Homer’s Narrative Techniques in the Odyssey
By Bee D.
“A week in California is an odyssey for the wine enthusiast.”
“My career path in the academic world has been a real odyssey.”
The basic structure of the Odyssey is so well known, it has become a household word! An odyssey is an adventure with stark episodes taken either in the physical world, or in the intellect. The structure of the original odyssey, Homer’s Odyssey, is almost taken for granted. We experience Odysseus traveling about. He visits the Underworld, Ogygia, Phaeacia, and finally Ithaca. Aren’t these travels, the different locations, structural elements of the Odyssey? Further, in his wanderings Odysseus meets wacky characters like the Cyclops, Caylpso, and Circe and finally he is reunited with his household, his son and wife. Wouldn’t those episodes, which contain interactions with other characters, be considered structural? Of course, the answer is yes to both these questions. But while location and characters are the main structure of the Odyssey, there is a more subtle substructure running through the great poem as well.
This substructure is based on narration. A series of narrative changes and devices serve to reveal the hero gradually through the story. They are memory hooks based on change in narrative. We unquestionably accept these narrative variations because we are in the midst of them. When Odysseus lands on the island of the Cyclops, we are well aware that a new structure has been reached. But not so with the narrative substructure. Because of the flow of story, like music, we may not be able to isolate narrative changes consciously. But whether we are aware of them or not they serve to mark out progress that Odysseus makes not unlike the hero arriving at a new physical destination, or meeting with a new character. These techniques, which alter and play with narrative point of view, give the sense that Odysseus is at first far away, or less real, and then nearer, or more real, to the reader even as the hero travels the world and encounters different characters: gods, strangers, countrymen, and family. When portraying Odysseus his actions and whereabouts, some techniques include the gods talking with each other, the gods talking with men, men talking with men, Odysseus being referred to in the third person by the narrator, and then other story-telling sleights-of-hand. While these narrative techniques represent point of view, they also are dependent on whose point of view, the type of being which is being referred to (the gods or humans), or even various disguises Odysseus famously embraces. Each stage of the poem, as seen through these narrative techniques, serves to gradually unveil Odysseus as a fully realized hero. What is even more interesting, is that the structure of the Odyssey can be then seen in the actual character of Odysseus, not just in the places he goes and the characters he meets. Odysseus himself becomes a structure of the book!
There are four main stages or parts in the Odyssey, when viewed from the narrative-based structure I’m proposing. They are Story Time (Book 1-4), Now Time, Part 1 (Book 5-9), Me Time (Book 9-12), and finally, Now Time, Part 2 (Book 13-24). In this essay, I will show how, through the use of changing narrative devices or point-of-view, Homer creates a substructure underneath the more overt structure of location and characters. In Books 1-4 we hear stories about Odysseus told by the gods and men. In Book 5-8, we are finally introduced to Odysseus himself. Books 9-12 are Odysseus himself telling his own tale. And in Books 13 -24, we watch as Odysseus himself takes action and concludes the story himself, not by telling it, but by acting out the completion of the story.
Book 1-4, Story Time
The first major substructure reveals Odysseus from the most remote point of view. The introduction to the main character begins when gods discuss Odysseus with other gods. In Books 1-4, the gods discuss Odysseus third-hand, which I call “Story Time.” Story Time is when someone, a god or man, tells a story about Odysseus. In the first four Books, although Odysseus is not present, hints are given of Odysseus’ whereabouts and his adventures through beings, the gods or men, in conversation about the great man.
The poem begins with the gods, especially Athena and Zeus, talking about the hero, a very remote way to hear about the protagonist. For example, in Book 1 Zeus speaks: “…how on earth could I forget Odysseus?/ …it’s the Earthshaker, Poseidon, unappeased, forever fuming against him of the Cyclops whose giant eye he blinded…./ he wont quite kill Odysseus- (but he) drives him far off course from native land.” (1.79-95) Athena answers, “Father/ If now it really pleases the blissful gods that wise Odysseus should return-home at last- let us dispatch the guide and giant-killer Hermes down to Ogygia Island…” (1.97-102) The gods are inventions or fantasies of the mind. To say that the gods are telling the story about Odysseus, is to say that Odysseus is far away indeed. He is almost a rumor! How do we really know Odysseus exiss? And even if we allow that the gods are real, or if we believe we are obliged out of respect for the author to consider their claim to some sort of reality, the gods are still substantially different from human characters. From their changeable nature (appearing in different forms, flying all over the earth), we can assume they are more distant than human characters are.
Story Time continues in Book 1, but as mentioned earlier, there is progress made in Homer’s narrative technique of bringing Odysseus from obscurity to reality, even within the four major divisions. The next step within Story Time bringing the reader closer to Odysseus is when gods and men swap stories. For example in the first book, Athena interacts with a man, Telemachus. It’s not just the gods telling stories about our hero, but an actual human character. In Book 1, Athena says, “He won’t be gone long from the native land he loves not even if iron shackles bind your father down. / He’s plotting a way to journey home at last” (1.235-237). Telemachus responds, “Would to god I’d been the son of a happy man / whom old age overtook in the midst of his possessions! / Now, think of the most unlucky mortal ever born — / since you ask me, yes, they say I am his son.” (1. 253-256). Moving from the earlier discussion of Odysseus between the gods to a man interacting with a god is movement toward a more real presentation of the hero. Why? Gods don’t exist! Men do. So a man talking about Odysseus, even if it is with an imaginary god, has more credibility than two gods talking about Odysseus. Odysseus is moving beyond his eclipse.
Story Time continues as Homer further advances the presence of Odysseus when men start talking about Odysseus among themselves. For example, Nestor, Menelaus and Telemachus all discuss details of the man of constant sorrow. It becomes easier to confirm the existence of Odysseus, because they are human eye-witnesses. The gods are not so reliable as suggested earlier, but we can take the word of men with more seriousness: Odysseus exists, and he did stuff, and he is probably doing more stuff! In Book 3, Telemachus says, “Nestor, son of Neleus,…/ We hail from Ithaca…/ I am on the trail of my father(…)/ searching the earth to catch some news of great-hearted King Odysseus, who, they say, fought with you to demolish Troy some years ago.” (3.90-94) Nestor responds, “Nine years we wove a web of disaster for those Trojans/…And no one there could hope to rival Odysseus…/ Your father, yes, if you are in fact his son…” (3.132-137). Book 4 also contains the substructure of Story Time, men talking with men about Odysseus, but this time it’s between Menelaus and Telemachus, and Penelope with her servants and Athena.
Book 5-9, Now Time, Part One
Another narrative technique of the substructure is what I call “Now Time.” Now Time is Odysseus doing anything in the present: crying, talking, being tossed about on the waves. In Book 5, we see Odysseus with our own eyes: “The queenly nymph sough out the great Odysseus— / the commands of Zeus still ringing in her ears— / and found him there on the headland,sitting, still, / weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away / with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home…” ( 5. 165-169). And the man we had only heard about from others, finally speaks, “Passage home? Never. Surely you’re plotting / something else, goddess, urging me- in a raft- / to cross the ocean’s mighty gulfs.” (5. 192-194). Odysseus is sitting and weeping, and even speaking!
Now Time is a major structural element in which Odysseus is more present and more real to the reader, because the reader now is experiencing Odysseus directly. However, Odysseus has been captured by a goddess up until this point. Because the gods are distant and only projections made by humans, Odysseus’ reality is questionable. A hero who is alone with a god, is not as present to the reader as a hero conversing with a man. However, once the man of pain is described by the narrator in actual time, it is progress and represents a structural column in the poem, whether he is with the phony gods or not. Further, Calypso represents languishing stuck-ness and decadence. However, Athena urges the tactician to action and movement which is a significant progression in the poem. And while he still has connection with his pocket goddess, Athena, she is different from Calypso.
Book 6 is another step in the progress of our understanding of Odysseus from fantasy to reality as he has escaped the blurry god-world of Calypso, a fantasy, and he arrives on terra firma: Phaeacia. It’s revealing that he not only seems to rise from the dead, after being buried in leaves, but he rises naked. It’s as if he is born into the real world, and would now confront real people. Further, Odysseus reacts and talks to real people, “Then the thoughtful Odysseus reassured the handmaids, / “Stand where you are, dear girls, a good way off, / so I can rinse the brine from my shoulders now / and rub myself with oil” (6. 240-243).
Odysseus finds his way to the court of Alcinous in Book 7 where he meets and impresses the royal couple. In this Book he is certainly still in Now Time, acting in the present, but his hosts don’t know who he is. They think of him as a stranger, albeit a stranger with majestic bearing. The Queen Arete says, “Stranger, I’ll be the first to question you myself. Who are you? Where do you come from?” The man of craft replies: “What hard labor, queen, to tell you the story of my trouble start to finish.” (7. 272-7). While Odysseus does not reveal who he is, he does tell her the truth of his exploits. In this way, we remember when he was introduced to us, first by the gods, then by real witnesses. Now we get the story from the man himself, but he is anonymous to his hearers at this point, so there is a weakness and a sense of incompleteness to his presence. It’s Now Time (Odysseus is present) and Story Time (a story about Odysseus is being told) but the court of Alcinous doesn’t know who is telling the story, so Odysseus is less fully realized.
He is finally revealed to the court in another clever use of narration. At the feast after the games, Odysseus is there in Now Time, and listens to himself being sung about in Story Time by the court bard about the fall of Troy. The court is thinking of this famous Odysseus, but do not know they are in his presence. This of course touches him, and he begins to cry, which leads his hosts to guess that this stranger was at Troy: “And he sang how troops of Acheans broke from cover, / streaming out of the horse’s hollow flanks to plunder Troy- / he sang how left and right they ravaged the steep city.” “That was the song the famous harper sang / but great Odysseus melted into tears, / running down from his eyes to wet his cheeks (8. 576-579).”
Now Time has two parts. The first Now Time described above is not nearly as potent as the second Now Time which commences at Book 13 when Odysseus is finally in Ithaca and the conclusion of the poem begins. Now Time, Part 1, in Book 6, does indeed portray Odysseus in the present, but the action only serves to transition Odysseus to the next stage of Phaeacia, and Me Time. Like other parts of the poem, when approached from this narrative perspective, there is always a surging forward, and then pulling back, to add to tension. Indeed, we are at last seeing Odysseus with our own eyes for the first time, but he is not acting as he does in other episodes. He is also not with a ship, a crew or treasure. So these four chapters which introduces Now Time, are more transitional, although they do serve to allow the hero to become more visible.
Book 9-12, Me Time
Book 9 wastes no time telling us there is a significant, new narrative structure, one which will dominate the next four books. I call this structure “Me Time.” Me Time is Odysseus telling someone stories about himself. Me time is a combination of Story Time and Now Time, not unlike Books 5-8, when Odysseus is present listening to stories of himself, or even telling stories, when others don’t recognize him. The difference in Book 9-12, is that it is Odysseus telling the tale as Odysseus. He begins the book,“Odysseus, the great teller of tales, launched out on his story…” (9.1) and later Odysseus speaks, “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to the world / for every kind of craft- my fame has reached the skies. / Sunny Ithaca is my home.” (9.21-23). Such a strong beginning to this book clearly tells the reader that the next pillar in the narrative is set in motion.
Books 9- 12 contains the most interesting, exciting and fabled parts of the poem. We had heard rumors of the Cyclops, Circe and Calypso, but they are now confirmed by the man himself. We get the details of these adventures, and these four unique episodes make up the heart of the poem. The episodes are important because they give definition and credibility to his wanderings and his nomadic nature, and show his reasons of being a man of pain. Up until Book 5, the reader had been only hearing about Odysseus and some fragments of his adventures, but now we are seeing Odysseus confirming his adventures with all the excitement of hearing the stories straight from the hero himself. It would be possible to read these as a satisfying stories in themselves. They are so exciting because we have been only getting glimpses of them before now.
As an example of Homer’s story-telling brilliance, there is a delightful twist in Book 11. Odysseus has gotten himself involved in yet another affair with a possessive, eternal spinster, Circe. He regales the court of Alcinous how he went to the underworld to meet with the soothsayer Tireseus, at Circe’s suggestion. The prophet Tireseus predicts the future by warning Odysseus that he should not kill the cattle of Helios. But the device used in Book 11 is remarkable: Odysseus is telling a story about himself (Me Time) to the court of Phaeacia, and then, inside that story, he is being told a story about himself, back to himself by Tireseus (Story Time)! Tireseus prophesies, “at Thrinacia Island, you will find them grazing, / herds and fat flocks, the cattle of Helios, / god of the sun, who sees all, hears all things…./ and you will find a world of pain at home…/No doubt you will pay them back in blood…!” (11. 121-135). This detail may be missed by most readers. We have experienced characters talking about Odysseus for the first eight Books, so it’s not a surprise to hear another one. The uniqueness of this use of narrative is that it is a story inside a story, or for our purposes, Story time inside Me Time When viewed in terms of narrative structure explained above, it’s a marvel of story telling virtuosity.
Book 13-24, Now Time, Part 2
Now Time, Part 2, is different than Now Time, Part 1, in that Odysseus picks up where his adventure leaves off. Just like in Book 9, a clear narrative change occurs in the first line of Book 13: “His tale was over now.” Me Time, Odysseus talking about himself, is over. Now Time, Part 2, the final major narrative structure, begins. Recall, Now Time is Odysseus being described directly by the narrator, what he is doing or saying. However, Book 13 is a transitional one like Book 5. We see Odysseus in the moment, but he is sleeping, and later he is in disguise. Homer again takes steps forward in the way he presents Odysseus but pulls back with these softening details like sleep and disguise.
Like Book 6, the beginning of his stay in Phaeacia, Odysseus is asleep in Book 13 and wakes up alone and disoriented. The difference here for the reader is there are no more stories to fill in. There is only the present. So far, the reader has learned about Odysseus through stairs told by the gods, then real men. Then Odysseus is revealed in person and he talks about himself in the past. And Odysseus is poised to make new stories, to finish the tale himself, as we watch, but he is asleep. Homer is slowly leading us to a more fully realized hero, by starting the most action-packed structure of the narrative, with Odysseus unconscious. Part 2 of Now Time has the feel of the continuation, and of course, the conclusion of his journey. While he does tell stories (Me Time) in Books 13 to 24, they serve the action of the story, they don’t serve to recapitulate his previous adventures. Further, Now Time Part 2, or Books 13-24, has Odysseus now making the story, rather than telling it. Instead of us hearing his story from the gods or men, we are watching the story of Odysseus ourselves!
Now Time, Part 2 continues. In Book 14. Odysseus is himself for sure, acting fully in Now Time, but, as in Book 6 and 7, he is not recognized. The difference here is that he should be recognized. This is his family and household. The disguise, while allowing the true feelings of his family and countryman to be revealed, also gives the reader another mile-marker in the story. Not only is Odysseus in Ithaca, but he is known in a new narrative fashion: we know the hero is present, but he is disguised. Since he is disguised his actions are not known as that of Odysseus by his family or countrymen, or the suitors. So he is not quite fully realized as himself yet.
Book 16 also begins another unique narrative twist that advances the hero toward realization. Telemachus discovers that his father is the stranger, Odysseus: “Telemachus… No other Odysseus will ever return to you. That man and I are one, the man you see here”(16. 228). That Telechamus knows who Odysseus is, but others don’t, is yet another narrative viewpoint. It’s true, gods have remarked about and interacted with Odysseus. And in Book 5, Odysseus finally interacts with human characters. But this time is different in that not only are real people recognizing and interacting with him, but it is his son who knows him. It’s only in Book 19 that another character, the old retainer, Eurycleia is let in on the secret.
Like Book 9, in Book 22, Homer seems to be highlighting a new narrative structure, the most poignant and exciting in the poem. His first words in the Book are “Now stripping back his (disguise).” The stripping of his disguise is made that much more powerful after the first four books of the poem we hear stories about Odysseus. Then, in Book 5 we finally see Odysseus and hear about him acting. After hearing Odysseus’ story from his own mouth in Book 9, Odysseus is finally an actor in the completion of the poem in Book 13, but he is muted with sleep and disguise. So it is all the more exciting when he strips off his disguise in Book 22. This is the apex of the story. It’s not accidental that he “strips off his disguise”. He could have just started shooting arrows and laughing, but Homer has Odysseus reveal himself completely to the reader. Compare this to Phaeacia in Book 9 during Me Time. Odysseus is revealed, but he doesn’t really act in the advancement of the story— he talks. Now, he adds to the narrative himself, by acting. All these narrative devices over twenty books serve this point in the poem. It would not be as exciting and satisfying if there had not been a struggle for the reader to get to see the real Odysseus from Book 1.
However, Homer again pulls back, or regresses his revelation of Odysseus to prolong and balance the ending by reverting to Odysseus in disguise again. Penelope, in a way, puts her own veil over Odysseus, to continue the “Odysseus-but-in- disguise” device. She must test him herself, not being fully convinced he is her husband. In this way, Homer puts a disguise back on Odysseus. Killing the Suitors is not the only goal of Odysseus, although it’s the most exciting part. He must still reunite with his wife. So by putting the disguise back on the hero, Homer ratchets up the tension once again.. We are given a little bit of buffer before Odysseus completes his mission, reuniting with his wife. Penelope says, “Strange man…I’m not so proud, so scornful nor am I overwhelmed by your quick change You look-how well I know- the way he looked” (23. 193).” By donning a disguise again, after the main action is over, the reader is eased into accepting the story is ending. Her acceptance of his true identity and their marital reunion in the olive tree bed is the two steps forward toward the end of the poem, after having taken a step back during Penelope’s test. Book 24 reverts to a more distant, disguised Odysseus too with his father, Laertes, one last hidden view of the hero before the poem ends.
By viewing the structure of the Odyssey in light of narration, we can see how Odysseus is brought from obscurity, even rumor, to a real hero. To reinforce the legitimacy of this structural interpretation, one can look at the comments of his family. Telemachus is not completely sure Odysseus exists and says only that others have told him that Odysseus is his father. Penelope wonders if Odysseus is just a dream. By including these questions about the very existence of Odysseus, Homer is showing us that the hero needs to move from story to real man and even hero. Homer achieves this through narrative variety and innovation.