Homer's The Odyssey

Homer's The Odyssey

by Leland Ryken

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We’ve all heard about the classics and assume they’re great. Some of us have even read them on our own. But for those of us who remain a bit intimidated or simply want to get more out of our reading, Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics are here to help.

In these short guidebooks, popular professor, author, and literary expert Leland Ryken takes you through some of the greatest literature in history while answering your questions along the way.

Each book:

  • Includes an introduction to the author and work
  • Explains the cultural context
  • Incorporates published criticism
  • Contains discussion questions at the end of each unit of the text
  • Defines key literary terms
  • Lists resources for further study
  • Evaluates the classic text from a Christian worldview

This particular guide opens up Homer’s Odyssey and highlights the universal themes of endurance and longing for rest as displayed in this epic tale of a man trying to find his way home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433526190
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 02/28/2013
Series: Christian Guides to the Classics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 80
File size: 592 KB

About the Author

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Word of God in English and A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

Read an Excerpt



What Went on in the House of Odysseus

Plot Summary

Every story begins with exposition, and so does The Odyssey. Homer begins by reenacting the epic ritual of invoking the muse and stating the epic theme (that is, story material). The action then begins with an epic council of the gods in which the gods and goddesses decide what to do in human affairs. As we listen to the deliberations, we get the background information that we need for the story to follow.

The divine council in Book 1 of The Odyssey is occasioned by the sorry situation of the epic hero. Odysseus has been held captive on the island of the goddess Calypso for seven years. Meanwhile, Penelope, wife of Odysseus, is besieged by suitors who want her to declare her husband dead and marry one of them. The decision reached by the council involves a twofold action: (1) Athena (goddess of wisdom) is assigned to go to Odysseus's home in Ithaca and nudge Odysseus's son Telemachos to go on a journey in search of his father; (2) Hermes, messenger of the gods in classical mythology, is dispatched to the island of Calypso to announce the verdict of the gods that Calypso must let Odysseus depart.

The titles for the successive books of The Odyssey are additions to Homer's text supplied by editors or translators. Some translations do not supply titles. The titles used in this guide are from the Rouse translation. Examples of what other translations provide for Book 1 are "Trouble at Home" and "Athene Visits Telemachus." It is also helpful to know that various translators spell some of the Greek names differently.

All formal public events begin with ritual. The more formal the occasion, the more abundant is the ritual that accompanies it. Homer's opening invocation to the muse (goddess of inspiration) is a ritual event — the expected way for an epic poet to begin his performance. We can profitably compare this formal ritual with the ritual beginning of an important ballgame or a wedding that uses the Anglican marriage ceremony. A sense of formality and importance accompany all such rituals, including the invocation to the muse at the beginning of an epic.


Everything in this packed opening book is important, starting with the invocation (which is our entry into the story). Even the detail that this is the story of a man is important, since epics always focus on universal human experience. When this particular epic hero is said to be "never at a loss" (or something equivalent, depending on the translation), we are alerted to Odysseus's two leading traits — his cleverness and his resourcefulness in mastering every obstacle. When Odysseus is said to have traveled far, we know that we have embarked on a travel story — such a famous travel story that the word odyssey has become a synonym for a journey of discovery. Other motifs to unpack in the opening invocation are the ideas of enduring hardships (so extreme that all of Odysseus's sailing companions have died), and home as the object of highest devotion.

So many details pass before us in this opening book that the effect resembles an ever-changing kaleidoscope. One way to organize the material is to be aware that The Odyssey as a whole synthesizes five story lines: (1) the story of Telemachos's coming of age (being initiated into adulthood); (2) the story of Penelope and the suitors; (3) the story of Odysseus's wanderings; (4) the story of the gods (including their "family" squabbles); (5) the story of Odysseus's homecoming and revenge. As the kaleidoscope turns during our trek through Book 1, we can find references to all five threads of action.

Another way to make sense of Book 1 is to operate on the premise that Homer intends to begin by placing before us the goal of the quest that underlies the story as a whole. Exactly what is it that propels Odysseus to endure ten years of ordeals? Book 1 answers that question by picturing three things — a wife, a son, and a kingdom. Homer manages the description of these things in such a way as to assure us that they are (a) things of great value and (b) things in great danger. The world of The Odyssey is consistently portrayed as a world in crisis (itself an epic convention). In Book 1 we are made to feel what Odysseus's absence from his kingdom means.

Finally, this book of exposition introduces us to the main characters of the story, and their essential nature is laid out for us to view — faithful Penelope, immature Telemachos, the villainous suitors, the humanlike gods and goddesses. We also learn a lot about Odysseus, even though he does not enter the story directly until Book 5. This narrative strategy is known as the delayed entrance of the hero.

Starting with the Middle Ages, it has been customary to call stories about the Trojan War "the matter of Troy." That total collection of story material can be divided into subcategories, such as preparation for battle, the battle of Troy, and the sack [destruction] of Troy. The Odyssey belongs to the category of return stories — stories of Greek heroes who returned home after helping Menelaos win the war that he undertook to reclaim his wife, Helen.

For Christian readers, the first encounter with Homer's portrayal of the gods and goddesses surely comes as a shock. Initially it is hard to know what to make of these freakish creatures that are more human than divine and yet are referred to as deities. The best thing to do is accept that these gods and goddesses are the best that the Greek person on the street could muster in a conception of God. In the Bible we read about God's taking his place among the gods (e.g., Ps. 84:1), and about his being superior to those gods. The song of Moses asks rhetorically, "Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?" (Ex. 15:11). Homer's portrayal of the gods gives substance to such claims.

It is in the nature of storytelling that the primary business that is transacted in the early phases of the story is to introduce the reader to the world of the story and the details about the plot and characters that we need to know before the story can proceed. This early material is known as "exposition" ("explanation"). It would be wrong to start looking for themes and religious meanings at the outset of the story, and we should not feel guilty when we simply focus on the story as a story at this early point. The details that Homer gives us in Book 1 are the materials from which he will eventually mold the deeper meanings of his story.

For Reflection or Discussion

First, the commentary above names things that can be traced in the text; exactly where and how do these motifs surface in Book 1? Second, part of the excitement of the opening chapter or book of any story is that it is the reader's initiation into what is to follow, with the result that we need to make a mental note of what grabs our attention. Additionally, the opening unit of any story is our introduction to things that will become increasingly important and familiar to us as we progress through the story, so we need to read with the same alertness and expectation that we experience when being introduced to an important person for the first time. Finally, Book 1 of The Odyssey assembles a gallery of memorable characters for us to observe; we need to start to assemble a mental profile for each one.



How the Council Met in the MarketPlace of Ithaca, and What Came of It

Plot Summary

Book 2 is a sequel to Book 1, where the last phase of action is Athena's visit to Ithaca with the mission to get the youthful Telemachos off the launching pad. In that passage, Athena gives Telemachos a twofold game plan — to call a town meeting at which he must tell the suitors to leave, and to undertake a secret journey from his island home to the mainland in search of his father. Book 2 begins with the first of these two actions. Telemachos calls a meeting at which he speaks boldly to the suitors. It achieves absolutely nothing: the suitors talk back to Telemachos and go right on devouring Odysseus's goods.

The second half of Book 2 consists of preparations for the secret nighttime departure from the island. A key moment occurs when Telemachos goes to his father's storehouse, giving us a glimpse of the goal of Odysseus's quest and journey.

To read any epic, including this one, we need to read in an awareness of the importance of literary archetypes. An archetype is a plot motif, character type, or image/setting that recurs throughout literature and life. Once we name the archetypes that are placed in front of us in a given passage, we have an organizing framework for knowing what is happening. For example, the unifying action in The Odyssey is the quest. Naming archetypes also allows us to relate the story we are reading to other stories we have read, thereby unifying our total experience of literature.

The overall archetype that governs the story of Telemachos is the initiation into adulthood. More specifically, Telemachos undertakes a perilous journey that will take him to places remote from his home and that will test him and add to his fund of experience. Our imaginations reach out to include Jacob and Joseph from the book of Genesis, Moses, Huckleberry Finn, Pip in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, Manolin in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, and many another.


Book 1 was expository — an introduction to the ingredients of the world of the story that we need to have at our disposal before the action can begin. With those "givens" at our disposal, in Book 2 the plot conflicts begin to unfold. Of course a story as expansive as The Odyssey has multiple plot conflicts. One of five threads of action in The Odyssey is the story of Telemachos. Overall it is an initiation story — a coming of age as Telemachos makes the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

The key to Book 2 is to observe the double-sided picture of Telemachos the initiate. On the one hand, Homer manages the description in such a way as to show signs of Telemachos's mastery and growing maturity. On the other hand, the inexperienced young hero fails to achieve his goal when he calls a meeting designed to send the suitors packing.

Why does the son of Odysseus receive so much attention in Homer's story? Ancient cultures placed extreme value on the idea of worthy sons. In this way of thinking, the quest of Odysseus will be partly thwarted if his son does not prove to be a worthy successor to him. The Old Testament book of Proverbs expresses this same view of worthy sons.

For Reflection or Discussion

The focus of this book is Telemachos. What do we learn about him? What are the evidences of growing maturity? What are the signs that he does not yet measure up?



What Happened in Sandy Pylos

Plot Summary

Book 2 ended on a note of high drama, with Telemachos setting out on a secret and dangerous nighttime journey with a crew of sailors. The journey that Telemachos undertakes is a fact-finding mission to learn about his father's whereabouts. The first leg of the journey is to the kingdom of Nestor, one of the Greek warriors who fought at Troy. Telemachos is welcomed into the court, where the conversation turns to Odysseus after the niceties of arrival (including dinner) have been observed.

At this point we need to understand and relish how professional epic storytellers go about their trade. Epic storytellers care little for plot suspense. Instead they resort to foreshadowing, so that we are usually in no doubt about what will happen. Even more, they absolutely love a leisurely pace, with descriptions and events drawn out in full detail. This impulse is fully evident in Book 3 of The Odyssey. The fact that Nestor knows nothing about Odysseus's whereabouts does not deter Homer for a single moment from recounting the entire conversation that occurred after that announcement.

As Nestor rambles on, we hear all about the end of the war at Troy, and then the homeward journeys of Nestor and Agamemnon. Homer's strategy in narrating all of this will make sense if we take a wide-angle view of "the matter of Troy" (the voluminous collection of story material dealing with the Trojan War). The Odyssey belongs to the category of return stories. The audience who was interested in the return of Odysseus could be trusted to be interested in the stories of other Greek heroes who returned home after the war as well. Additionally, storytellers love to work with foils — plot motifs or characters who set off (the literal meaning of foil) the main plot or character by being either a parallel or a contrast. The journey of Odysseus and his homecoming stand out all the more clearly when we set them alongside the return of heroes like Nestor, Agamemnon, and (in the next book) Menelaos.

Probably the dominant impression that Book 3 leaves with us is the extreme details that the niceties of arrival and leave-taking receive. Homer seems never to tire of narrating the protocol that was observed whenever a traveling stranger arrived at a place or left it. There is a ready explanation for this: The Odyssey is a domestic epic, and hospitality is one of the highest values in such a world. Abraham and Sarah's entertainment of three angelic strangers (Gen. 18:1–8) is a biblical parallel.

Book 3 is our initiation into two activities that will recur throughout this epic. One is the practice of sacrifices to the gods, accompanied by prayers and gestures of reverence. The other is eating and drinking, which belong to the code of hospitality. In The Odyssey, one line in thirty concerns the preparation or consumption of food, or references to hunger and thirst. Additionally, these references to the physical needs of life are part of the realism for which Homer is famous.

In addition to repeated references in The Odyssey to the contrast between the homecomings of Agamemnon and Odysseus, we hear multiple times about the parallel between the sons of those two heroes. Agamemnon's son Orestes took quick and decisive vengeance on Aegisthos for killing his father; this is the implied standard to which Telemachos needs to measure up.

For Reflection or Discussion

Although The Odyssey is a return story, as we progress through the story we keep learning more and more about the Trojan War itself; what do we learn about it in Book 3? Closely related to that, what do we learn about Odysseus as Homer pursues his technique of the delayed entrance of the hero? The main foil that is put before us is the homecomings of Agamemnon and Odysseus; where does this contrast appear in Book 3? Finally, it yields a lot to comb Book 3 for references to religious practices such as sacrifices and prayers, to the divine beings (like Athena, who accompanies Telemachos disguised as a family friend named Mentor), and to religious sentiments uttered by the human characters. Once we get beyond the crudeness of gods and goddesses being portrayed as essentially human, we can see that Homer's worldview is solidly religious (and even, as one scholar says, theological).

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (whose treatise called The Poetics is the oldest surviving work of literary theory that we possess) called literature an "imitation of life." Every culture likes to see its common experiences imitated in its stories. If Homer tells us in leisurely detail about arrival and leave-taking, eating and drinking in a courtly setting, journeying by boat, and the details of battle, it is because those things were part of the regular experience of the original audience.



What Happened in Lacedeimon [Sparta]

Plot Summary

The next stop on the fact-finding journey of Telemachos is the palace of Menelaos in Sparta. Again the protocol of arrival and hospitality receives lavish attention. Again the conversation at court centers on the return of various Greek warriors to their homes, and again the murderous homecoming of Agamemnon is conspicuous in the account. The only information that Telemachos receives about his father is the fact that Menelaos saw him weeping on the island of Calypso, a goddess who kept Odysseus there by force.

The foregoing action occupies half of Book 4. Halfway through the book the scene suddenly shifts back to the home of Odysseus in Ithaca. We should remember that Books 1 through 4 form a unit known as "The Telemachia" (the journey of Telemachos). We end this unit as we began it — with a vivid picture of the crisis that has engulfed the kingdom of Odysseus. After the ideal hospitality that Telemachos has received from Nestor and Menelaos, we look at the looting of Odysseus's property as the suitors devour his food and pressure Penelope to marry one of them.


Excerpted from "Homer's The Odyssey"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Leland Ryken.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Nature and Function of Literature,
Why the Classics Matter,
How to Read a Story,
The Odyssey: The Book at a Glance,
The Author and His Faith,
The Odyssey as Epic,
Book 1 What Went on in the House of Odysseus,
Book 2 How the Council Met in the Market-Place of Ithaca, and What Came of It,
Book 3 What Happened in Sandy Pylos,
Book 4 What Happened in Lacedeimon [Sparta],
Book 5 Odysseus Leaves Calypso's Island,
Book 6 How Odysseus Appealed to Nausicaa, and How She Brought Him to Her Father's House,
Book 7 What Happened to Odysseus in the Palace of Alcinoos,
Book 8 How They Held Games and Sports in Phaiacia,
Book 9 How Odysseus Visited the Lotus-Eaters and the Cyclops,
Book 10 The Island of the Winds; the Land of the Midnight Sun; Circe,
Book 11 How Odysseus Visited the Kingdom of the Dead,
Book 12 The Singing Sirens, the Terrors of Scylla and Charybdis, and the Cattle of Helios,
Book 13 How Odysseus Came to Ithaca,
Book 14 Odysseus and the Swineherd,
Book 15 How Telemachos Sailed Back to Ithaca,
Book 16 How Telemachos Met His Father,
Book 17 How Odysseus Returned to His Own Home,
Book 18 How Odysseus Fought the Sturdy Beggar,
Book 19 How the Old Nurse Knew Her Master,
Book 20 How God Sent Omens of the Wrath to Come,
Book 21 The Contest with the Great Bow,
Book 22 The Battle in the Hall,
Book 23 How Odysseus Found His Wife Again,
Book 24 How Odysseus Found His Old Father and How the Story Ended,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Ryken is a warm and welcoming guide to the classics of Western literature. The books in this series distill complex works into engaging and relevant commentaries, and help twenty-first-century readers understand what the classics are, how to read them, and why they continue to matter.”
Andrew Logemann, Chair, Department of English, Gordon College

“Students, teachers, homeschoolers, general readers, and even seasoned literature professors like me will find these Christian guides to classic works of literature invaluable. They demonstrate just what is so great about these ‘great books’ and illuminate their meanings in light of Christian truth. Reading these books along with the masterpieces they accompany is a literary education in itself, and there can be few better tutors and reading companions than Leland Ryken, a master Christian scholar and teacher.”
Gene Edward Veith Jr., Professor of Literature Emeritus, Patrick Henry College

“The Classics are peaks I’ve always wanted to climb, but never had the chutzpah to tackle. I often find myself, as a result, admiring these beauties from afar, wondering if I’ll ever dare an ascent and one day enjoy their views. That’s why I’m delighted to see the release of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics. Now, I’ve got a boost to my confidence, a feasible course in front of me, and a world-class guide to assist along the way. In fact, Dr. Leland Ryken could scale these peaks in his sleep, having, for decades now, guided hundreds of students to a greater appreciation for the Classics. Lee combines scholarly acumen and Christian faith with uncluttered thinking and crystal-clear style in a way that virtually guarantees no one will get tangled-up in woods or wander off trail. The Classics are now within reach! I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about this series!”
Todd Wilson, Senior Pastor, Calvary Memorial Church, Oak Park, Illinois; author, Real Christian and The Pastor Theologian

“In an age when many elite universities have moved away from the classics, this series will help re-focus students and teachers on the essential works of the canon. More importantly, it will help present the classics from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian worldview upon which the university was built. These guides offer exactly the kind of resources needed to empower high school and college students (whether in public, private, classical-Christian, or home schools) to connect with the Great Books and to ask the kinds of questions that we all must ask if we are to understand our full status as creatures made in the image of God who have fallen but who can be redeemed.”
Louis Markos, Professor of English and Scholar in Residence, Houston Baptist University; author, From Achilles to Christ and Literature: A Student’s Guide

“It is hard to imagine a better guide than Leland Ryken to help readers navigate the classics. In an age in desperate need of recovering the permanent things, I am thankful that Crossway and Ryken have teamed up to produce excellent guides to help Christians take up and read the books which have shaped the western intellectual tradition.”
Bradley G. Green, Associate Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition, Union University; writer-in-residence, Tyndale House, Cambridge

“The Christian Guides to the Classics series by Leland Ryken will be a helpful addition to the library of anyone interested in a deeper understanding of classic literature. I can’t help but think that these guides will give us more pleasure and satisfaction from our reading than we would otherwise have. And best of all, we will be better equipped to successfully engage with the ideas and worldviews we come across in our reading. That’s a goal worth pursuing.”
Jonathan Lewis, Editor, Home School Enrichment, Inc.

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