The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey by Edith Hall, published in 2008, is an expansive and detailed study of the countless ways the ancient Greek epic has reverberated through Western civilization.

A Classics and drama professor at the University of London, Hall notes how the story of a wandering soldier finding making his way home has inspired such disparate creations as James Joyce’s work of genius Ulysses and the trashy 1970s American TV show Dallas.

How Odysseus is like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and Simba in The Lion King.  How his story is retold by Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote and Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, by John Ford in his movie The Searchers and Stanley Kubrick in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

How scenes from the poem have spawned, directly or indirectly, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and The Natural by Bernard Malamud.

Hall’s 15 chapters delve into the myriad ways writers and scholars have studied the Odyssey for what it says about such subjects as sex, violence, death, social classes, colonialism, exploration, feminism and manliness.  And the many intellectual disputes for which the epic has been introduced as evidence, often on both sides of a debate.

In more than 200 pages, Hall examines the epic from seemingly every imaginable perspective, from the inside out and from close and far — so much so that a reader might imagine the Odyssey would be left like a grape squeezed of all its juice, nothing but pulp.


“Bow down before its great music”

After all these pages and after all this discussion, Hall notes this:

A host of different reasons have been advanced during the course of this book for cultural longevity of this particular narrative — its generic versatility, its sociological complexity and its philosophical and emotional clout.  But perhaps the issue simply can’t be fully understood by rational analysis, because the aesthetic levels on which it is apprehended are too intuitive, too sensual and too neurological.

Then, onto her stage, Hall brings the Welsh novelist and mystic Arthur Machen.

He saw the Odyssey as a core example of his assertion, in a 1902 book, that you can’t talk about literature without acknowledging the numinous and indefinable aspects of the experience.  Hall explains:

The reason is that nobody can explain in what the excellence of the poem consists: it is felt but can never be analyzed adequately.  All we can do is “bow down” before its great music, “recognizing that by the very reason of its transcendent beauty, by the very fact that it trespasses far beyond the world of our daily lives…that because its beauty is supreme, therefore its beauty is beyond criticism.”

In reading the Odyssey — as in reading or viewing any great work of art — you can reason all you want about what it means, about what its creator was trying to say, what its message is. 

But, if it is great, there will be another — a deeper — level of experience, the level of feeling, of emotion. A level at which feeling and thought meld into something above, beyond, below, inside of the lives we lead in our human days.

It will bring you, if you are open to it, a kind of joy at being in the presence of transcendence.

“To tell the Whole Truth”

One aspect of the Odyssey’s greatness is its untragic vision and, for that matter, its uncomedic vision.  Unlike much great art, this epic is not the story of someone who lives a life that is doomed to end in disaster.  Nor is it the story of human folly.

Aldous Huxley, the British philosopher and author of the dystopian novel Brave New World, praised the poem’s humane breadth.  For instance, Odysseus and his crew sail past the sea monster Scylla, losing six of their companions to her.  Nonetheless, they stop a short time later to “expertly” prepare their supper on the beach.  Huxley writes:

[Homer] prefers to tell the Whole Truth.  He knew that even the most cruelly bereaved must eat…He knew that experts continue to act expertly and to find satisfaction in their accomplishment, even when friends have just been eaten…Homer refuses to treat the theme tragically.

James Joyce felt similarly as he explained in a conversation in 1917, several years before Ulysses was published.  A portion of his comments to Georges Borach, later included in Conversations with James Joyce, is quoted by Hall, but it’s worthwhile to see the full statement:

The most beautiful, all-embracing theme is that of the Odyssey. It is greater, more human than that of Hamlet, Don Quixote, Dante, Faust.

The rejuvenation of old Faust has an unpleasant effect upon me. Dante tires one quickly; it is as if one were to look at the sun.

The most beautiful, most human traits are contained in the Odyssey. I was twelve years old when we dealt with the Trojan War at school; only the Odyssey stuck in my memory. I want to be candid: at twelve I liked the mysticism in Ulysses.

When I was writing Dubliners, I first wished to choose the title Ulysses in Dublin but gave up the idea. In Rome, when I had finished about half of the Portrait, I realized that the Odyssey had to be the sequel, and I began to write Ulysses.

Can’t be pinned down

Another aspect is that the Odyssey, like the character Proteus, is a shape-shifter, as Hall points out:

The poem has so many strands, some prematurely truncated, others winding through the text to re-emerge later, that it can safely be said, through a mysterious alchemical fusion, to reflect its content in its form.

Indeed, the poem displays, Hall writes, an unrivaled breadth of verbal performance — lament, dream-telling, prayer, insult, compliment, invitation, order, praise, prophecy, description, anecdote, advice — that it is “a kaleidoscopic representation” of a pre-literate society. 

In addition, she writes the Odyssey mutates ceaselessly through a variety of story forms, “changing from a heroic epic into a quest narrative, a revenge tragedy, a domestic comedy, a romance, Bildungsroman [a coming-of-age story] and biography.”

The Odyssey can’t be pinned down, Hall writes.  Endless numbers of writers and scholars “have tried to reduce it and fix its meaning as something both more definable and less fluid and wonderful than it is.”

“A mad old looney” or “rightful government”

One last point:  The Odyssey has been in existence for at least 2,800 years, and it has resonated from age to age, even as cultural patterns and literary fashions have been in constant flux.

Consider the climax of the epic — the slaying of the 108 suitors who for years had hounded Penelope, the wife Odysseus left behind 20 years earlier when he sailed for Troy.  If this occurred in real life in our age of routine fatal acts of violence with multiple victims, it would be immediately branded a massacre.

Yet, Hall notes that this bloodbath is addressed twice by Judith Kazantzis in her 1999 The Odysseus Poems.  In one she writes:

Absolutely horrified to get your letter

detailing a massacre of young men

by a mad old looney in Ithaka.

In another, Kazantzis writes:

The true fairy story ending.

Ithaka back to peace and rightful government.

As with everything in the Odyssey, it’s not simple.  And Hall writes:

Kazantzis is pointing out that there are two ways to read the bloodbath.  It either appalls or pleases; it must be condemned….or honestly enjoyed.

Welcome to the core of the Odyssey.

Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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