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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

D. Snider
A Commentary on the Odyssey of Homer - Part I

From, Homer's Odyssey: A commentary
[Please note that the Table of Contents here published, is created by Elpenor and is not to be found in the print version]

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Page 97


The movement of the second grand division of the poem, the Ulyssiad, has passed through two of its stages, which have been already considered; the third is now reached which we have called Fableland, though it may be said that the two previous lands are also fabulous. Let it then be named the Fairy World, though this term also does not state or suggest the fact with precision. Without troubling ourselves further about names, we shall proceed to seize the meaning by an exposition given in some detail.

No careful reader can doubt that the poem changes decidedly at the present juncture in color, style, environment and purpose. What reason for it? And what is the connection with the preceding portion of the poem? Four Books (IX-XII) of the same character essentially, unfold themselves before us and demand a new kind of appreciation; they are not idyllic, not epical; they form a class of a peculiar sort, which class, however, we have before noticed in the Odyssey, showing itself in short but suggestive interludes.

We shall, accordingly, first grapple with the leading facts of this new poetic order and seek to interpret them, or rather let them interpret themselves. Phaeacia, which we have just seen, lies before Fableland, though the story of the latter is now told in Phaeacia.

1. The first fact which strikes us is the decided contrast between the two realms. Phaeacia is the land of pure idyllic delight, its supreme characteristic is peace, its happy people seem to have no conflict; Fableland, on the contrary, is one incessant course of strife, struggle and calamity, beginning with the unprovoked attack on the Ciconians. Polyphemus the savage Cyclops is the opposite of the civil ruler Alcinous; Circe, the enchantress, is the insidious foe to domestic life represented by Arete; State and Family in Phaeacia are counterbalanced by an anti-State and an anti-Family in Fableland. Thus man and woman are shown in the two different places as institutional and anti-institutional. Still deeper does the opposition reach; Phaeacia lies wholly in the Upperworld, with its sweet sunlight, while Fableland has a dim Underworld, beyond the sunlight, the realm of the Supersensible; finally Fableland witnesses the supreme negative act of man, typified in the slaying of the Oxen of the Sun. We may, therefore, affirm that Fableland, as compared with Phaeacia, shadows forth the realm of negation; the one stands for the ideal Greek world of ethical order and harmony; the other is the denial and destruction of the same.

But we must not omit the reverse side of the contrast. In Fableland there is one continued striving of the human soul, a chafing against all limits, a moving forward from one stage to another; the spirit of man is shown transcending its bounds everywhere. In Phaeacia, however, there is no striving apparently, it is contented with itself and stays with itself, seeking no neighbors; it is the land of rest, of cessation from conflict, possibly of stagnation, unless it is stirred by inner scission.

The transition from Phaeacia to Fableland is, therefore, full of meaning. It is possible that Ulysses or the poet wished to show these people the struggles which were slumbering in their society, for all civilized order has the possibility of them. The negative spirit will rise hereafter in their midst; so it rose in legendary Greece after the Trojan War, so it rose in historical Greece after the Persian War. Thus we may catch a prophetic tinge in this web of marvelous tales. On the other hand, we should note also that Ulysses has reached the land of peace just through the realm of strife and negation.

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Cf. Pharr, Homer and the study of Greek * Odyssey Complete Text
Iliad Complete Text * Homer Bilingual Anthology and Resources * Livingstone, On the Ancient Greek Literature
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