The goal of the authors of this guide is not to get you to think like them, but to give you access to a great story. We believe that stories are natural to human beings and that, therefore, we ought to approach them like humans naturally approach stories. Stories are different from paintings and symphonies because they have characters who make decisions around which the drama of the story revolves.
Technical literary elements are wonderful things to learn. But they have to follow the core event of the story, which remains the decisions and actions of the main characters.A theme or motif or literary device can help the reader understand what the author is getting at. But considered in isolation, themes, motifs, and literary devices lose their meaning and purpose, and become mere fodder for academic exercises.
This reading guide is not interested in academic exercises. It is interested in stories and the people who read them. If you read the story the way this reading guide shows you, you will become a better reader. You will find the stories more interesting , too. And you’ll have plenty to contribute to a discussion about this or any other story you might read.
Think of any story you have ever read or heard, no matter how short. You can even include TV shows and movies. You probably noticed that stories happen somewhere and at some time. You probably also noticed that there are always characters that have some really big problem to deal with (he’s in love and the girl doesn’t notice him, the mountain is shaking and he’s about to be swallowed in an avalanche, and so forth). The urgency of a story comes from the need to act, but before the character can act he needs to make a decision. What are his options? What should he do?
Take Odysseus. When you read the Odyssey, you’ll have the privilege of reading about one of the most interesting characters in all the long history of stories. It all concerns, as Homer tells us, this man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel. He literally goes through hell and high water to return home to his wife and son. But, after twenty years away, should he keep going? Will he keep going?
In Book One, you’ll learn how Odysseus, after nearly twenty years away, longs for his wife and his homecoming. The god Poseidon, determined to keep Odysseus from home through storm and shipwreck, has left him stranded on Kalypso’s island with no hope of leaving. To complicate matters, Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is actively pursued by numerous suitors trying to convince her to marry one of them. Odysseus’ son, Telemachos, desperately wants to keep the suitors from devouring his home, and no one in Ithaka knows what has happened to their dear king. Given these seemingly hopeless circumstances, should Odysseus keep trying to return home? Should Penelope remarry? Should Telemachos simply move on?
In all 24 “books” – think chapters – of the Odyssey, Homer tells the story of characters who have decisions to make in the midst of complicated relationships and difficult circumstances. If you want to read like you’ve never read before and enjoy a story more than you thought you were allowed to, plunge into those decisions, relationships, and circumstances. Find characters that you like or dislike and argue with them. Pay attention to how one action affects another, how one relationship affects another, and how circumstances change the people involved.
But keep your mind open. As you read the Odyssey using this guide, you will form your own opinions, and then you will test them. With each book you’ll be moving closer and closer to the heart of a very determined man, and you’ll join numbers of other people who also have painfully difficult decisions to make – the kind of decisions you often have to make yourself, though hopefully not often with so much at stake.
Read Homer closely and he’ll give you great gifts: the ability to make better decisions, to read more deeply, and even the ability to tell better stories.