Synopsis of Class: September 7, 2000

After going over the discussion we had last class about the reasons why Odysseus may choose to tell the tales he does, I emphasized the structural significance of Homer's grand innovation: having the hero tell his own tale (Books IX-XII). Whereas the oral rhapsode remains faceless, further negated by the claim that s/he serves merely as a vessel or medium through which the Muse speaks, Odysseus forces us to question the motives for what he says because of the fact that he has a rhetorical interest in how his tale will affect the audience he addresses. Whereas the Muse-inspired rhapsode sets the stage for the novel's omniscient (3rd-person) narrator, Odysseus prepares the way for the first-person narrations (and unreliable narrators) of Frankenstein and Heart of Darkness. One could therefore argue that in the Odyssey we have the two main models for all future narration.

We then discussed the various "stories" that Odysseus tells about himself every time he meets someone after returning home to Ithaca and the reasons why he tells the versions of the stories that he does. In particular, we examined his tale to Athena, who is disguised as a shephard, on p. 264 ("I'm a murderer from Crete"); his story to his slave Eumaeus on pp. 279-85 ("My mother was a concubine, I'm a friend of Odysseus' and I was almost sold into slavery twice, once by the Phoenicians"); and the story of the cloak, told to Eumaeus on pp. 288-290 ("When I was a noble warrior, Odysseus got a cloak for me when I was cold"). One should also consider his story to Penelope ("I'm the grandson of Zeus via Minos and I hosted Odysseus when he came to Crete because of a storm"). I also underlined the importance of Penelope's guile (consider, for example, the passage on p. 370) and how she serves as Odysseus' worthy mate.

Finally, I asked the question: "what is an epic?" That question led to an examination of how precisely the Odyssey differs from, say, a Grisham novel like The Firm or a Dickens novel like Great Expectations. The short definition of epic would be something like this: "a long narrative poem about some serious subject told in an elevated or formal style, centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure whose actions affect a large group of people (for example, a tribe or nation)." As Lucy Gellert, Beth Dick, and Stacey Morgan pointed out, however, it's important that the main figure be not only heroic but also human with human faults, particularly hubris. Aisha Peay added that epics are traditionally in verse (which serves as a mnemonic aid and elevates the style of the work to match its elevated subject). Michelle Beauchane explained that they tend also to be episodic, which, as Lilly Ewing, Lane Sanders, and Melissa Young-Spillers pointed out, is a function of the oral dissemination of these stories. Also, Aaron Hause reminded us that, especially in an oral culture, the epic tended to serve an educational as well as entertainment function (after all, without the written word, the epic was the means by which knowledge was passed on from generation to generation); as a result, one finds long descriptions of elements that have little to do with the narrative action, but have much to do with the Greek social fabric (sacrifices, genealogies, boat-building, the tending of swine, bathing rituals, etc.). Some of the other features that distinguish an epic from a Grisham novel include: the invocation to the Muse; beginning the narrative in medias res; epic catalogues; heroic, even superhuman, battles or a long, almost impossible journey; a grand scope (including a vast geography, a large expanse of time, and even scenes outside conventional space [Mount Olympus, Hades]); divine machinery (thanks to Beth Dick and Maria Weir); supernatural creatures, like various monsters; epic games; and a nekuia. There are also a number of stylistic features common in oral epics that serve mnemonic purposes: epithets; epic similes; poetic metaphors; and the repetition of phrases, verses, and even plot elements. The narrative also tends to be episodic, as Brian Schutt reminded us, stringing together a series of adventures that do not have any necessary cause-and-effect relationship to each other, perhaps pointing to the etymological meaning of rhapsode. Indeed, one can even find stories within stories through the embedded narrations. As Aisha Peay pointed out, there is also less suspense than in a novel since the narrative plot is given to you in the first few lines of the book. More important in an oral culture is how well the rhapsode can re-tell the stories everyone already knows. Similarly, there's little sense of character development (epithets, in fact, may add to a character's static nature) unlike the great bildungsroman narratives of the nineteenth-century novel.

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