Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.11.7


Frederick Ahl and Hanna M. Roisman, The Odyssey Re-Formed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. x + 421. $19.95. ISBN 0-8014-8335-2 (pb).


Reviewed by Katie E. Gilchrist, Oxford University, katie.gilchrist@lithum.ox.ac.uk

The Odyssey Reformed aims to give a reading of the Odyssey text as we have it, from beginning to end, concentrating on the rhetoric of the narrative, in a style accessible to a Greekless reader. Roisman and Ahl (henceforth R&A) treat the text in a lively and original manner, and have written a very readable book, if not one that all Homeric scholars will agree with.

Their interpretation of characters' motivations has much in common with that taken by Roisman in her 1987 TAPA article ("Penelope's Indignation", TAPA 117 pp.59-68) and gives a rather negative view of all the characters in the poem as being motivated purely by self-interest. R&A start well, however, by emphasising the need for us to remember that we do not have the whole body of myth from which the poet was selecting when composing this poem. Although we cannot assume that a variant we find in a later text was known to the poet (a point which is insufficiently felt at some points in the text of the book), neither can we assume the opposite. R&A assume that our poet was picking and choosing from available variants, sometimes innovating, as a crucial part of the process of composition; in order to produce this reading, it is assumed that the audience (whether internal or external) is aware of this process and able to fill in the gaps left by the rhetoric strategy of the narrator (be that the poet or an internal narrator such as Odysseus himself). Given this awareness of alternative versions and the possibility of the narrators' manipulation of the myth, it is disappointing that R&A are not always wholly accurate in their summary of what we know about the myths from sources other than the Odyssey text itself. For example, the assumption of some degree of hostility on Penelope's part towards Odysseus' return to his old position seems backed up by the statement that his behaviour towards her brother is not beyond reproach. This brother is identified with Eurylochus, the most outspoken and critical of Odysseus' crew (pp.87-8, 150-1). But although in the text of the Odyssey, we are told merely that Eurylochus was closely related to Odysseus by marriage, later sources explained this by saying that he was married to Odysseus' sister, Ctimene. I can find no evidence for his being thought of as Penelope's brother, as stated by R&A. (On the topic of Penelope, I should also note that the story of her being saved from drowning by penelops ducks (whatever bird they really are) is found not in the scholia to Aristophanes, but to Pindar Ol. 9.79d and Homer Od. 4.797; also Eustathius on this passage.)

The approach taken by R&A enables them to pass over some of the old vexed problems of Odyssean scholarship, such as the attempts to disentangle different versions of the tale of the encounter with the Cyclops (was it a wooden pole or a metal one? Do we here have the blending of different versions?). While this is understandable, it might seem desirable to make a nod in this direction (merely a reference to Page's Homeric Odyssey would suffice), given an audience possibly unaware of such long-held disputes. Such questions are also interesting as another way of approaching the text from the assumption that there were variant forms in circulation as the text came together. Another problem to which a nod would seem a good move is that of book division: given R&A are dealing with the printed text one can buy in a shop today, the question of when book divisions were introduced is not vital, but when they make comments such as "the Muse begins a new book and introduces a new character" (p.214, on the end of bk.17/ start of 18), it would seem desirable to note, particularly for the "high school and college survey courses" for whom the book is recommended, that these book divisions were almost certainly added several centuries after the text took (roughly) the form it now has. Such points seem more important to note for the general modern audience, used to books with chapters, than for Homeric scholars familiar with the arguments (the idea of a text as long as the Iliad or Odyssey without book divisions could be made very exciting, and does change how we think about such transition points). The question of the authenticity of the "Continuation" is dealt with briefly; here again, reference could have been made to the textual and linguistic problems with the last book and a half which support the argument that it is not "original". Given the desire to deal with the text as we have it, the dismissal of this part of the poem in five pages (and not all of that devoted to the last book and a half) is disappointing. Another place where reference to linguistic features might have been beneficial is in the discussion of forms of address used to Penelope (p.212); although R&A are right to stress the rhetorical aspect of the different forms of address used to and of Penelope, the question of the metrical variation of such formulae could be mentioned briefly also. It seems worth acknowledging that such poetry is constrained to some extent by its formulae, but that we do not yet fully understand the degree of choice operating in each individual example.

The quotation above ("the Muse ...") shows the means by which R&A have tried to get round the problem of authorial identity and intention: we do not hear of Homer, "the poet" or "the text", but "the Muse" or "the narrator". Such a move has advantages, and the problem of unity and authorial identity would be somewhat out of place in this book. There are occasions, however, when "the Muse" appears to be no more that an alternative for saying "the poet", and the question of deliberate choice between variant forms of the myth does presuppose someone making that choice, whether we call that someone the muse or the poet. The narratological stance taken by such a reading of the text, considering it from the point of view of its various narrators and audiences, internal and external, makes it somewhat surprising that no mention is made of Irene de Jong's work in this field on the Iliad, nor of Nancy Felson Rubin's work (even though her book Regarding Penelope (Princeton 1994) was presumably too late to be taken into account, the same cannot be said for her article in Homer: Beyond Oral Poetry ed. Bremmer et al. (Amsterdam 1987)).

Overall, then, although I cannot agree with all the points made in this reading of the Odyssey, this book does provide an interesting look at the poem, and in terms understandable to a wide audience. Given this potentially wide audience, I would have preferred to see some acknowledgement of the issues felt to be of such importance in so much earlier scholarship, if only to give an awareness that the situation of the text, etc. is not as simple as it might appear from this book. The raising of issues relevant to the Greek text need not put off those studying the text in translation if raised in the right way; rather, they introduce issues which such an audience might not think if on their own, and hence deepen their understanding of another culture's approach to its texts. I felt that the book might be felt insufficiently balanced in its treatment of some issues to be recommended wholeheartedly as a sole introduction to the Odyssey; nevertheless, there are some important issues raised in this book which ought to be considered by all Homeric scholars as well as those reading the text as part of a wider literary course.