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Jonas Grethlein: Die Odyssee. Homer und die Kunst des Erzählens, München: C.H.Beck 2017, 329 S., 19 s/w-Abb., 1 Kt., ISBN 978-3-406-70817-6, EUR 26,95
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Rezension von:
Malcolm Davies
St. John's College, Oxford
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Malcolm Davies: Rezension von: Jonas Grethlein: Die Odyssee. Homer und die Kunst des Erzählens, München: C.H.Beck 2017, in: sehepunkte 18 (2018), Nr. 3 [15.03.2018], URL:

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Jonas Grethlein: Die Odyssee

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"The telling and retelling of misfortune enables people to overcome or endure it. The tale [of the Shipwrecked Sailor] is thus about the value of telling tales". [1] Thus in a nutshell can the presuppositions of contemporary literary theory illuminate literature predating even Homer. The tale in question was cited by Ludwig Radermacher in the previous century to characterise by contrast the Odyssey's episode of its hero's shipwreck on the island of the Phaeacians, and the words just quoted, though nowhere mentioned in it, could serve as summary of the main conclusions of the book under review (for the first sentence see e.g.: "Odysseus wird zum Erzähler seiner Erfahrungen, um sie zu bewältigen" (118); for the second: "Die Odyssee erzählt über das Erzählen" (38)).

The volume seems intended for the general reader. Greek is nowhere quoted (except incidentally in the title of an article listed in the lengthy and up to date bibliography), but is sometimes transliterated, more often, in lengthy passages, translated, paraphrased or summarised. This is not the only means whereby the general reader is well served. The first chapter (which, like all the following, has separate section headings which make for clarity of exposition) is a masterpiece of compression. It incisively prepares for what follows by sketching with fresh insights familiar topics. These include "die Homerische Frage" (wherein Analysts and Oralists receive critique). Also "Homerische Sprache und Stil", where, characteristically, the author does not allow use of a German translation of the Odyssey in succeeding chapters to absolve him from a penetrating account of these two aspects. Chapters 2 and 3 show more clearly than ever before how the journeys of Telemachus and the account of Odysseus' sojourn with the Phaeacians employ both narratives and para-narratives which are thematically of the closest relevance to the story as a whole and anticipate many of the details that occur later in the plot. Chapter 4 stands both literally and metaphorically at the centre of the book. It deals with the account of his adventures given by Odysseus himself at the Phaeacian court and is confined, almost entirely, to the story of his encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus - a perfectly justifiable limitation on several grounds: the fame and popularity of the story, its encapsulation of the poem's key theme of cunning overcoming brute strength, and its frequency as the subject matter of Greek vase paintings.

Grethlein observes at the start of the second half of his book that the second half of the poem has not grasped the imagination of readers to anything like the extent achieved by the stories considered in chapter 4. Even some of its more sensitive readers have suspected it of drawing out its length excessively, in imitation of the Iliad's monumental scope. Its repetition of such motifs as recognition scenes, the hero's lying tales, the maltreatment of Odysseus in beggar's disguise, and even the surprising length of the passage recounting the origin of the scar whereby his nurse Eurycleia recognises Odysseus, all combine to make this suspicion at least superficially plausible. And indeed, Grethlein devotes only one chapter to this second half (except for the special case of the poem's ending, dealt with in chapter 7). As if in compensation, he triumphantly uses an exploration of those very features just listed to bring out the poet's skill. He shows how, for instance, the content of lying tales is tailored to fit their addressees and what Odysseus hopes to get from them (192) or how - in contraversion of Eric Auerbach's famous chapter on the passage in Mimesis - the profounder aspects of Odysseus' identity are involved in the hero's recognition by Eurycleia.

The aforementioned chapter 7 is possibly the most original and imposing part of the volume. Dealing, as said, with the end of the epic, it includes a particularly subtle interpretation of the significance, within the climactic reunion of Odysseus and his wife, of the hero's bed, cunningly crafted by Odysseus himself. A parallelism between Odysseus and Hephaestus the god of handicraft has long been perceived to inform Book 8's song of the Phaeacian bard Demodocus, which relates that god's detection of his wife Aphrodite's infidelity. Grethlein's contribution is to see Odysseus' bed as symbol of the stability of his marriage, in implied contrast to the bed on which the adulterous Ares and Aphrodite are enmeshed in Book 8, a bed thus associated with bondage and public humiliation. But even more impressive is the analysis of the very end of the poem, which has always posed a particular problem.

Controversy already existed in antiquity as to whether or not the latter part of Book 23 and all of the final Book 24 were an integral part of the composition. In favour of a positive answer we are shown that even passages apparently displaying the most incorrigible signs of late and alien origin can be plausibly said to form part of an overarching design. Thus Odysseus' account to Penelope, during a night extended by Athena, of his adventures exemplifies (as does the whole poem) the transcendence of time by narrative. The Second Nekyia's exchange between Achilles and Agamemnon confirms that Odysseus equals the former in renown and surpasses him (and his epic, the Iliad) in having successfully achieved homecoming. Most impressively of all, perhaps, the open-endedness of the Odyssey's close is asserted with reference to Tiresias' prophecy in Book 11 of further wandering for the hero: the envisaged destination, a land-locked terrain symbolising a world beyond and generically other than the sea-dominated Odyssey itself. Surely these pages represent the most persuasive demonstration of the poem's essential unity ever to appear.

Set beside these remarkable achievements adverse criticism can only record relatively minor qualms, but they may be signalled. Not all of Grethlein's points are as original as may at first appear. A similar, though slightly less impressed, picture of over-arching unity for the poem was supplied in thumbnail sketch by Rudolf Pfeiffer's A History of Classical Scholarship 177 note 4 in 1968. Grethlein's extremely subtle and balanced account of the problem of the moral acceptability or not of Odysseus' killing of the suitors was anticipated in 1990 with remarkable closeness by Robin Hankey in Owls to Athens (a Festschrift for K.J. Dover) pages 87-96 (compare, in particular, pages 92 and 93: "[Odysseus'] revenge is nothing short of a bloody massacre or atrocity [...] Homer [...] is even-handed [...] he leaves us to draw our own conclusions" with pages 214 and 226 of the present book: "während Orest den Talionsprinzip folgt, wenn er Aigisth tötet, vergift Odysseus einen materielle Schaden mit einem Massenmord [...] Die Stärke der Erzählung in der Ethik dürfte weniger in Antworten als in einem Verständnis der Probleme bestehen". A different type of failure to indicate precedents arises in connection with the emphasis (105-106) on the similarities between Polyphemus and Scylla. Grethlein might have contrasted the poet's careful disguising of the similarities between the Cyclops and the cannibalistic giants the Laestrygonians, in order to avoid narrative monotony and reduplication, as pointed out by Denys Page in Folktales in Homer's Odyssey (1975), a work nowhere mentioned in this book. Finally, Grethlein might have taken still further some of his remarks on thematically relevant para-narratives. He well illustrates (68-69) the ways in which various instances of these in the Telemachy anticipate later episodes. He could have added how the account (for Telemachus' benefit) of Odysseus' behaviour inside the wooden horse while Helen played the temptress outside might be thought to anticipate his encounters both with Polyphemus in his dark cave and with Circe. [2] The remarkable and un-Homeric vagueness of Demodocus' reference to Odysseus' alleged climactic heroism at the sack of Troy could have been mentioned. [3] And something might have been said of Antinous' unintendedly ironic application to Odysseus in beggar's disguise of the story of the drunken centaur Eurytion and his punishment. [4] These works could (I do not say should) have been at least quoted. Not so Maureen Alden's new study Paranarratives in the Odyssey (Oxford 2017), which appeared far too late to be referred to and covers, as its title suggests, some of the same ground.

This account of minor reservations is no way to end the review. A theme that runs throughout the book is that of the Reception of the Odyssey, but Grethlein's interpretation of that concept does not confine itself to 'the literary' in any reductive sense, and the link between Erzählung and Erfahrung is shown to transcend mere assonance. At the close of the final chapter, the book's last two pages (281-2) eloquently assert "against Postmodernism's attempt to isolate Speech from Life" the Odyssey's continuing power to bring together Narrative and Experience. As an instance we are given a moving account of the poem's continued capacity for impinging on real life with the case of Primo Levi. His experience of the Holocaust at Auschwitz, followed by a circuitous return to Italy via war-ravaged Europe and Russia, does indeed mirror Odysseus' homeward wanderings, and he acknowledged the importance of Homer's epic for his own artistic creed. Here too one might go further in certain directions. For instance, as implied above, the account of his adventures which the hero gives to Penelope has been derided by some scholars as a bald and otiose narrative. It might be further defended if we bear in mind [5] how Levi on his return obsessively "'waylaid'" his friends, and everyone he met", not least his wife-to-be, "with the story of his 'adventure'". Here again Homer's understanding of the human soul may be deeper than that of his critics. And as Levi once told a journalist (Ansimov 315), "each of us harbours at the bottom of his heart the childish desire to have someone tell us a story".

This book resembles in format and appearance a work which first appeared under the same publisher in 1990 and has hitherto been the best study of the Odyssey, the late Uvo Hölscher's Die Odyssee: Epos zwischen Märchen und Roman. The highest praise one can give to the book now reviewed is that it is a worthy successor.


[1] R. B. Parkinson: The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Tales 1940-1640 B.C. Oxford 1997, 90.

[2] Malcolm Davies: Climax and Structure in Odyssey 8.492-520. Further Reflections on Odysseus and the Wooden Horse, in: Symbolae Osloenses 75 (2000), 56-58.

[3] ibid.

[4] Malcolm Davies: Aeschylus Agamemnin 1035-41, in: Prometheus 27 (2001), 193ff. and idem: Homer and the Fable. Odyssey 21.293-306, in: Prometheus 42 (2016), 30f.

[5] Myriam Anissimov: Tragedy of an Optimist, Paris 1996, 250 and 256.

Malcolm Davies