WRITING TIPS FROM HOMER: THE ODYSSEY – BOOKS 1-8

A penguin with a past

A penguin with a past. Also a bronze relief of Odysseus in the Department of Antiquities, Berlin.

I’ve been re-reading Homer’s Odyssey. The last time I read it I was sixteen and I can’t remember much about it other than the fact I wasn’t that thrilled. But those Penguin Classics have the knack of hanging around waiting until you’re ready for them. There it was in all it’s bath-soaked, wrinkled glory on my shelf and I thought I’d give it another go. What tips can be gleaned from this 3000 year old great grand-daddy of the novel? So far I’ve read the first eight books (chapters):

  • Basic plot – Odysseus is trying to get home after the Trojan War but the god Poseidon hates him so he’s been trapped on the island of Ogygia by Calypso who wants to marry him. In Ithaca his wife Penelope and son Telemachus do not know if he is alive or dead. Penelope is beset with suitors who are eating her and Telemachus out of house and home;
  • Pace – God, it doesn’t half crack along. It’s an absolutely rip-roaring yarn;
  • Emotion – It’s much more emotional than I remember. There’s a lot of crying. Telemachus, Penelope, Odysseus, all absolute sobbers but unlike in Hollyoaks they usually pull up their purple gowns and cover their faces when they do it, even if their tears are rolling down to the ground;
  • Sex – Odysseus is forced to have sex with Calypso every night. This however does not make him happy. Even though she has ‘lovely locks’ he sits on the beach during the day crying for his homeland;
  • Main Theme – Home. What it means to Odysseus and how he overcomes the obstacles to get back there;
  • Love story – Athene, the goddess, absolutely adores Odysseus. We could all do with her in our lives. She goes to Telemachus and tells him to go looking for his father; when she’s worried for Odysseus’ safety she throws a mist round him; when she wants him to look his best she makes him look like a god.  Yes, we could all do with  Athene on our side especially on the morning after the night before;
  • Baddies – the suitors who are eating Penelope and Telemachus out of house and home by slaughtering their cattle and drinking their wine and generally behaving like hooligans while they wait for Penelope to decide which one of them to marry. Poseidon who really does not like Odysseus at all. Also the Cyclops is coming up in the next chapter along with other monsters;
  • Structure – a nice bit of juxtaposing present and past or time-slip in modern parlance which is very fashionable. Homer’s agent would be pleased;
  • The Gods – frankly, they’re terrible drama queens. Shakespeare wrote in King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.’ There’s a fair bit of fly squashing. Poseidon, for example, hates Odysseus. Poseidon is Zeus’s brother and Athene’s uncle so that’s all nicely complicated. The Gods have their own soap opera going on to match that of the mere mortals;
  • Food – well, there’s enough feasting to satisfy fans of Jamie, Nigella, Nigel, Mary Berry, The Great British Bake Off and sweary Gordon;
  • The Sea – there’s a lot of it and a lot about it. It’s ‘wine-dark’ (don’t ask) and ‘fish-infested’ and the ships on it are always black;
  • Epithets – these are fun: Athene, of the flashing eyes;  Nausicaa of the white arms, Dawn is usually decked in crimson or rosy-fingered; Odysseus is much enduring and nimble-witted and Menelaus has red hair. Not brown or black or blond, red hair. Definitely red;
  • Setting the Scene – he’s very good at it. There are fantastic descriptions of Calypso’s cave and also the palace of King Alcinous.

Finally my favourite bit so far. Odysseus is in the sea off the coast of Scherie, the land of the Phaeacians. A huge wave has washed him towards the rocks. He clings onto one and then is caught in the back wash, torn from the rock and carried back out to sea:

‘…pieces of skin stripped from his sturdy hands were left sticking to the crags thick as the pebbles that stick to the suckers of a squid when he is torn from his hole…’

There’s also a rather touching description of Phaeacian ships:

‘For the Phaeacians have no steersmen, nor steering oars such as other crafts possess. Our ships know by instinct what their crews are thinking and propose to do. They know every city, every fertile land, and hidden in mist and cloud they make their swift passage over the sea’s immensities with no fear of damage and no thought of wreck.’

Now that is exactly the sort of ship I’d like to travel in. Next week Book IX: The Cyclops! A book which should be titled: What happens if you steal a one-eyed giant’s cheese. Tip – look away now.

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2 thoughts on “WRITING TIPS FROM HOMER: THE ODYSSEY – BOOKS 1-8

  1. I was just at a writing masterclass and we were told that The Odyssey is basically the blueprint of all good fiction. As one of those who looked at it on the bookshelf but never picked it up, I’m getting the message loud and clear – read this book! So thanks, Vicky, for the extra prompt!

    Liked by 2 people

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