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The Unknown Odysseus

The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer's Odyssey

Thomas Van Nortwick
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 160
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    The Unknown Odysseus
    Book Description:

    The Unknown Odysseusis a study of how Homer creates two versions of his hero, one who is the triumphant protagonist of the revenge plot and another, more subversive, anonymous figure whose various personae exemplify an entirely different set of assumptions about the world through which each hero moves and about the shape and meaning of human life. Separating the two perspectives allows us to see more clearly how the poem's dual focus can begin to explain some of the notorious difficulties readers have encountered in thinking about theOdyssey. InThe Unknown Odysseus, Thomas Van Nortwick offers the most complete exploration to date of the implications of Odysseus' divided nature, showing how it allows Homer to explore the riddles of human identity in a profound way that is not usually recognized by studies focusing on only one "real" hero in the narrative. This new perspective on the epic enriches the world of the poem in a way that will interest both general readers and classical scholars.

    ". . .an elegant and lucid critical study that is also a good introduction to the poem."---David Quint,London Review of Books

    "Thomas Van Nortwick's eloquently written book will give the neophyte a clear interpretive path through the epic while reminding experienced readers why they should still care about theOdyssey's unresolved interpretive cruces.The Unknown Odysseusis not merely accessible, but a true pleasure to read."---Lillian Doherty, University of Maryland

    "Contributing to an important new perspective on understanding the epic, Thomas Van Nortwick wishes to resist the dominant, even imperial narrative that tries so hard to trick, beguile, and even bully its listeners into accepting the inevitability of Odysseus' heroism."---Victoria Pedrick, Georgetown University

    Thomas Van Nortwick is Nathan A. Greenberg Professor of Classics at Oberlin College and author ofSomewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero's Journey in Ancient Epic(1992) andOedipus: The Meaning of a Masculine Life(1998).

    Jacket art: Head of Odysseus from a sculptural group representing Odysseus killing Polyphemus in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Sperlonga, Italy. Photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

    eISBN: 978-0-472-02521-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. PREFACE (pp. vii-xiv)
  3. Table of Contents (pp. xv-xvi)
    • Chapter One THE HERO EMERGES (pp. 3-23)

      “Odysseus” exists in the minds of modern readers as a finished character: we know all about him. But of course we are seeing the hero from the far end of a long tradition.¹ Any particular realization evolves as part of a larger fictive construct and in that sense exists only within that work. Although Odysseus’ earliest appearance in Western literature is in theIliad,and the portrait in theOdysseycan be understood against the background of that work,² the character we encounter in Homer’s later epic is finally and primarily the creation of that poem.

      The making of Odysseus...

    • Chapter Two ODYSSEUS AT WORK (pp. 24-42)

      Having brought him into being, the poet sends his creation back into the world of time and change, where who he is will always be at issue on more than one level. Odysseus faces death in a physical sense many times, in the sea, in the cave of Polyphemus, amid the suitors. But for our purposes here, it is the other kind of threat to his existence, of beingmade nothingin some way analogous to what he faces with Calypso, that is of particular interest.¹

      Book 6 begins a series of episodes, some lengthy, some brief, culminating in his...

    • Chapter Three SUBVERSIVE ANONYMITY (pp. 45-64)

      Anonymity carries a potent meaning in theOdyssey.To the hero intent on winningkleos,being nameless is the same as being dead. If the time for dying has come, then better always to leave this world in the presence of others, winning fame on the way out, than to disappear anonymously, smothered by some amorphous force. Then, at least, one lives on in heroic song. Yet becausekleoscan not only confer power but also prompt challenges to that power in the intensely competitive heroic world, to control access to one’s own identity can create leverage in a new...

    • Chapter Four CONSTRUCTED LIVES (pp. 65-82)

      Book 13 marks the return of Odysseus to Ithaka and the return of Athena to the story. As she becomes more visible, the goals of the return plot come to the fore. From now on, we will be reminded frequently of the nefarious suitors, gluttonously devouring Odysseus’ goods, of Penelope’s struggle to hold out against their importunities. As Odysseus schemes in book 13 with his divine protector and then in book 16 with his son, we experience all the vicarious pleasures that accompany the revenge plot, cheering for the hero, watching his benighted enemies as they march unknowingly to their...

    • Chapter Five THE WARD OF HERMES: ODYSSEUS AS TRICKSTER (pp. 83-97)

      The story of Odysseus’ naming reveals a telling connection on his mother’s side of the family.¹ As the old nurse washes the beggar’s feet, she comes upon the scar (19.392–98):

      Right away she recognized the scar, a wound made long ago by a boar’s white tusk when he went up Parnassos with Autolycus and his sons; Autolycus, his mother’s worthy father, famed among men for thievery and false oaths. Hermes, the god himself, gave him these skills, delighted by thigh meat of lambs and kids the man burned for him. And the god was his ready partner.

      As the...

    • Chapter Six SLEEPERS AWAKE: THE RETURN OF THE BEGGAR (pp. 98-120)

      TheOdysseybegins with the question: where is Odysseus? As the story unfolds, a second, more difficult quandary surfaces: who is Odysseus? By the time the disguised hero reaches the threshold of his palace, the first mystery seems to have been solved but not the second. Indeed, it appears that the two may be related in ways not obvious at the beginning of the poem and that the first is more then complex than we may have originally supposed. The enduring hold on our imagination, of theOdysseyas a poem and Odysseus as a character, can be traced to...

    • EPILOGUE: WOR(L)DS (pp. 121-126)

      To make one’s way in theOdysseyrequires a good story. Escaping a monster’s cave, angling for a boat ride, earning a meal all depend on creating a world with words. Not surprisingly, the best storyteller in the poem is Odysseus, but many other narrators pass before us: Phemius, “Mentes,” Nestor, Menelaus, Helen, Demodocus, Eumaeus, Theoclymenus, Penelope. Some tell stories about themselves, some about others. Some of their work is presented by the poet of theOdysseyas “true,” some “false,” but the stream of stories is constant. We might say that the most characteristic act in the poem is...

  6. NOTES (pp. 127-134)
  7. REFERENCE LIST (pp. 135-140)
  8. INDEX (pp. 141-144)