Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.04

James Morrison, A Companion to Homer's Odyssey.   Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 2003.  Pp. 210.  ISBN 0-313-31854-9.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by David M. Pollio, The College of New Jersey (
Word count: 2269 words

In the tradition of Howard Clarke's The Art of the Odyssey (BCP/BC 1967) and Stephen Tracy's The Story of the Odyssey (Princeton 1990), James Morrison (hereafter M.) has written A Companion to Homer's Odyssey. Like his predecessors, M. offers to the general or first-time reader (ix) a book-by-book commentary on the Odyssey, a discussion of various translations, and suggestions for further reading. Unlike his predecessors, however, M. also intends his book to be read by "high school and college teachers, who are not experts in antiquity or the Greek world, but find themselves confronting questions about mythology, history, and Homer's techniques of storytelling" (xi). As a result of his dual purpose -- and unlike his predecessors -- M. includes a relatively lengthy, yet concise, introduction to various aspects of the poem, such as the epic tradition, mythological background, Homeric morality, as well as the issues that typically fall under the heading of the "Homeric Question"; he also includes appendices that provide lists of major characters, a discussion of the Odyssey's impact on later literature, classroom activities, cinematic treatments of the Odyssey, and websites devoted to Homer. Furthermore, in addition to maps, charts, and illustrations (all of which are absent in Clarke and Tracy), M. includes boxed sidebars connected to his narrative that provide supplemental information on different facets of ancient Greek culture and society, such as geography, colonization, omens, and (many) others. One of the strengths of M.'s text is that he unifies his treatment of individual books by consistently emphasizing the themes that unify the Odyssey: homecoming, hospitality, and identity. All in all, M. offers an engaging treatment of Homer's epic that should benefit his target audiences, as it provides insightful analysis while avoiding (for the most part) simple summary.

M. begins with a tripartite introduction. In the first section, entitled "The Odyssey as Literature," M. treats the poem's mythological background and intricate narrative structure and then tackles the "Homeric Question." He argues, for example, that Homer was an oral poet who "probably never read or wrote" (12) and, to support this assertion, presents three types of evidence: "scenes within the Odyssey, analysis of Homer's style, and comparative studies of twentieth-century oral poets" (12). Following in the footsteps of Lord and Janko (whose work is cited), M. concludes that written versions of the Iliad and Odyssey were commissioned by kings in the eighth century to support the idea of kingship and that the first texts were made by scribes to whom Homer dictated his song. M.'s arguments are well articulated, but because this issue is so controversial and central to our appreciation of Homer's style, I expected M. at least to acknowledge other popular theories.1 In his second section, "Homeric Values," M. defines the main attributes of a hero, which center on "lineage, era, and behavior" (21); for M., "risking one's life in a battle is a defining feature of heroism" (22), but he adds that Odysseus is a different kind of hero, a "tricky hero" (24). He also discusses the code of hospitality that governs human behavior in the Odyssey and notes that Homer does not praise or blame characters in his own voice but allows readers to decide for themselves who acts properly or improperly. The last part of the introduction, "Homer and History," treats the material culture of the Homeric epics and the historicity of the Trojan War. After a brief overview of the Late Bronze Age through the eighth century, M. reviews the archaeological record and concludes: "in many ways then, Homer's poems are an amalgam of past, contemporary, and fictional elements ... to a very large extent, however, what Homer has done is to project his own time into the heroic world" (31).

M. then turns to the poem itself. In addition to observing that Book 1 adumbrates the themes of identity and homecoming, M. examines how Homer uses the divine assembly to introduce the story of Agamemnon, Orestes, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus as an important parallel for Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, and the suitors -- a process that he terms "characterization-by-comparison" (40). He ends by focusing on Athena's impact on Telemachus and by observing that Homer uses this episode to introduce the hospitality theme and its significance: "Homer emphasizes the code of hospitality, which... serves as a touchstone by which we may judge the moral worth of almost every figure in the epic" (42). For Book 2, M. briefly discusses the Ithacan assembly, Penelope's trickery, and the omen of the eagles, which he characterizes as "merely one instance of foreshadowing used to punctuate the stages of Odysseus' return" (47); one could add that the suitors' insensitivity (real or feigned) to the omen reinforces their impiety, which Homer intimates in Book 1. In contrast to the chaos on Ithaca, M. sees the description of Pylos in Book 3 as an example for Telemachus of a house in good order. For Book 4, M. notes that Homer reinforces the themes of hospitality and identity through the figures of Menelaus and Helen, who welcome their guests and recognize Telemachus. He adds that by having the suitors prepare to "welcome" Telemachus with an ambush Homer removes "any doubt the reader may have about the morality of the suitors" (61).

In Book 5, Homer turns his attention to Odysseus and, accordingly, marks this new beginning with a "replay" (64) of the divine assembly from Book 1 to suggest that Telemachus' and Odysseus' activities occur at the same time. M.'s discussion of Book 6 focuses on Nausicaa and Odysseus and, when Odysseus is compared to a lion just before their meeting, comments: "here the point is that hunger and desperation are driving him. Second and more important to this particular situation, the simile has to be something of a joke," since Odysseus is about to face a group of unarmed women, not armed enemies (74). Such an analysis is fine, if we consider the simile only with respect to Odysseus; if, however, we view Odysseus through the eyes of Nausicaa, we could add that the simile also suggests the fear that she and her servants feel upon seeing the brine-encrusted, naked Odysseus. M. notes that Homer creates suspense by anticipating two possible outcomes for Odysseus and Nausicaa: "female benefactor aids hero's return" or "princess marries handsome stranger" (79). For Books 7 and 8, M. emphasizes the unusual qualities of the Phaeacians, such as Arete's prominence and their ambiguous attitude toward strangers. When Odysseus responds to Euryalus' insult in Book 8, M. remarks: "Odysseus' fur is up and now he starts looking for a tussle -- he'll box, wrestle, or race any challenger" (85). M. is certainly correct to highlight the forcefulness of Odysseus' challenge, but, in light of his emphasis on hospitality as a moral compass, he might have mentioned Odysseus' tact in excluding Alcinous' son, Laodamas, from the challenge.

M. notes the retrospective qualities of Books 9-12 and comments on their relationship to the rest of the poem: "the three major themes of identity, homecoming, and hospitality dominate almost every episode in books 9-12; also significant are the role of the surrogate, the possibility of immortality, and a redefinition of heroism" (89). M. sees the struggle between Odysseus and Polyphemus as "a cosmic bout between civilization and a more primitive 'Golden Age' existence" (95). He offers an excellent discussion of the shipbuilder and toolmaker similes that reinforce this civilized/primitive dichotomy. M. largely summarizes the events of Book 10, but does suggest why Odysseus stays with Circe for an entire year: "it's clear that Circe shares with Odysseus a propensity toward trickery. It may well be this affinity for craftiness that entices Odysseus to tarry a bit longer than his men would like" (101). He then compares the structure of Book 11 to that of Books 9, 10, and 12 to demonstrate its complexity and depth. He points out that Book 11 connects with past events, such as Elpenor's death and Polyphemus' curse, as well as future events, such as the episode with Helius' cattle, the situation in Ithaca, the appeasement of Poseidon, and even the death of Odysseus. M. also observes that Odysseus' journey to Hades -- which occurs before his captivity on Ogygia -- makes his refusal of Calypso's offer of immortality in Book 5 even more poignant: "when Odysseus says 'no' to immortality, he knows exactly how he'll end up -- flittering around, squeaking like a bat, thirsty for blood -- and yet he chooses not to become a god" (110). In his discussion of Book 12, M. suggests that Circe's preview of future events creates suspense, allows Homer to narrate the encounters in rapid succession, and affords Odysseus an opportunity to exculpate himself from the death of some of his men.

For Book 13, M. notes that with Odysseus' arrival in Ithaca the themes of identity and hospitality now take center stage. M. dwells on Homer's characterization of Eumaeus in Book 14: in particular, his loyalty towards Odysseus and hatred of the suitors. He points out that Book 15 "begins a series of omens that foreshadow Odysseus' return and vengeance" (127) and suggests that Eumaeus' tale is significant in that "it does establish the bond of suffering between Eumaeus and Odysseus (much like that between Telemachus and Nestor's son, Pisistratus)" (129). Book 16 presents the first of many recognition scenes, and M. notes the complexity of the scene between father and son: there can be no physical token of identity, because Telemachus was just an infant when his father departed for Troy; instead, M. (unconvincingly, in my opinion) suggests that, "Odysseus employs what parents (perhaps especially fathers) have used for generations: he is Telemachus' father, BECAUSE HE SAID SO!" (133). The difficulty is that Odysseus' status as Telemachus' father is precisely what is in doubt for Telemachus. One alternative would have been to consider the effect of Odysseus' mention of Athena, who has been helping Telemachus and who has aided Odysseus in the past (as Telemachus learned from Nestor in Book 3).2

In his discussion of Book 17, M. focuses on the challenges that Odysseus faces in trying to maintain his disguise as he struggles both to resist the impulse to thrash Melanthius and to suppress his pity for the dying Argus. He suggests that Penelope's request to meet with the disguised Odysseus "raises a concern: of all the people who knew Odysseus, Penelope has the best chance of knowing he's her husband" (141). M. is quick to add, however, that Book 18 does not narrate the meeting between Odysseus and Penelope, but reveals that Penelope was instructed to remarry when Telemachus received his first beard: "this increases the urgency for Odysseus to reveal himself to Penelope and to confront the suitors... but it also raises questions about Penelope" (143). M. then weighs Penelope's obvious faithfulness against her ostensible willingness to remarry and suggests that, just as Nausicaa plays two roles, "Penelope appears to be playing both the faithful wife who endures the absence of her husband AND the wife who breaks down and accepts a new spouse. The effect in both cases is dramatic tension, the resolution of which Homer postpones" (146). In Book 19, Homer at last narrates the meeting between Odysseus and Penelope, and M. is sensitive to the psychological intrigue: "much of the suspense of this scene derives from the possibility that Penelope may recognize her husband. Homer has in a sense displaced an actual recognition scene with a 'virtual' one... Penelope does recognize her husband, but it's the husband in this beggar's description, not the husband who sits right before her" (152).

Book 21 sets the stage for the slaughter of the suitors, and M. prepares his readers by discussing the history of Odysseus' bow, the positioning of the axes, and Odysseus' revelation to Eumaeus and Philoetius. On the opening scenes of Book 22, he comments that "Homer begins cinematically" (167) and notes the failure of the suitors to recognize Odysseus. For Book 23, M. emphasizes the similarities between husband and wife and -- after quoting the simile of the shipwrecked sailor in full (23.233-41) -- asserts: "the point is that Penelope... has undergone adventures and endured suffering equal to that of her husband. She, too, is like a shipwrecked survivor -- she, too, is as heroic as Odysseus. These two belong together!" (174). In his discussion of Book 24, M. reflects upon the concept of justice: "the Odyssey contains a primitive sort of justice -- that of retribution and vengeance -- which Poseidon wreaks upon Odysseus for the blinding of his son, Polyphemus, and which Odysseus brings upon the suitors for insulting his honor and his wife. Zeus and Athena may represent a somewhat more developed type of justice in which guest and host honor one another and all bow before the will of the gods" (182).

There are a few incidental mistakes, such as "Athene" for "Athena" (78), "sheptical" for "skeptical" (152), a period instead of a comma after "creature" (155), and "kills" for "kill" (172). Furthermore, (presumably) because the book is written for a non-specialized audience, M. employs a rather informal style of writing, which for the most part contributes to the liveliness of his narrative, but at times seems just a bit heavy-handed. For example, he refers to the journeys of Telemachus as "Telemachus' 'Excellent Adventure'" (47); in discussing the unusual landscape of Scheria (which he compares to California), M. asks, "what's up with all that?" (79); and in connection with Aeolus' (windy) island, he comments: "we're still not in Kansas, Toto" (97). Overall, however, the book is well conceived and should benefit its target audiences.


1.   For example, see Bernard Knox' introduction to Robert Fagles' translation of the Odyssey (Penguin Books 1996) 18-22.
2.   At any rate, this might have been a good opportunity to suggest Sheila Murnaghan's Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey (Princeton 1987) for "Further Reading."

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