Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.58

Deborah Steiner (ed.), Homer: Odyssey. Books XVII-XVIII. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. $34.99 (pb).  ISBN 9780521677110.  

Reviewed by Barry Spence, University of Massachusetts Amherst (

It is twenty years since the Oxford University Press published a three-volume English revised edition of Omero: Odissea, the six-volume commentary in Italian commissioned by the Fondazione Lorenzo Valla and brought out by Mondadori. That comprehensive commentary still stands both the intermediate and the advanced student of Homer in good stead, as does, indeed, W. B. Stanford’s commentary of 1964. But so much important new work on the Odyssey has appeared since, especially with respect to Penelope’s agency and motivations, that Deborah Steiner’s thorough and insightful Odyssey Books XVII and XVIII is welcome indeed.

Steiner’s commentary takes its place beside R.B. Rutherford’s commentary on Books XIX and XX (1992) and A. F. Garvie’s on Books VI-VIII (1994) as one of the monographs of the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series dedicated to the Odyssey. It manages to function simultaneously as an accessible guide for recently minted intermediate Greek students, and as an engaging and judicious reexamination of two of the Odyssey’s less studied books as well as of the extensive scholarship that attends them. Steiner’s formidable but unobtrusive fluency with the secondary material and her even-handed attention to the proliferating range of scholarly approaches to the Homeric text could stand as a model for how to fashion a commentary. She demands considerable sophistication of her readers: where Garvie’s supporting bibliography runs to six pages, and Rutherford’s to four, Steiner’s is a full fifteen pages. Far from encumbering students with repetitious discussions of familiar problems, these fifteen pages offer guidance to innovative approaches from such innervating disciplines as cognitive science and narratology.

Having said this, I should immediately emphasize that Steiner’s general approach, which is expressly in keeping with Rutherford’s and Garvie’s, and with the driving rationale of the Cambridge series as a whole, is to treat the Odyssean text from a “literary or stylistic and structural” perspective, instead of bearing down on the “strictly technical aspects of the poem” (ix). This approach affords access to the intermediate student of Greek even as it illuminates the obstinate interpretative conundrums one encounters in these two books of the nostos. Most importantly, Steiner’s finely grounded and nuanced reading resolves the seeming inconsistency between Homer’s undeviating depiction of Penelope as a model of “virtue and marital fidelity” and the problem that “begins in book 18, where Penelope declares (following Athena’s prompt) her intention of showing herself before the suitors; [and] when displayed before them…announces her willingness to remarry and to be won with gifts” (27). With a nod to historical efforts at resolution, in particular the Analyst approach of seeing the passage as interpolated, Steiner contextualizes her reading within a contemporary understanding of the strategy of “narrative indeterminacy” (28). Penelope’s alternation between “eagerness and caution,” as well as the inclusion in the narrative of other wife models—will she prove another Clytemnestra? Or another Helen?—corresponds to the “poet’s complex narrative design,” in which the audience is kept in a state of doubt as to the familiar tale’s resolution (28). This balanced reading gives us an up-to-date Penelope viewed as difficult to interpret because of her complex and ambiguous “focal position” (25). Steiner frees her from earlier readings that indict her for fickleness and irrationality. She recognizes Penelope’s powers of agency, consequently clearing her of the charge leveled by some contemporary interpretations that argue she is but “an unconscious puppet” (25). Penelope’s capacity for autonomy is situated within the various constraints of familial and social duty inherent in her roles as wife (and potential widow), mother, and daughter. Steiner’s reading highlights the circumscribing dynamics of the οἶκος, while at the same time acknowledging the fact that the “poet deprives his heroine of the information necessary to know how to act” (28), an exclusion held in narrative relief by the web of machinations on-going between Odysseus, Athena and Telemachus. According to Steiner, Homer is able to portray Penelope as “intuitively responding to the cues that Odysseus and his advent supply (part of the almost magical ‘like-mindedness’ of this marital pair)” (27), and these then motivate her to leave off mourning and to engage her own initiative. Furthermore, Steiner includes in her reading “the archetypal story of the maiden on the brink of marriage” as a fundamental dimension of the Penelopeia (28).

Steiner’s focus on Penelope emerges in her Introduction. The Introduction itself is divided into five parts: 1) Homer and his poetic medium; 2) Books 17 and 18 within the Odyssey; 3) Transmission; 4) The text; 5) Homeric metre. The first and second parts occupy the bulk of the Introduction and are further subdivided. Part one consists of: (a) The Iliad and Odyssey; (b) Oral composition, the Kunstsprache and formulas; (c) Modifications and challenges; (d) Audience and setting. Part two is subdivided into: (a) Books 17 and 18 and the structure of the Odyssey; and (b) The thematic concerns of books 17 and 18, which is further subdivided into: (i) Hospitality, theoxeny, and the ethical problems of Odysseus’ revenge; (ii) Disguise, impersonation and fiction; (iii) Abuse, genre and ideology; (iv) Penelope; (v) Telemachus; (vi) The οἶκος. Steiner does not include an overview of Homeric grammar, but this observation does not constitute a substantial criticism. The Commentary regularly accounts for morphological and syntactical peculiarities, and her introductory discussion of the Homeric Kunstsprache incorporates a description of the hybrid nature of the poem’s language, with details and examples of the differences between Aeolic and Ionic word-forms. The Introduction as a whole offers a balanced selection of topics indicative of the most salient themes and structural features of these two books and considers these books in relation to the rest of the Odyssey. In particular, the six subchapters of part 2.b are rich with thematic insights and together form a powerful lens for exploring these books’ complexity.

The Greek text that follows the introduction relies on the editions of Allen (Oxford, 1919), Von der Mühll (Basel 1946), Russo (Rome 1985) and van Thiel (Hildesheim 1993) (36). The apparatus is considerably simplified and “generally notes major areas of divergence between the readings in standard editions” (36). The Commentary proper occupies one hundred and forty-five of the volume’s two hundred and forty-two pages. The vast majority of lines of the Greek text of both books receive an entry. The Commentary is distinctive for its generally expansive attention to the range of thematic, structural, narratological, self-referential, cultural, and philological issues occurring in the text. There are a judiciously moderate number of citations of relevant scholarship and Steiner is conscientious in her inclusion of points of view that diverge from her own. The entries are substantially informative and engaging, due to the fact that Steiner does not stint on exegesis. For example, the entry for the recognition scene between Odysseus and his dog Argus (17.291-327) is an extended five-part examination of how the scene functions within the epic, in effect forming a micro-essay (116-18). The Commentary is followed by the Bibliography, and the volume closes with “Subjects” and “Greek words” Indexes.

In discussing the rationale behind the selection of these books, Steiner foregrounds the particular and singular richness of the Odyssey’s Books 17 and 18. Citing on one hand the “burlesque comedy” of the pugilistic scene between Odysseus πτωχός and Irus town parasite, and on the other hand the epiphanic pathos of Argus’ recognition of his twenty-year absent master and his subsequent release from the indignities of neglect, Steiner emphasizes these books’ extraordinary “diversity and tonal range” (ix). Connected to this great variety are the “virtuosic displays” of Odysseus’ unending resourcefulness in disguise and role-playing, his prodigious fluency in the spinning of intricate lying tales, and his deployment of verbal irony in the face of his unrelenting antagonists. Steiner thus itemizes the aspects that make these two books deserving of a full commentary. Not only do these books articulate “the theodicy that in part shapes the hero’s revenge,” they also (as noted above) showcase “the contrary impulses and motives that will inform Penelope’s future conduct” (ix). Steiner’s diagnosis of the thematic and narrative importance of these arguably less dwelt on Odyssean books—an analysis that pays special attention to the ideological, ethical, and generic dimensions which they bring to the poem as a whole—amply justify her choice of books.

Steiner’s scholarship incorporates the most important recently developed critical frameworks. In addition to attending to narrative indeterminacy (here she cites the work of M. A. Katz and N. Felson-Rubin) and to the various narratological strategies shaping the action (here she references primarily the work of I. de Jong), Steiner considers how the poet of the Odyssey makes glancing use of alternative versions of Odysseus’ travails and wanderings in order to deepen, vitalize, and bring to prominence the poet’s own narrative innovations. These vestiges of alternate realities often make their appearance in Odysseus’ lying tales. She persistently singles out textual instances where the poet appears to “revisit and even revise Iliadic material.” She discusses as one possible reworking the correspondence between Irus’ verbal abuse of Odysseus and Thersites’ vilification of Agamemnon in Book II of the Iliad. Or, to cite an example involving the important cultural institution of ξενία, Steiner discusses how the “extensive divine intervention on the side of morality and justice” in the Odyssey constitutes a striking renovation of divine behavior as depicted in the Iliad (20). Steiner’s assessment of the dialogue with the Iliad in these two books is explicitly predicated on the “one point [which] remains undisputed: as philologists, archaeologists and historians have shown, the Odyssey we possess postdates the Iliad” (2). Her interpretative assessments incorporate as well an ongoing examination of “the poem’s ideological orientation and the social, political and religious context that it assumes” (x). In her introductory discussion of oral composition she finds room for the Neo-Analytic notion of “sampling” (citing the work of R. Martin), the concept of “traditional referentiality” propounded by J. M. Foley, and the cognitive take on traditional oral poetry as a form of “special speech” (citing the work of E. Bakker). Steiner deepens our reading of the initial confrontational encounter between Odysseus and the churlish goatherd Melanthius (17.182-260) by attuning us to the passage’s spatial signifiers. She uses Elizabeth Minchin’s recent work with cognitive mapping to suggest the visualizing function of the syntactical deployment of spatial indicators (ἀμφί, ὑψόθεν, ἐφύπερθε) as a mnemonic device for facilitating oral composition (103). In short, the commentary is richly but judiciously inflected with fresh critical perspectives.

Steiner is sensitive as well to the dynamics of self-reflexivity—the poet’s meta-discourse on “his own art and modes of composition”—that come pervasively but subtly into play in these two books. She views Odysseus’ lying tales and role-playing as one of a number of manifestations of this dimension of the poem. In a similar vein, she offers a perspicacious and extended note on Homer’s repeated (fifteen times) but curiously exclusive use of apostrophe (it is confined to the swineherd in the Odyssey, and to Menelaus and Patroclus in the Iliad). The narrator’s addresses to Eumaeus (προσέφης, Εὔμαιε συβῶτα) illustrate the “poet’s striking departure from his more usual practice of hiding his presence” (113-114). Steiner’s reading of this complex self-reflexive structural aspect of the poem, as seen through the lens of these pivotal books of the nostos, is exceptionally suggestive, not least because she does not overstate the case.

In conclusion I observe that Steiner’s Introduction could be read with benefit by anyone interested in the Odyssey, not just by Greek students who are translating these particular books. Its broad but detailed discussion recommends it as a succinct and up-to-date summary of many of the thematic, narratological, structural, linguistic and ideological issues at play in Homeric epic. Steiner’s monograph as a whole brings a focused application of recent approaches in Homeric scholarship and is a welcome potent resource for close reading.

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