Book Review: The Odyssey

These days, “sequel” has become synonymous with minimum effort and maximum disappointment. When I learned Homer had written a follow-up to his classic Iliad, I assumed it was a lazy cash-grab—not that I blamed him, you have to make hay while the sun shines. But I lowered my expectations unnecessarily; it turns out The Odyssey is worthy to stand alongside its literary older brother (or another book if you like; how you arrange your bookshelf is up to you).

Almost twenty years have passed since mighty Odysseus, king of Ithaca, set sail to fight in the Trojan War. A group of princes have now made themselves permanent guests in Odysseus’s royal home, devouring his livestock and raiding his wine cellar. They refuse to leave until Queen Penelope, still praying for Odysseus’s return, chooses one of them as her new husband. If that weren’t enough disrespect to the famed warrior, the suitors are also plotting to murder his son, Telemachus, and take his inheritance. Unbeknownst to those greedy fools, Odysseus is not far from home. We learn of the trials the wily king has endured since the destruction of Troy: shipwreck, being held hostage by an amorous nymph, escaping a Cyclops, visiting a witch’s bed and breakfast, descending into the underworld, passing the lure of the Sirens’ song, and more shipwreck. He makes it back to Ithaca, where the goddess Athena disguises him as an old beggar so he can find out who is still loyal to him. Odysseus and Telemachus are reunited, and plot their revenge on the moochers. In typical Homer fashion the final showdown is a bloodbath, before Odysseus, the man of constant sorrow, is restored to his throne, and to peace.

First the bad news: during the opening half of the book it feels like Homer is playing a practical joke. It’s as if he’s trying to see how far you’ll go along for the ride as he makes things more and more ridiculous. Shipwreck—that makes sense. A nymph wants to make Odysseus her husband—I don’t know much about nymphs, so okay. A man-eating Cyclops—hmm, well I suppose this is fiction. An enchantress turns Odysseus’s soldiers into pigs—umm… Then Odysseus goes to the underworld and talks to his dead friends—really? Give me break. Next he’ll sprout wings and fly about shooting magic lasers from his fingertips. Actually, that would have been cool. Maybe that’s the trick with the absurd—you have to go all in.

Now the good news: the second half of The Odyssey is a classic payback story. Father and son are reunited, they plan their attack right under the noses of their foes, and then go on a bad guy-killing spree to make Rambo jealous. Homer hits all the right notes; he understood what George Lucas failed to in Return of the Jedi. Once Luke Skywalker turned Darth Vader back to the good side, the two of them should have inflicted some epic light sabre carnage on the baddies. That’s what we were all waiting for. It would have been so fun. Instead, as soon as Luke and his father patched things up, Vader died and the movie ended (insert Bronx Cheer). Give me The Odyssey any day. Or better yet, The Odyssey with light sabres.

And here’s a tip for maximizing your enjoyment of this book: go on Youtube and look up the theme song to Ulysses 31. It’s an old children’s cartoon inspired by The Odyssey (Ulysses being the Latin translation of the name Odysseus). Before each reading session, put on that song, crank the volume and let the retro electronica inspire you (it works best if you sing along and do karate kicks).

The Odyssey is a grand adventure, with a hero so impressive he was portrayed on film by Sean Bean. That says it all. 7/10



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