The ‘big classics’ from the ancient world have been translated and retranslated countless times into many languages and are thus available to the general readership all over the world. The same ‘big classics’ are normally those texts on which numerous commentaries have been written over the decades and centuries, to the extent that the professional scholar is faced with a virtual embarras de richesses. However, there is a dilemma connected to this: while translations are by way of definition directed at a broad audience, commentaries are for the most part not, because they usually presuppose knowledge of the original language. Moreover, they often abound with technical (viz., philological, narratological, etc.) jargon, which further clouds their accessibility. In other words, commentaries that are written (and digestible) for the general public are rare. With regard to the Homeric epics, however, the situation is fortunately a little brighter: lemmatic commentaries on the Iliad (by Malcolm M. Willcock from 1976) and the Odyssey (by Peter Jones from 1988) that are based on translations (and mostly avoid the discussion of philological details) have existed for a while and have thus made Homeric scholarship accessible to a larger audience.1 Kostas Myrsiades—Professor Emeritus of Comparative and Greek Literature at West Chester University—has now added yet another piece of writing to this genre: his Reading Homer’s Odyssey is a book-by-book commentary on the Odyssey which does not require any knowledge of Ancient Greek but instead relies on the classic 1965 translation by Richmond Lattimore.2 Despite some shortcomings, the overall result is—so much can be said right away—a success, and the book is a great pleasure to read.
Myrsiades’ commentary-monograph is divided into two main parts, following the well-known dual structure of the Odyssey: the first part, on Books 1–12, is entitled “From Ithaca to Wonderland”; the second part, on Books 13–24, “From Wonderland to Ithaca”. Each part comprises three chapters, following the tripartite structure that the author identifies for each main part of the epic: “Telemachus’ Journey (Od. 1–4)” (pp. 3–60), “Odysseus from Calypso to the Phaeacians (Od. 5–8)” (pp. 61–101), and “Odysseus’ Wanderings (Od. 9–12)” (pp. 102–152); “Odysseus and Telemachus at Eumaeus’ Hut (Od. 13–16)” (pp. 155–192), “Odysseus and Telemachus Strategize at the Palace (Od. 17–20)” (pp. 193–239), and, finally, “Revenge, Reunion, and Reconciliation (Od. 21–24)” (pp. 240–276). A brief preface sketches the main story line of the Odyssey as well as the structure of the commentary (pp. ix–xiv), and an afterword offers some thoughts on the reasons for the Odyssey’s longevity to this day (pp. 277–285). At the end of the book we find endnotes (pp. 289–302), a bibliography (pp. 303–339), and an index of names and concepts (pp. 341–346).
In contrast to Jones’ (1988) commentary, which is also based on Lattimore’s translation, Myrsiades does not offer a lemmatic line-by-line commentary, but instead focuses on the macro-structure of the epic, its narrative units, and the way the action is constructed, unfolds, and develops. Thus, reading Myrsiades’ commentary-monograph at times feels like reading a popular, de-jargonized version of Irene de Jong’s highly technical narratological commentary on the Odyssey.3 Occasionally, the author shows a certain tendency towards being a bit loquacious and some summaries of content could (in my opinion) have been shortened. Furthermore, although de-jargonization is, of course, important for a book that is directed at a broader audience, there are instances where the introduction of a terminus technicus, along with a concise explanation, might actually be helpful. For example, I personally think that the terms ‘homodiegetic’ and ‘heterodiegetic’ are indispensable in order to speak about the differences in the narrative voices of the Odyssey in a qualified manner (Myrsiades, by contrast, states at the beginning of the chapter on Book 9 that “Odysseus assumes the bard’s role to recite his adventures in his own words”, p. 102).
Myrsiades’ commentary has two further striking idiosyncrasies. First, the author is very fond of numbers and percentages; he states in the preface that “[p]ercentages of a book’s total size are provided for each [section] to further demonstrate the significance Homer places on various topics and episodes, enabling the reader to evaluate the emphasis given to certain themes and topics (e.g., the Cyclops episode occupies 81% of Od. 9, whereas the Cicones’ and Lotus Eaters’ episodes in the same book occupy 8% and 4%, respectively)” (p. xiii). I have not encountered this practice in any other commentary on the Homeric epics before, but I find it highly useful, as it helps the reader to appreciate and better understand the narrative techniques employed in the Odyssey—which are, to a large extent, based on a constant alteration between compression and extension. Secondly, Myrsiades loves item lists: wherever possible, he interrupts the running text and inserts point-by-point lists. I quote just two examples: in Book 3, Nestor offers a final sacrifice before Telemachus’ departure (Od. 3.421–463); Myrsiades lists seventeen aspects that testify to the “complexity and richness” of the sacrifice (pp. 40–41). At the beginning of Book 7, upon Odysseus’ arrival at the palace of Alcinous and his reaction to it (Od. 7.14–133), eight aspects are enumerated that “[point] to the differences between the semi-divine world of Scheria and the mortal world of Sparta and Ithaca” (p. 82). This practice may be uncommon, but it strikes me as very helpful and reader-friendly. Finally, another reader-friendly feature is the author’s practice of adding a selected bibliography at the end of each section, which enables the reader to further pursue his/her study of a specific Book of the Odysssey in more depth.
In view of the intended readership, which clearly is the non-specialised amateur, it is noteworthy how comprehensive and specialized the bibliography is in parts. In other words, the bibliography constitutes the bridge between the non-specialised and the scholarly reader. Despite its comprehensiveness, it goes without saying that every scholarly reader will necessarily miss one or the other item in the bibliography. I do not wish to bicker about ‘this or that item that is missing’—but I would like to offer a few suggestions of titles which I was surprised not to find. One is Joachim Latacz’s influential monograph Troy and Homer, which is suitable as an introduction to the general reader (despite Latacz’s controversial views on the historicity of the Trojan War).4 Another is Bruno Currie’s Homer’s Allusive Art, which could have added some new perspectives to Myrsiades’ neoanalytic approach to the Homeric epics.5 Finally, Jonas Grethlein’s monograph Die Odyssee: Homer und die Kunst des Erzählens and Thomas Schmitz’ article on ‘tension’ in the Odyssey might have made fine additions, too.6
Much more of a deficit, however, is the absence of a reference list of proper names. Particularly when it comes to personal names and toponyms, the non-specialized reader who approaches the Odyssey for the first time will most certainly be at a complete loss when faced with the plethora of characters and places that are mentioned in the epic. Considering the fact that Myrsiades otherwise shows great awareness of, and interest in, the needs of this type of readership, I cannot understand this neglect.
Aside from this deficit, on the whole Myrsiades has clearly achieved his goal. Reading Homer’s Odyssey is a book that does exactly what it promises: it helps its reader to read (and understand) the Odyssey. It will appeal to a broad readership as well as to scholars and students of Classics and other fields, and it may also be suggested as accompanying reading in Classical Civilization classes or similar courses.7
1. Malcolm M. Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad: Based on the Translation by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1976.—Peter Jones, Homer’s Odyssey: A Commentary based on the English Translation of Richmond Lattimore. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1988.
2. Richmond Lattimore (trans.), The Odyssey of Homer. New York and London: Harper and Row, 1965.
3. Irene J.F. de Jong, A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey. Cambridge: CUP, 2001.
4. Joachim Latacz, Troy and Homer. Towards a solution of an old mystery. Oxford: OUP, 2004. The book was originally written in German; the latest edition is from 2010 (Troia und Homer. Der Weg zur Lösung eines alten Rätsels. 6th revised and enlarged ed. Munich: Koehler & Amelang, 2010).
5. Bruno Currie, Homer’s Allusive Art. Oxford: OUP, 2016.—Myrsiades reveals his neoanalytic approach in the preface (p. x): “The present commentary assumes the Odyssey was written by a single author (named Homer) who might also be the author of the Iliad, or at least one familiar with that epic, and who considered his work a continuation of and a response to the Iliad. The many inconsistencies and lapses throughout the Odyssey further point to a Homer who built his work on previous oral versions of the narrative […].”
6. Jonas Grethlein, Die Odyssee: Homer und die Kunst des Erzählens. Munich: C.H. Beck, 2017 (see my review in BMCR 2017.10.27).—Thomas A. Schmitz, “Ist die Odyssee ‚spannend‘? Anmerkungen zur Erzähltechnik des homerischen Epos”, in: Philologus 138, 1994, 3–23.
7. I would like to thank Zoë Poole for copy-editing this review.