BMCR 1999.10.21

The Odyssey: Structure, Narration and Meaning

Bruce Louden, The Odyssey : structure, narration, and meaning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xviii, 182 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780801860584 $35.95.

Most recent studies on the Odyssey‘s narrative structure have concentrated either upon individual books or on sequences within books of the poem. Bruce Louden in his new book on the Odyssey‘s structure, narration and meaning is the first in years who has tried to cover the whole epic and the result is more than satisfactory. But as Louden points out himself, his study, “though centrally concerned with the form through which the poem presents its rich and complex plot, is not exclusively, or even primarily formalistic” (p. XI). Therefore the book also offers new thoughts on the general interpretation of the Odyssey and the long-discussed theories of authorship and transmission of the poem.

Louden begins in ch. 1 (pp.1-30) with what he calls a “thematic analysis of the structure of the Odyssey” (p. 1), not by concentrating on specific themes or scenes, but by proving the existence of a extended narrative pattern, similar to the ring composition normally to be found in smaller scale Greek poetry, which helps to organize the plot of the epic. The pattern reads as follows: Odysseus, as earlier prophesied, arrives at an island, disoriented and ignorant of his location. A divine helper appears, advising him how to approach a powerful female figure who controls access to the next phase of his homecoming and pointing out potential difficulties regarding a band of young men. His identity kept secret (as approach to the female is perilous), Odysseus reaches her, finding a figure who is initially suspicious, distant or even hostile toward him. She imposes a test on him, whereupon Odysseus, having successfully passed the test, wins her sympathy and help, obtaining access the next phase of his homecoming. Their understanding is made manifest in her hospitable offer of a bath. Furthermore Odysseus is now offered sexual union and/or marriage with the female. However, conflict arises between Odysseus and the band of young men. The young men abuse Odysseus in various ways and violate a divine interdiction. The leader of each band has the parallel name of Eury-; the band’s consequent death, earlier prophesied, is demanded by a wrathful god. A divine consultation limits the extent of the death and destruction.” (p. 2)

This narrative pattern is developed in the poem beside smaller treatments in three different multiforms: Firstly Odysseus’ stay at Aiaia (bks. 9-12: Kirke and the crew), on Skheria (bks. 6-8, 11.333-84, 13.1-187: Nausikaa/Arete and the Phaiakian athletes) and finally on Ithaka (bk. 13.187: Penelope and the suitors). In each sequence different aspects of the narrative pattern are stressed, and Louden also traces the progress of the protagonist Odysseus through the three multiforms.

In ch. 2 (pp. 31-49) Louden then concentrates on the variations of features of the narrative pattern which significantly occur in two, but not in all occasions. Parallels can be found for example in the crew’s descent to the Hades in the Aiaian setting and the slaying of the suitors in the last books of the poem. Not only do both episodes involve death and a descent to the underworld, but also other elements are similar. Common to both episodes is for example the element of abundant daily feasting and excessive wine, during which both the crew’s and the suitors’ death is prophesied, by Teiresias (11.112-113) and Theoklymenos respectively (20.351-57, 364-70).

Also similar are the characters of Elpenor and Leodes, which both exhibit a behavior quite distinct from the other members of their band. Like Elpenor, who is singled out from the other crew members by remarks about his unheroic character (10.552-53), Leodes is the first of the suitors who tries to string Odysseus’ bow. He fails because he also lacks heroic qualities (21.150-51). Both characters do not take part in the group’s most violent actions, their passivity being partly explained by their excessive consumption of alcohol, a characteristic of both the crew and the suitors on the whole. But the most important function of Elpenor and Leodes is their role as mediators: Elpenor is the first crew member to die, likewise Leodes is the last of the suitors to be slain, so that they lead or link the other band members to death and the underworld. Having shown the similarities of both characters Louden can argue convincingly against the theory of Elpeneor being a late addition to the poem.

Ch. 3 (pp.50-68) deals with the characters of Eumaios and Alkinoos who both act not only as a link between Odysseus and the respective powerful females but also as internal audiences in the Odyssey. Odysseus gives them lengthy parallel accounts of his deeds in book 9 and 12.

In contrast to the other hosts depicted in the poem, Eumaios and Alkinoos share certain qualities but are also quite different from each other: the two most central internal audiences are separated by significant class differences. The figure of Eumaios especially could be a hint that our picture of the aristocratic megaron as the typical arena of performance of the Homeric poems should be reconsidered (p. 65)

In ch. 4 (pp. 69-103) Louden tries to resolve the inconsistencies of the three divine wraths in the Odyssey and the coherence of the opening proem, both of which have led commentators to criticism and the assumption of historically separate layers of composition. By looking at them through the lens of the narrative pattern, he points out the centrality of the motif of divine wrath and the necessity of different behavior by the immortals. He argues for the Odyssey belonging to a mythic subgenre in which the anger of a deity because of human impiety results in the survival of the “one just man” (p. 69) to which parallels can be found in other Apocalyptic narratives like the Lot narrative in Genesis 19, the Gilgamesh epic or Hesiod’s account of the Iron Age. By singling out the verb πλάζω as the keyword of divine disfavor in the Odyssey, which occurs for the first time as πλάγθη in the second line of the proem, Louden shows that the verb (and its compounded and nominalized derivatives) is the key term to the understanding of the whole poem. It stands for the antagonism of a god against a mortal, i.e., that of Poseidon against Odysseus. In respect to the narrative pattern the proem selects specific elements of conflict and focuses on the most heroic and ethical issues of the Odyssey.

In ch. 5 (pp.104-129) the extended narrative pattern is applied to the Odyssey’s fifth book, which has given rise to numerous interpretations, in particular about the divine council (5.3-42) and the figure of Kalypso. Louden also sees that there is something unusual present but does not agree with the conclusions drawn by previous criticism: Homeric scholars are to his mind too preoccupied with the similarities of Kalypso and Kirke, and most of them fail to see the differences. In fact Kalypso is not part of the general pattern, but forms an antitype to the female characters of Kirke, Arete, and Penelope.

By analysing Kalypso’s and Kirke’s interactions with Odysseus from Kirke’s point of view as part of the dominant narrative pattern Kalypo’s singularity becomes even more clear. Most important is the fact that Kalypso seems to welcome Odysseus from the beginning; she is neither suspicious nor even hostile, nor does she impose a test on Odysseus. Also she does not offer Odysseus access to the next phase of his homecoming. Her relationship with Odysseus is far more emotional and intimate and all in all she behaves quite differently from the other females. Likewise ch. 5 deals with the function of the second half of the Odyssey’s fifth book in which Odysseus is not only inserted into the narrative pattern but also depicted as a character with self-control and piety. These are the qualities which distinguish him from the bands of young men and help him to survive the gods’ wrath in the end.

The book concludes with results which can be drawn from the skeleton structure to the transmission of the Odyssey‘s text. The stability of the core structure clearly contradicts any large-scale additions or subtractions of episodes, it is also an argument against any interpolations by later hands.

Although the narrative pattern itself cannot prove that the Odyssey has derived from an oral tradition, Louden says, “it strengthens the possibility that the Odyssey is the product of an oral tradition because the pattern’s existence demonstrates that one singer, aided by an underlying narrative pattern, could conceivably improvise in performance a poem of the length and complexity of the Odyssey.” (p. 134)

Less convincing in its effort to place the Odyssey in a broader Apocalyptic context, Louden’s book is in conclusion an important contribution to Homeric scholarship and offers many new insights into the structure of the epic. Although not primarily intended to do so, it should also help scholars as well as students to re-think and re-argue theoretical positions about the poem’s creation.