Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.15

Olson, S. Douglas, Blood and Iron: Stories and Storytelling in Homer's Odyssey. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995. Pp. x + 260. $71.50. ISBN 90-04-10251-5.

Reviewed by Mark W. Edwards, Los Altos, CA (

Olson's rather lurid title is apparently derived from his epigraphs, Hesiod's description of the race of iron ("Would that I were not among this fifth race of men, | But had died before or been born later " -- this, rather oddly, follows the dedication), and a quotation from Randall Jarrell, "Men wash their hands in blood as best they can." However, the Preface explains that the volume is intended both for scholars interested in specific, traditional Homeric questions, and for a "more deliberative and contemplative" audience, which will appreciate the author's wider concern with storytelling as a response to our unsatisfactory human condition, storytelling as "imagining how things once were and thus by implication how they might someday be again" (ix). Essentially, the volume is a very useful and refreshingly original treatment of the most significant points at issue in contemporary study of the Odyssey, which sometimes (especially in the last three chapters) seems to lose sight of its ostensible unifying feature. This does not much matter, as the development of the poem's plot and Olson's personal views provide unity enough.

The first chapter is a thorough study of KLE/OS, not simply as "fame", as usual, but also as reputation, rumor, story-telling and gossip. Olson documents all the judgments and chatter that go on in Ithaca, on the mainland, and in Scheria, as well as more formal story-telling, pointing out the sharp division along gender lines -- a man should be said to be a good counselor and fighter, a woman chaste, intelligent and skillful at handicrafts. This is new and valuable, though I am sometimes a little uneasy at the assumed equivalence of KLE/OS and FA/TIS. The following chapter (an adapted version of the author's article in TAPA 120 [1990] 57-71) picks up the theme of the songs Agamemnon's shade says will be sung about the virtuous Penelope and his own loathsome wife, and treats in exemplary fashion how the details of the Agamemnon/Orestes story are compared to the circumstances of Odysseus and Telemachus, stressing the way this is done by different narrators to suit the poet's purpose at the moment.

The third chapter examines how the character of Odysseus is depicted in the tale of his wanderings, as told by himself, and whether the poet presents some development in his character. Here Olson sets out his approach with great clarity. In Scheria, Odysseus "establishes his identity in a very deliberate way, first by carefully controlling the stories by means of which he is introduced to his new hosts and then by offering them what turns out to be a highly tendentious account of his adventures since the fall of Troy ... The poet himself, meanwhile, uses the tales of the Wanderings to answer long-standing questions about the character of his hero's return and to make a series of more general points about how men act in groups and how they must be governed as a consequence. On all its various levels, therefore, KLE/OS here is once again not only and perhaps not even principally a reflection of the world, but instead an active intervention in it and an attempt to reach beyond its incoherent and confusing surface to the truth which allegedly lurks within" (43). Expounding this is a big undertaking, but Olson shows himself aware of the problems, first explaining that Odysseus' tale "cannot be read as a simple documentary source for his past, and any 'development' which took place in him over the course of it would have to be understood as in the first instance a product of his own intentions as a narrator" (44). Olson goes on to show how Odysseus "puts a strong and consistent spin on the narrative" (48), implicitly denying any responsibility for the deaths of his men and constantly stressing his own cleverness. He concludes: "The Wanderings thus describe a series of political rather than personal developments, as Odysseus' relationship with his men slowly deteriorates and they bring about their own ruin" (61). In the last two pages of the chapter Olson links these social lessons to the political situation in Ithaca and "the danger of ignoring a legitimate leader's authority the need for obedience to one's natural social superiors even when one is not sure what they are up to or why" (63). "Homer's story insists that ... traditional aristocratic leaders are (or at least once were) intensely devoted to the welfare of their subordinates ... Common men, on the other hand, routinely make what prove in the end to be the wrong decisions" (64). Not all will entirely agree with this view, but it is thought-provoking and well-argued.

Chapter 4, "Telemachos and the KLE/OS of Odysseus," is the first of three chapters in which Olson says he will shift his focus to "Homer's own narrative technique and to the dilemma routinely confronted by his Achaians, which is a state of exile from an allegedly ideal and utterly lost past which simultaneously represents a perfect and seemingly unattainable future" (ix). He begins by denying any development in Telemachus in Odyssey 1-4; Telemachus thinks his world is imperfect and apparently pointless, but he is wrong, because in fact the gods often intervene in his favor and his father eventually returns. Telemachus already shows a good knowledge of proper behavior when he entertains Athena, and Olson gives a good close analysis of his feelings and Athena's motivations in the dialogue between them. This includes a study of her notoriously chaotic advice at Od. 1.269-302, which Olson acutely analyses (following a method used by Peradotto to explain Teiresias' prophecy at Od. 11.100-137) as a logic-tree in which each set of alternatives either results in success (the expulsion of the suitors) or leads to a further pair of alternatives, each of which is heralded by a new personal address by Athena (Od. 1. 271, 279, 294). This is the best explanation I have seen, and the parallel with the structure of Teiresias' prophecy is very plausible.

Following this, "a remarkable change comes over Telemachos ... he abruptly puts Penelope in her place ..., asserting his personal authority over the situation... A few lines later he speaks sharply to the suitors as well ... and Antinoos notes specifically that this does not seem to be the passive little boy they have all grown used to. Something has clearly come over Telemachos" (74-75). Olson also admits that "The resentment [Telemachus] feels against [the suitors] ... is thus something relatively new and ... has to do with his arrival at manhood" (75). However, "Although Telemachos speaks out boldly for the first time against the Suitors in Book i ... he does not undergo any fundamental personal growth or development there, for he has already changed sometime shortly before the story begins" (75). Olson has fairly stated the "changes" in the youth, and I do not see why he refuses to call them a "development." He continues with a good analysis of Telemachus' confused feelings about his missing father, asserting that during his meetings with Nestor and Menelaus "his personal resources still seem quite limited, his dependence on Athena is obvious and he never becomes anyone other than who he has been from the first" (81). Some readers, however, have felt that Homer makes him go conspicuously from shyness to a fair measure of self-confidence during these encounters with legendary figures (of which Olson gives a good account). If, then, Telemachus does not gain a measure of maturity from his exciting journey, what does he get out of it? KLE/OS, i.e., a good reputation, says Olson, and people at Pylos and Sparta will be talking about him. One must admit that this is a very Greek idea, much commoner in ancient literature than that of character-development, and it is good to have the argument for it presented.

Olson now pauses in his chronological progress to catch up on another theme, treating (in Chapter 5) an old and much-debated problem in the Odyssey, the poet's handling of contemporaneous events as consecutive, and the resulting delay in Zeus' despatch of Hermes to Calypso (while we accompany Telemachus on his journey) and extension of Telemachus' stay in Sparta (while Odysseus makes his way back home from Calypso's island). Olson first reviews the well-known theories of Zielinski, Delebecque and Krischer (in the chronological chart on p.95 the second entry for Day 37, that for Odysseus, has gotten into the wrong column). He uses the recognized acknowledgment of a chronological difficulty in Od. 14-15, where one more night passes for Telemachus than for Odysseus, to dismiss Delebecque's whole 40-day chronology and the apparent careful correlation of the narratives of Telemachus and Odysseus, adopting the alternative view that Telemachus goes to bed in Sparta (Od. 4) on Day 6 after his departure and is awakened by Athena the very next morning (Od. 15), the poet ignoring the month spent bringing Odysseus home. As others have pointed out, there are problems with this chronology too, which Olson attempts to dispose of with moderate success; his argument culminates in something of a tour-de-force in which he points out, with a proper tentativeness, that if we ignore the undescribed passages of time which Odysseus spends in his raft-building, sailing, and shipwreck, we are left with 10 days' journeying with him, exactly matching the length of Telemachus' trip. In a sense these chronological problems are unreal, as they would only be noticed (if at all) by an auditor listening to the poem uninterruptedly from beginning to end, an eventuality which may not have been too significant to the poet, but Olson's examples of other instances where the poet seems to have conceived of actions as simultaneous but for the purposes of the narrative has converted them into a consecutive storyline are of considerable interest.

Next Olson studies Odysseus' faithful slave Eumaeus, giving a sensible account of his nature, situation, and relationship with his disguised master, naturally stressing a good deal the stories he and Odysseus exchange. "Eumaios' stories thus raise a series of complex and apparently interconnected issues and concerns, including abandonment or rejection by the mistress/mother, the problem of servile loyalty (or disloyalty) and its consequences for a house, the emergence and control of sexuality and particularly female sexuality, and the lure and treachery of the past" (136), thus preparing for the appearance of the same issues in Odysseus' palace. Chapter 7 then covers in detail, and very well, a usually neglected area, the plans of Athena for Odysseus' activities in Ithaca, including the much-debated question of what Penelope knew and when she knew it. For Olson (who shows a welcome awareness that she is a fictional character), Penelope suspects nothing, and her rejection of her disguised husband's interpretation of her dream is reasonable; her sudden decision to remarry is to help ensure her son's survival (157). His views may be unfashionable -- "Up through the end of Book xvii, therefore, Penelope plays an essentially secondary and largely undeveloped role in the Odyssey" (150) -- but this is a useful addition to the ongoing debate (Olson had not had a chance to see N. Felson-Rubin's Regarding Penelope).

The final three chapters examine the nature, meaning and results of Odysseus' return under three significant aspects: as father and husband, as king, and "as god" (the last category is a little too neat, and in these chapters the story-telling elements and the emphasis on KLE/OS drop out of sight). The first of these begins with an account of the tempestuous marriage of Zeus and Hera in the Iliad, and Olson reinforces this picture of the violent paterfamilias opposed by the cleverness of his wife with the recurring cycles of violence and treachery in Hesiod's Theogony and the husband-wife conflicts appearing in Semonides and later literature. The reader is wondering what this 14-page study of male dominance and wife-abuse in Greek divine and human families has to do with the Odyssey, until it appears that "the wide-spread image of the absent but potentially vengeful father and his threatening and powerful wife has profoundly shaped Homer's story of Odysseus" (175). Olson holds that traditional father-son conflict has been suppressed by the poet in the case of Laertes, but signs of future tension are evident between Odysseus and Telemachus. Olson does not, however, deal here with details of the relationship (past and prospective) between Odysseus and Penelope, and this is the least successful chapter in his volume.

In "The Return of the King" Olson gives a good account of the complexities of the political structures represented on Scheria and Ithaca, finding them substantially the same. A powerful man, "whose position has a strong hereditary component" (188), is surrounded by others who serve as companions, counselors and judges, while the people can summon their leaders to speak before them and have a certain amount of political power through their talk and gossip. He criticizes Finkelberg's views on Penelope's role and those of I. Morris on the connection between the society depicted in a song and that in which it is performed. He perhaps underestimates the problems of royal succession on Ithaca and Penelope's part in it.

In the final chapter Olson takes on the vexed question of the theodicy of the poem. Beginning with an elaborate criticism of the views of Fenik, Friedrich and others, Olson denies the validity of the "double theodicy" idea (that Zeus' initial assertion that men bring their trouble on themselves by their own transgressions is inconsistent with the vengeful punishments insisted upon by Poseidon and Helius), and holds that in fact "Homer's stories show over and over again how human beings bring troubles upon themselves by means of their own thoughtless actions, precisely as Zeus says in the prologue" (213). In fact, Olson reaches the same conclusion here as Segal in his recent article (AJP 113, 1992), from a quite different viewpoint, and though occasionally he overplays his hand a little ("Were eus making a public response to mortal complaints or even aware of speaking the prologue to a Homeric epic, verbal maneuvering of this sort would perhaps be appropriate. As it is, however, he is thinking aloud in the privacy of his own home ..." [214]) his treatment is valuable and his arguments will have to be taken into consideration by those who will inevitably review the question again.

There are two Appendixes. In the first Olson defends (I think correctly) the view of Finkelberg, that it has not been proved that KLE/OS A)/FQITON is a survival of a very old IE formula, against the attempted refutation of her article by A. Edwards. The second discusses the book-divisions of the Odyssey, with the purpose of demonstrating that they are of no use for appreciating the meaning of the poem. The first section of this examines each book-division in turn (as Taplin has recently done for the Iliad), stressing the indications of an attempt to give independence to certain key episodes (the Wanderings, and especially the Underworld; the reunions of Odysseus with Eumaeus in book 14, with Telemachus in book 16, and with Penelope in book 23; the contest with the bow in book 21), and often finding a break which seems just as good as the present book-division, or even preferable, within about 50 verses of the present one. (Olson correctly assumes, but does not explicitly say, that the present book-divisions fall at points indistinguishable from ordinary scene-changes.) He does not pay much attention to phraseology, but notes the questions raised by a book-division falling between ME\N and DE/ or AU)TA/R, and by a natural break which occurs in the middle of a line (e.g. before AU)TA\R A)QH/NH | ..., Od. 6.2). A short second section discusses the purposes of the "Divider," suggesting he was concerned to create Books which would stand independently, probably for the purposes of the book trade; what was left over of the poem was converted into other Books or appended to whatever was nearby. The idea is very possible, but Olson does not here develop it thoroughly (by, for instance, considering what we know of the book trade, starting from Van Sickle's fine article in Arethusa 13 [1980], and of the relative popularity of different episodes of the poem).

Sometimes I would not agree with Olson's understanding or interpretation of certain passages (one obvious example: I don't think the imaginary speaker at Od. 275-285 quite implies that Nausicaa has "had sex with the anonymous stranger" [22]), but I noted no errors of fact or misunderstandings of the text. He shows an excellent knowledge of the text and the bibliography, and his views are often original and always worthy of consideration. The volume is good reading, and will profit anyone interested in the major issues of the poem.

There is an excellent Bibliography and an index locorum, but unfortunately no index.