In The Odyssey, an almost 3,000-year-old epic attributed to a poet known as Homer, the soldier Odysseus narrates most adventures in retrospect. The poem, which tells of Odysseus’ return from the Trojan War, is both the origin of our concept of nostalgia (from the Greek nostos meaning the journey home) and one of the first travel narratives. Whether or not you’re already familiar with The Odyssey, Emily Wilson’s celebrated English translation is a must-read (or listen).
The epic has inspired many writers. For anyone hungry for more, these suggested reads take Homer’s Odyssey as a springboard to expand on the myths, offering additional perspectives, especially from female characters and taking the story to new and imagined worlds.
1. Ithaka by Adele Geras
Geras’ novel tells the story of what happened to Odysseus’ family and household while he was away. Both parents and young adults can enjoy her shift of focus (featuring descriptions of the dog’s daydreams) which opens with children playing on the beach and moves among peach orchards and almond groves. Told from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’ son Telemachus and their friends, Geras capture “kitchen gossip” and tangible details of a place seemingly caught in limbo in Odysseus’ absence.
2. Meadowlands by Louise Gluck
A collection of poems, Gluck’s Meadowlands weaves a portrait of the end of a marriage with the story of The Odyssey. Timeless myth is set against everyday struggle. There are poems written from the perspective of Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, about being raised by one parent. There are also the voices of Penelope and Circe. These epic figures become knowable as Gluck makes their lives seem at times ordinary. For instance, in the poem ‘Quiet Evening’ she writes:
the quiet evenings in summer,
the sky still light at this hour.
So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus,
not to hold him back but to impress
this peace on his memory.
It is a collection full of wit and humour as well as emotion.
3. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
The Odyssey ranges across wildernesses, beaches, gardens, orchards and palaces, but as the writer Madeline Miller notes, “however far afield [Odysseus] travelled, always [his stories] came back to Ithaca.” Odysseus eventually returns to his wife Penelope. In the epic poem of shifting locations and identities, Odysseus’ immoveable “here” is his marital bed, built around “an olive tree/ with delicate long leaves, full-grown and green,/ as sturdy as a pillar”.
Written also in the style of an epic poem, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005) gives Odysseus’ long-suffering wife a chance to tell her side of the story. Penelope and her maids narrate Odysseus’ violent homecoming in hindsight from their afterlife location in the mythical underworld. Atwood’s retelling pioneered this approach to novels which give the perspectives of characters often marginalised in canonical ancient texts – especially the women.
4. Circe by Madeline Miller
One of Odysseus’ most memorable adventures is his sojourn with the goddess Circe, who turns Odysseus’ crew into pigs. Madeline Miller’s Circe powerfully re-conceives her story from several Greek myths. The daughter of the song god and titan Helios, she is an unremarkable child born into a life of luxurious tedium. But Circe wants more and seeks the companionship of humans. In trying to twist her fate and defy the will of the gods she discovers she possesses powers. For this, she is exiled.
This story of Circe’s life in exile on her island challenges The Odyssey’s focus on Odysseus. Miller emphasises Circe’s isolation as intended punishment that grows to become so much more.
In contrast to her “father’s halls”, Miller’s Circe experiences her island as “the wildest, most giddy freedom”. Circe discovers that “to swim in the tide, to walk the earth […] is what it means to be alive. […] All my life, I have been moving forward, and now I am here.”
5. An Odyssey: a Father, a Son and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn
The critic and writer Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic, relates his experience exploring The Odyssey with his father, first in his classroom and then as they travel around the Mediterranean recreating Odysseus’ journey. The book is part literary crash course on The Odyssey, part touching memoir and part travelogue. An informative and moving read.
Rachel Bryant Davies, Lecturer in Comparative Literature, Queen Mary University of London.
Featured image: Circe turns Odysseus’ crew into pigs. Photo: Geiger Richárd/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain,