The legacy of Homer’s Odyssey is pretty staggering. It’s the second oldest work of Western literature in existence (behind its predecessor, The Iliad), having been composed in the 8th century BCE. It was performed orally (all 12000 lines), and was passed down for hundreds of years without ever having been read. It was referenced and built upon in works by Euripides, Dante, and Pound. It inspired films like Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and a weird Japanese-French anime series set in the future called Ulysses 31. Steely Dan and Cream have written songs about it, Rick Riordan has become a gajillionaire YA novelist off of it, and there are over 25 different English translations of the poem. It’s kind of ridiculous.
For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about Homer’s Odyssey lately. I’ve never read it, but I find its level of influence incredibly compelling. The things I listed above? They just scratch the surface. Even a blind cyclops can find a novel (or twelve) inspired by the Odyssey without too much trouble.
The more I read about the Odyssey the more I want to read it, and the more I read about the Odyssey the more I want to read all the works that were inspired by it. I’m on the verge of a real deep dive here. If I read Homer’s epic and find myself enjoying it, I’ve already prepared a dozen other books (and one poem) that flesh out and expand upon Odysseus’s journey.
Some are modern retellings. Some are fictionalized biographies. Some continue the story. Some transport it into the far future.
Here are the 12 books (and one poem) I’d love to read that explore the story of the Odyssey.
The Odyssey by Homer
Just so we’re all on the same page, the Odyssey is the story of Odysseus as he tries to make his way home after fighting in the Trojan War. His journey lasts 10 years, during which he faces off with Charybdis, Scylla, Circe and Polyphemus the Cyclops. The story is told completely in verse, and most versions run over 500 pages. Like I said, it’s over 12000 lines. Which, admittedly, is terrifying.
While Odysseus is away, there’s another story happening at home. His son Telemachus and his wife Penelope fend off the pressure of men who want to kill him and marry her.
It’s an epic poem, so it’s dramatic as all hell. And according to a friend of mine on Goodreads, the ending is “both fascinating and deserving.”
I really hope I like it, because the books I’ve found that expand on the story sound super cool.
Dragonflies by Grant Buday
Grant Buday’s Dragonflies is essentially a retelling of the last days of the Trojan War from Odysseus’ point of view.
At this point, both sides are exhausted, and Odysseus, the cleverest of men, wants more than anything to return to Ithaka and his wife and son and orange grove. He aches for home, but not without a certain fear that he will return a stranger to the son he hasn’t seen in ten years. When Agamemnon, King of the Greeks, asks Odysseus to devise a scheme to settle the conflict once and for all, Odysseus comes up with the idea of the great horse.
In a way, it serves as a prequel to the Odyssey, and it might be kind of fun to read it before I dive into Homer. Especially since I’m not planning on reading The Iliad (1000+ pages of epic poetry would simply be too much for me, I fear).
I’ve heard Buday’s novel (which is less than 200 pages) described as “deeply imagined and exquisitely detailed.” That’s a good start.
Odysseus: A Life by Charles Rowan Beye
This is the only book on my list that I actually own. In what should come as a shock to absolutely no one, I’ve yet to read it. I’ve had it for about a decade, yet I haven’t touched it. It was actually in consideration for the book that’s been on my TBR shelf the longest.
The interesting thing about Odysseus: A Life is that it’s written as a biography of Homer’s hero. Despite dozens of works about Odysseus, this might be the only one that presents his life from start to finish.
Charles Beye fills out the story of this extraordinary figure, at the same time portraying Odysseus’ evolution through the course of a strange and adventuresome life, at times so remote, at times so immediate in the contemporary perspective.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Here’s where things start to get interesting.
In Homer’s account, Odysseus’ wife Penelope–who was left husbandless for 20 years while Odysseus fought in the Trojan War and then journeyed home–is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife. Meanwhile, she manages the kingdom of Ithaca, raises her son, fends off hundreds of suitors, and more.
But what’s often glossed over is the fact that, upon his return, Odysseus kills 12 of Penelope’s maids (along with all of her suitors). Atwood doesn’t stand for it, and finally asks the question, “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?”
According its publisher, “In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.”
ODY-C by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward
Here’s where things start to get weird.
Matt Fraction (writer) and Christian Ward (artist) have crafted a mind-bending comic that leaves genre behind and transports Homer’s epic into the far future.
Starting with the ending of a great war in the stars, the story involves a very long journey home for Odyssia and her crew of warriors. Oh, right, basically all of the men of Homer’s story have been replaced by women.
The series is only about a year old, and is ongoing at the moment. So this might be best left to the end. But at the very least, it will be a drastically different take on the Odyssey myth we’re all used to.
I’ve read its visuals described as “eye-searing,” though. Which kind of scares the shit out of me.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
I’ve heard nothing but good things about Mason’s reimagining of the Odyssey. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that this was Mason’s debut novel.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey re-tells Homer’s story and his long journey home from Troy. Mason creates alternative episodes, fragments, and revisions of Homer’s original that, taken together, open up this classic Greek myth to endless reverberating interpretations.
It’s been celebrated for its great wit, beauty, and even playfulness. The NY Times said that the chapters are more like intellectual exercises masquerading as stories, and Mason describes the book in the preface as “44 concise variations on Odysseus’ story that omit stock epic formulae in favor of honing a single trope or image down to an extreme of clarity.”
Translation: this is either going to be fantastic or I’m going to try to flush it down my toilet.
Ulysses (Poem) by Lord Alfred Tennyson
Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” is neck and neck with Paradise Lost for my favourite poem, so I’m pretty excited to see what he does with Odysseus here.
In Tennyson’s often-quoted poem, Ulysses (the Greek form of Odysseus) delivers a dramatic monologue to describe his discontent and restlessness upon returning to Ithaca.
Despite reuniting with his wife and son, he yearns to explore again.
That sounds amazing. Draaaaamaaaa!
The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Nikos Kazantzakis is a writer I’ve wanted to read for years, mostly because The Last Temptation of Christ is supposedly excellent. Here, he has the balls to write a sequel to Homer’s epic, and his version of Odysseus sounds like it owes a fair bit to Tennyson.
In it, Odysseus once again leaves Ithaca after he finds that the satisfactions of home and hearth are not as he remembered them.
Odysseus encounters Helen of Troy (well, she’s not so much “of Troy” any more), and he eventually makes his way to Egypt and southward, grappling all the while with questions about the nature of God.
Kazantzakis himself is said to have considered the book one of his most important works.
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
Big Fish is based, at least in part, on the Odyssey. I had no idea. And yes, it’s the same Big Fish that Tim Burton made a movie about.
In Big Fish, a young man (William Bloom), at the deathbed of his father (Edward Bloom), tries to reconcile his memories of his dad with who he really is. Whereas he always saw his father as an irresponsible liar, he comes to understand his dad’s exaggerations and their roots in reality.
Not only is the story said to draw heavily from the Odyssey, but it also borrows a lot from Joyce’s Ulysses. There’s also a healthy dose of Hercules’ twelve labors, but this post is already stupid long so who cares.
Ilium by Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons is incredibly interesting, really unique, and entirely intimidating.
No other speculative fiction writer wears his classic literature roots on his sleeve as brazenly as Dan Simmons. His novels are chock full of references to people way smarter than me. Ilium alone is said to “rely heavily on intertextuality, in this case with Homer and Shakespeare, as well as periodic references to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.”
At the same time, though, Simmons writes engrossing sci-fi. So, to sum up, he’s fucking cool.
In Ilium, the Trojan War rages at the foot of Olympos Mons on Mars—observed and influenced from on high by Zeus and his immortal family—and twenty-first-century professor Thomas Hockenberry is there to play a role in the insidious private wars of vengeful gods and goddesses. On Earth, a small band of the few remaining humans pursues a lost past and devastating truth—as four sentient machines depart from Jovian space to investigate, perhaps terminate, the potentially catastrophic emissions emanating from a mountaintop miles above the terraformed surface of the Red Planet.
Omeros by Derek Walcott
Omeros is a moden epic poem by poet-playwright Derek Walcott, and it follows a present-day Odysseus and others who are displaced and traveling back home.
Written in seven circling books, the poem illuminates the classical past and its motifs through a cast of contemporary characters from the island of Santa Lucia: humble fishermen Achilles, Philoctete and Hector; a beautiful house servant, Helen, who incites her own Trojan War; a local seer, Seven Seas; and the narrator himself, who wanders to the States, to Europe and back again.
According to the publisher, Omeros (Greek for “Homer”) “remains accessible despite its complexity and divergent strains, which include the privations of Native Americans, African natives and exiled English colonials.”
It sounds fascinating. And the sort of thing Carolyn Oliver‘s probably read already?
No-Man’s Lands: One Man’s Odyssey Through The Odyssey by Scott Huler
From Goodreads (because I’ve been writing this post forever and I’m
lazy sluggish at this point):
No-Man’s Lands is NPR contributor Scott Huler’s funny and touching exploration of the life lessons embedded within The Odyssey, a legendary tale of wandering and longing that could be read as a veritable guidebook for middle-aged men everywhere.
At age forty-four, with his first child on the way, Huler felt an instant bond with Odysseus, who fought for some twenty years against formidable difficulties to return home to his beloved wife and son. In reading The Odyssey, Huler saw the chance to experience a great vicarious adventure as well as the opportunity to assess the man he had become and embrace the imminent arrival of both middle age and parenthood.
In six months, Huler doggedly retraced Odysseus’s every step, from the ancient ruins of Troy to his ultimate destination in Ithaca. On the way, he discovers the Cyclops’s Sicilian cave, visits the land of the dead in Italy, ponders the lotus from a Tunisian resort, and paddles a rented kayak between Scylla and Charybdis and lives to tell the tale. He writes of how and why the lessons of The Odyssey—the perils of ambition, the emptiness of glory, the value of love and family—continue to resonate so deeply with readers thousands of years later. And as he finally closes in on Odysseus’s final destination, he learns to fully appreciate what Homer has been saying all along: the greatest adventures of all are the ones that bring us home to those we love.
Part travelogue, part memoir, and part critical reading of the greatest adventure epic ever written, No-Man’s Lands is an extraordinary description of two journeys—one ancient, one contemporary—and reveals what the Odyssey can teach us about being better bosses, better teachers, better parents, and better people.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Cards on the table: I’m dreading this one. But if I get this far, why not take the plunge. I’m definitely leaving it until last, though.
You know the deal with this book. It’s nigh-unreadable for most people. Most of the people who have read it are probably lying about it. Most of the ones who actually have read it and claim to like it are likely lying as well.
This one may require a read-along. I’ll need social support. Or maybe even a “Rick Reads Ulysses” series, so I can vent my (likely) frustrations, section by section. If I’m going down with it, I’m taking you all with me.
This post was 2300 words. I’m sorry.