The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer's Odyssey

July 3, 2008

This book concerns the ongoing wanderings to which Odysseus/Ulysses, the hero of the Odyssey, has been subjected during the course of the nearly three millennia since the poet we know as Homer composed his epic detailing what happened to the adventurer on his way back from Troy. The original poem has been the inspiration for countless translations, adaptations and reinterpretations in every form imaginable, and Edith Hall undertakes her own odyssey through a selection of all this material. The author herself refers to this as a "foolhardy quest", one to discourage "all but optimistic travellers", but Hall is the optimistic traveller par excellence and leads us on a stimulating journey, roving far and wide through both time and space in pursuit of her hero.

Like her Homeric model, the author does not opt for a simple chronological approach in organising her material, neither does she attempt any straightforward categorisation in terms of subject matter; rather the book is sensitive to the labyrinthine ways in which connections can be traced. The first section, then, contains chapters that concentrate on a particular medium - narrative, musical and so on - while the second section is grouped by political or social issues such as gender relations or class. Finally, the third section progresses to the interior world of the human psyche.

But this account makes the book sound more schematic than it really is. There are multiple ways of classifying any particular work, yet some skilful weaving on the part of the author has stitched the whole thing together in a way that appears seamless, while a detailed index plus references back and forward in the text itself help the reader to follow up on individual items of interest. The inclusion of footnotes and extensive bibliography will make this a valuable tool for scholars involved in reception studies and related areas, but the engaging style in which it is written is also capable of drawing in the more general reader.

There are a number of illustrations incorporated but, although Hall offers insightful verbal portrayals of the works of art discussed, it would have been helpful if the book had provided more images of the actual paintings. Hall has a gift for finding words that capture something of the essence of an artwork or piece of music, but for me the more satisfying chapters were those that moved into the political arena, with perhaps the most interesting example being "Colonial conflict".

Here we are introduced to a side of Odysseus not often given prominence. To some he may be the bold explorer, but to others he takes on the guise of imperial coloniser, hence the Cyclops becomes "a victim of racist oppression". Hall is at her best when she takes the opportunity to go beyond mere description and indulges in exposition of a more analytical kind. But the nature of the book allows at most a paragraph or two devoted to any single incarnation of the hero before our voyage continues on to the next port of call. This could be a potentially frustrating experience for the reader, but there is always the possibility of utilising the information provided to pursue topics further.

As an advocate of Greek literature I might have objected to the latinised version of the hero's name selected for the title, but it is actually well chosen in that it is evocative of the process of acculturation repeatedly undergone by the character and in that way indicative of the subject matter of the book. But as for the return of Ulysses, what Hall's work demonstrates is that he has never really left us.

The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer's Odyssey

By Edith Hall
I.B. Tauris
ISBN 9781845115753
Published 14 March 2008

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