Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.10


Steve Reece, The Stranger's Welcome: Oral Theory and the Aesthetics of the Homeric Hospitality Scene. Michigan Monographs in Classical Antiquity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1993. $39.50. ISBN 0-472-10386-5.


Reviewed by S. Douglas Olson, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The subject of this book, a revised UCLA doctoral dissertation, is hospitality in the Odyssey, and the author's goal is to recover the standard typology of such scenes in order that we might appreciate their nuances much as an original audience presumably did. Studies of this sort always represent a certain service to the field and occasionally offer important major insights into the structure and meaning of the Homeric poems. All the same, The Stranger's Welcome is seriously flawed and should not have been published in its current form.

Reece begins (ch. 1) by listing and discussing what he argues are 35 typical elements of a Homeric hospitality-scene, beginning with "Maiden at the Well/Youth on the road" and ending with "Escort to Visitor's Next Destination." No extant scene contains all 35 elements, and Reece therefore works his way through seven large-scale examples of the pattern in the Odyssey, commenting on the variations and omissions in each and their possible significance. The scenes chosen for discussion are: Athena on Ithaca (ch. 2); Telemachos in Pylos (ch. 3) and Sparta (ch. 4); Odysseus with the Phaeacians (ch. 5), Polyphemos (ch. 6) and Eumaios (ch. 7); and the return to the palace in Books xvii-xxiii (ch. 8). In chapter 9, Reece argues that hospitality-scenes play an important role in structuring the poem as a whole. An appendix offers a schematic analysis of all such scenes in the Odyssey, the Iliad and the Homeric Hymns.

On occasion, Reece's work leads to interesting and potentially significant results. He does a fine job of bringing out the essential simplicity of Nestor's household in Pylos, for example, and nicely contrasts the atmosphere there with the extraordinary but somewhat less personal luxury of Sparta. The most important discussion is certainly that in chapter 4, where Reece argues that Menelaos is characterized from the first as a overbearing, almost desperate host, who keeps Telemachos with him for almost a month rather than send him back to Ithaca immediately. This interpretation forces Reece to explain away the Spartan king's express insistence that he loathes men who retain their visitors in this fashion (xv.69-74) and to represent his offer of a tour of the Argolid (xv.80-5) as a further uncomprehending effort to block the way home. In fact, Menelaos' suggestion is little different from Telemachos' equally innocent (and equally ineffective) effort with "Mentes" at i.309-14 and is more economically understood as simply part of the normal etiquette of Homeric CENI/H: guests occasionally say they are ready to leave when in fact they are not (esp. xv.303-42; cf. xi.328-61), and it is accordingly the duty of a good host to make his visitors feel they can stay on with him if they wish while nonetheless allowing them to leave the moment they insist (e.g., iv.587-611). Nor is the conventional (Delebecquian) chronology of the poem, on which Reece bases his discussion, actually consistent with the text, although this has never been effectively argued in print. Despite all that, this is an important and provocative reading and will doubtless be cited repeatedly in the future.

More often, the discussion in The Stranger's Welcome is somewhat less enlightening. Thus Reece spends almost twenty pages detailing the obvious failings in the entertainment Polyphemos provides Odysseus and his men before noting at the very conclusion of the chapter that these guests are at least as well understood as burglars, which throws the entire affair into a rather different light. More disturbing are the frequent serious breakdowns in logic and overall coherence of argument. On p. 154, for example, Reece defines parody as "a self-conscious and intentional imitation for comic effect" and insists this is not an appropriate term to describe the way Homer adapts preexisting formulae to the decidedly sub-heroic action in Eumaios' hut in Book xiv. This is certainly correct; unfortunately it also contradicts the way in which Reece himself uses the term throughout the entire preceding chapter (e.g., p. 126). Chapter 8 in particular is full of such troubles. To cite but one example, in order to gauge "statistically" the degree of poetic innovation in the 117 lines which, Reece judges, touch most directly on Eumaios' hospitality (xiv.5-82, 418-56), he arbitrarily selects for comparison another 118 Homeric verses (only 47 of them from the Odyssey!) having to do with similar subjects. This is no basis for serious philological or statistical analysis of any sort, and matters become even worse when Reece goes on to argue that the difference between values such as 2.54% and 3.42% (for 0(, H(, and TO/ as definite articles in the alleged control group and the Eumaios-passages, respectively) are to be taken as historically and linguistically significant. This is naive pseudo-science at best, and should not have survived the refereeing process.

At the same time, Reece displays a consistent lack of familiarity with relevant secondary literature. In a field as vast as Homeric studies has become, no-one can possibly control all the bibliography. All the same, the degree of omission here is truly staggering. In his discussion of Eumaios' hospitality, for example, Reece fails to cite either of the two most important recent studies of the question, Rose in Phoenix 1980 and Roisman in ICS 1990. In connection with Polyphemos, he does know Newton in CW 1983, Austin in Approaches to Homer (1983), Friedrich in GRBS 1987 and JHS 1991, or Peradotto, Man in the Middle Voice (1991), to cite only references which come immediately to mind. Nor, despite its obvious relevance to his thesis, does he ever mention Pedrick, "The Hospitality of Noble Women in the Odyssey," Helios 15 (1988) 85-101. Examples could be multiplied, but I trust my basic point is clear. These are all important, recent books and articles, which touch directly on problems with which Reece is concerned; all are in English and all are readily available in this country; none is cited. In addition, the bibliography as a whole contains only four items dating after 1989, about the time the original dissertation was completed, although the inclusion of one book from 1992 suggests this is not because the manuscript languished endlessly in press.

Some of what The Stranger's Welcome accomplishes is good; all the same, the book should not have been published without substantial revision, if only to eliminate the frequent word-for-word repetitions (e.g. 8n11=19, 13=168-9, 16=143, 20-49, 26=49n5, 39=172). Perhaps there is a place in the world for a new American series of revised doctoral dissertations in the Classics; if they are to be taken seriously, however, they must be thoroughly updated and rewritten by their authors and then conscientiously read and reviewed by independent senior scholars and edited in a professional, painstaking manner.