Surprised by The Odyssey

Bibliophilist Society, C.S. Lewis, Classic Books and Ideas

Lyssa Henry

Homer’s The Odyssey is a classic and well-loved novel by many, including the man himself, C.S. Lewis. The majority of the story is told by the main character, Odysseus, as he remembers his twenty-year journey home after the Trojan War. Odysseus had many fantastical challenges and obstacles that set back his return many years later than it was intended, and resulted in the eventual deaths of every other person he was traveling with. This novel is the sequel to The Iliad, which tells of what happened during the Trojan War. While Odysseus is telling the story of his journey in The Odyssey, his son Telemachus is gathering his own information, trying to find out where his father could be, if he was even still alive. C.S. Lewis read the Odyssey until “the music of the thing and the clear, bitter brightness that lives in almost every formula had become part of [him].” The wonder and utter difference of the story affected a mind as bright as Lewis’, which is a task not easily accomplished, as his mind was more refined than most. If there was any one person whose enjoyment of something could warrant an award, that person would be C.S. Lewis.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus was forced to do some insane things, like escape a cyclops, get away from cannibals, and get through a quarrel with none other than the god of the sea, Poseidon. Poseidon hated Odysseus because the cyclops, Polyphemus, that Odysseus had gotten away from was Poseidon’s son. The escape from the cyclops was violent and suave at the same time, Odysseus blinded Polyphemus with a wooden stake, and then escaped clinging to the underside of the sheep that Polyphemus let outside to graze. Odysseus would have gotten away with it without provoking the wrath of a god if he had not given the cyclops his name, but due to that, Poseidon cursed Odysseus to wander the sea for ten years.

The cannibals, known as the Laestrygonians, seemed friendly enough at first. Odysseus and his men stopped at the Laestrygonians’ Island, and Odysseus sent some of his men to find someone to help them. On land, they had just found a path used for wagons that they could follow, when the King’s daughter told them where to find the King. As soon as the King came out to meet them, however, he “promptly made his murderous intentions clear, pouncing on one of my men to eat him for supper.” The men quickly ran back to the ships, but they were followed by hundreds of Laestrygonians, and only Odysseus’ ship made it out of the harbor. This event had the rest of Odysseus’ ship grieving for a very long time, but Odysseus knew that they could not give up from that, saying,

“My friends,” I said, “we may be miserable, but we are not going down to the house of Hades yet, not till our time has come. Get up, and while there’s food and drink on board, let us have something to eat instead of dying here of starvation.”

Odysseus was the only thing keeping his men going, which shows why he was the only one that survived in the end.

After being gone so long, by the time Odysseus finally got back home, most people were just assuming that he had died on the way back from Troy. Knowing this would be the case, he disguised himself and went to find out what the state of his home was at that point. The house was filled with suitors for his Odysseus’ wife, eating and drinking the family wealth away, and his wife had still not accepted any of them. His wife, Penelope, finally decided to have a competition for her hand, having each suitor attempt to shoot an arrow through a series of rings, using Odysseus’ bow. She used this because she knew that no one would be capable of pulling back the bowstring, and she was very set on none of the suitors being successful, which was evident in times such as this,

As she finished, Telemachus gave a loud sneeze, and the startling noise echoed round the house. Penelope laughed, turned to Eumaeus and said in words that flew: ‘Go and bring this stranger here to me. Didn’t you notice that my son sneezed a blessing on all I had said? May this mean that death is inevitable for all the Suitors! Not a man can escape his doom. One more point, and don’t forget it. If, when I hear him tell his own story, I consider he is telling nothing but the truth, I will give him a fine new cloak and tunic.’

Unbeknownst to Penelope, this stranger was her husband. When it was nearly over, Odysseus took a turn at the competition and, naturally, as it was his own bow, shot the arrow straight through the rings effortlessly, winning back his wife. She had to be convinced of his identity through personal questions, but the family had finally come back together again. All of the family but the dog, who, being a puppy when Odysseus left to fight the Trojan War, died from excitement at first sight of him, even in disguise:

‘His master has died far away from home and the women are too thoughtless to look after him. Servants, when their masters are no longer there to order them about, have little will to do their duties as they should. All-seeing Zeus takes half the good out of a man on the day he becomes a slave.’ With this Eumaeus left him, and, entering the stately palace, passed straight into the hall where the haughty Suitors were assembled. As for Argus, the black hand of Death descended on him the moment he caught sight of Odysseus – after twenty years.

With everyone back together, the story ended. The suitors had all left or been killed, the servants who had betrayed Odysseus in his absence had been killed, and everyone being unfaithful had also been killed, but Ithaca would finally have peace now that its ruler had returned.

At this, C.S. Lewis would put the book down and pick up another one, waiting to be filled with the same wonder brought on by the fantastical journeys of Odysseus.