I minored in Classical Studies in college. This didn’t exactly mean that I read classic books with a little “c” (although, I read a ton of those as an English major!). Rather, it meant that I read a lot of Classics with a capital C– Greek and Roman works of history and literature. And one of my favorites to read was The Odyssey. There’s something about this classic (and Classic) tale of a storm-tossed sailor desperately searching for his way back home. Odysseus is no saint, however, and his adventures are fraught with danger, lies, and deception. And while he struggles and schemes his way back home, his wife Penelope must fight in her own battle, as she tries to keep her dozens of suitors at bay.
It seems the most logical place to start in a book list about The Odyssey is with The Odyssey: The Graphic Novel. This beautifully illustrated graphic novel retells the tale of Odysseus in stunning visuals. After Odysseus angers the god Poseidon, he’s sent on a ten year journey before he can make his way back home. Along his way, he encounters all sorts of monsters and terrors, from the cyclops Polyphemus to the sirens, the lotus eaters, and Scylla and Charybdis. All the while, his faithful wife keeps her vigil, waiting and holding off her suitors for nearly twenty years while she waits for her husband to return to her. If you’d like to experience the story, but don’t want to read the original book just yet, then this might be a perfect place to start!
Margaret Atwood’s retelling, The Penelopiad, focuses on Odysseus’s wife Penelope, the cousin of Helen of Troy, who manages, in spite of rumors and scandal, and a legion of suitors, to raise her young son and manage the kingdom of Ithica, all the while waiting twenty years for her husband to return from the Trojan War. When Odysseus finally does, he kills all of the 100+ suitors, and perhaps more strangely, twelve of Penelope’s maids. Why? This spirited retelling addresses just that–what lead to the hanging of the maids? And what was Penelope really up to? With the dead women singing the chorus between chapters, this feminist tale promises to fill in the gaps that Homer’s original epic doesn’t explain.
You’ve heard the story before. On his return from the Trojan War, Odysseus finds himself the prisoner of a beautiful enchantress (or two) which (coupled with a few misadventures with monsters) explains why he is not able to return to his darling wife, Penelope, for over twenty years. But, that’s just part of the story. Circe is a beautiful nymph who offers Odysseus’s men hospitality, but then turns them into pigs when they eat from her table. After Odysseus defeats her, she reveals what he must do in order to return home again. But, Madeline Miller’s version of the story is a little bit different. Here, our titular enchantress has far more depth of character. Daughter of the Titan Helios, Circe is nothing like her parents. A strange quiet child, she soon discovers that she possess great power for witchcraft. When it comes to light that she could overpower the gods themselves, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island where she hones her craft, encountering other characters from the Greek myths, including Medea, the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, and of course, Odysseus. But, when she finds herself pitted against one of the most powerful Olympians, Circe is left with a choice: to side with the gods she comes from or the mortals she has come to love.
Zachary Mason’s stunning book The Lost Books of the Odyssey is a series of strange and beautiful retellings of the voyage of Odysseus. Here, the fateful voyage is reimagined and retold in a number of different ways. Some are mere fragments, some are full stories, but each is a different interpretation of what happened during Odysseus’ long journey home. And the stories are in no way connected to each other. Each is its own, standalone interpretation of what could have been. The greatest strength of this collection is taking a larger-than-life character like Odysseus, and reminding the reader that he is profoundly human, without diminishing the character in any way. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll have a lot to think about as you read this excellent book.
Helen of Troy was said to have the face that launched A Thousand Ships, but despite the large role that women play in the stories of The Iliad and The Odyssey, they don’t have much to say for themselves. So, Natalie Haynes gives them a voice. From the women of Troy who awaken to find their beloved city burning after the invasion of the Greeks, and whose fate lies in their conquerors’ hands, to patient Penelope who waited tirelessly for twenty years for her husband to return from war. There is also the story of the Amazon princess who fought Achilles, and the three goddesses, whose feud over who was the most beautiful started the Trojan War in an instant, and destroyed countless lives. Readers who enjoy the works of Madeline Miller will enjoy this collection, as well.