the Old Testament might come in handy, as well as the works of Hesiod, Thucydides, the Tragedians, and Vergil. But let the amateur Homerist start with Rutherford's commentary and a lexicon, and by all means have at hand a text of the rest of the Odyssey in Greek or a translation with line numbers.

For readers unfamiliar with the Odyssey to apprehend Rutherford's approach thoroughly, they must have and refer frequently to a whole version of the epic, and they must read the whole in translation. Rutherford pursues an ambitious goal: to understand the whole organism through one of its cells, and to begin the investigation at Book XIX, a point in the story rich in literary attributes and problems. It is fertile ground for interpretation and argumentation. Rutherford explains that his choice of Book XIX "arose naturally from work I had been pursuing on recognition, irony and illusion in Homer." (A recent example of his work in this area can be found in "The Philosophy of the Odyssey" JHS CVI (1986): 145-162.) Rutherford's commentary matches the material in richness: he comments on virtually every line, often devoting a whole paragraph or page to an interpretive problem. Virtually every other comment contains multiple references to primary and secondary works. I cite an extreme case on 19.215 PEIRH/SESQAI:

... Stories in many cultures tell of gods visiting men in disguise, seeking out and rewarding virtue, and punishing the wicked. See Genesis 18.1-5; 19:2; Hebrews 13:1; Hollis on Ovid, Met. 8.611-724; R. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (Harmondsworth 1986) ch.4. The Odyssey alludes to such tales at 17.483-7, where some of the suitors, alarmed by the menacing words of the disguised hero, fear that Odysseus may in fact be a god. He is not, but several passages play on his resemblance to a god in this role (see 7.199-206, 16.183-5, 23.62-4), and he is certainly an instrument of divine punishment, as the increasing support of Athene and the moral authority of his pronouncements (esp. 22.413-18) both stress. See further West on Hes. WD 249ff.; E. Kearns, C.Q.FGrH 4 F 26 seems to have interpreted Apollo's and Poseidon's period of service to Laomedon as a divine test (Il. 21.441-56): see L. Pearson, Early Ionian Historians (Oxford 1939) 182.
This sort of note is immediately useful for the tyro and also serves as a small seminar for the more advanced reader who wishes to pursue all the references. There is a risk, however, that the beginning student of Homer, who is still overwhelmed by new vocabulary and strange-looking forms, may become discouraged or intimidated by so much information which is, to him or her, superfluous, and that the references to works in foreign languages may fuel anxiety instead of curiosity. It might have been more productive to include fewer references and present, in concise summaries, more of the ideas in those references, except that the length of the commentary would then grow beyond the proportions of its conception. So many ideas and so few pages to put them on. < /P>

Rutherford's creed is as follows: he believes in one Homer, maker of a unified epic (although analyst points of view, especially those of Page, receive generous and fair treatment); he believes that characters show psychological consistency and develo pment; that Homer consciously employs foreshadowing, irony, suspense, and symbolism; that Homer's artistry can be very subtle; and that repeated phrases, lines, and paragraphs have different aspects in different contexts and should not be read as infelicities of primitive poetry.

Rutherford also believes that interpretive excess must be avoided at all costs. In his introduction, he rejects the notion that Penelope secretly enjoys the attentions of her suitors: "Despite the genuine difficulties of these lines, this interpretation should be vigorously rejected; it is a flagrant example of the critical tendency to assume that something more devious, ambiguous or disreputable must be more interesting and make better poetry than what is morally and poetically direct and simple." ( p. 37) Generally, Rutherford encourages highly imaginative solutions put together with judicious logic and grounded in unambiguous citations.

But how far does his subtlety go? Consider his comment on 19.132 EU)DEI/ELON: "stock epithet of Ithaca, and used only of that island (hence the humorous irony of Odysseus' enquiry to the disguised Athene in 13.234 'is this place some EU)DEI/ELOS island, or a promontory...?)" Clever, or too clever?

For the neophyte, there is ample assistance to be found on morphology, syntax, and stylistic features. Rutherford also took pains to help struggling readers realize the pace of the story, which is easily lost when grinding through line by line. The small apparatus is written in mostly unabbreviated English. A few textual problems are dealt with on a level that will interest the beginner, e.g., on 19.250-1, Rutherford concisely defines homoeoteleuton and tells how it may explain the omission of the lines in some manuscripts. Little is said about meter.

Rutherford's introduction, which is often referred to in the commentary section, weighs in at ninety-five pages. Again, one must know or read beforehand the whole Odyssey in order to understand it. The section on transmission and technique includes a concise, even-handed assessment of The Homeric Question, and an interesting section on rhetoric with subsections on formal speeches, responsion of speeches, tact and understatement on the part of characters, the use of paradigms in speeches, ironies in informal conversations, the blurring of the distinction between narrator and character, dramatic silences, Odysseus' lies, and similes. Rutherford's own voice comes through most clearly in the two large sections on Penelope and Odysseus as characters. There are good insights here, e.g. a plausible reading of the discrepancy between Amphimedon's account of the slaughter of the suitors and the narrator's account, but the commentary itself is more compelling than the introduction.