The study of the Odyssey by Bruce Louden is the source of the ideas I'm going to present here about the Odyssey. Book is entitled: The Odyssey: Structure, Narration, and Meaning. (Johns Hopkins, 1999)
I've got the Samuel Butler prose version
which is a lovely read! Butler was an interesting guy. Check Wikipedia for a bit about his life. Anyway, as Wikipedia says:
Butler developed a theory that the Odyssey came from the pen of a young Sicilian woman, and that the scenes of the poem reflected the coast of Sicily and its nearby islands. He described the "evidence" for this theory in his The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) and in the introduction and footnotes to his prose translation of the Odyssey (1900). Robert Graves elaborated on this hypothesis in his novel Homer's Daughter. In a lecture titled "The Humour of Homer", delivered at The Working Men's College in London, 1892, Butler argued that Homer's gods in the Iliad are like men but "without the virtue" and that the poet "must have desired his listeners not to take them seriously."
It was a pretty innovative idea at the time and there may be some truth in this in terms of the written version having been put down on paper in such a context, but I think we should keep Wilkens' map of Troy and those ancient lands in mind while reading.
I've even considered enhancing that map, printing it, and pasting it inside the cover of the book.
On to the structure.
Louden makes a few points in his intro as follows:
A good awareness of the structure aids interpretation and boy, is that the truth! It is in the structure that you find the points that the text is seeking to convey, to emphasize, to teach.
It is in studying the patterns of repetition that you discover the structure. The Odyssey incorporates all kinds of repetitive elements from repeating words that make a point, repeating whole lines, repeating dramatic scenes/scenarios, and larger unit repetition.
One scholar compared the repetitive elements in the Odyssey to a then living oral tradition in the former Yugoslavia. He then concluded that the repeated verbal and line formulas allowed the bard to improvise performances. It is thought that this accounts for the presence of the various repetitive elements - they are there so that a single bard could perform ex tempore, a work as lengthy and intricate as the Odyssey.
The Odyssey contains narrative units of considerable length that contain repeating scene types that extend over several "books" (read: chapters).
Most scholars have concentrated on small, discrete structures within the Odyssey, Louden, however, is concerned with the whole thing, how the interrelations of one part of the plot connect to another part. By this method, he shows that some passages that have been argued as being inconsistent or interpolations, are actually part of the repeating pattern - sometimes repeating exactly as many as three times - and thus argue for the authenticity of those problematical parts.
Consider Odysseus address to the Phaiakians when, provoked by Euryalos, a rude athlete, the hero competes in the games winning the discus throw. He comments on his prowess in other events including archery as floowls:
I am not bad in any of the contests where men strive. I know well how to handle the polished bow, and would be first to strike my man with an arrow aimed at a company of hostile men. (Book 8)
Louden shows that this passage foreshadows the slaughter of the suitors in book 22. There are many correspondences between Odysseus situation on Skheria and the state of affairs on Ithaka. In each case, Odysseus is verbally abused by a group of young men. There is a parallel name formation for one of the men instigating the abuse: Euryalos -> Eurymakhos. The abusive bands compete in athletic events: the games on Sheria and the bow contest on Ithaka. Odysseus bests the entire band both times. Louden argues that these correspondences are too great to be coincidence.
The same correspondences occur a third time. This type of patterned correspondence is pervasive in the Odyssey.
Louden points out that many scholars insist that these correspondences are "locally motivated" and do not reflect a larger design. He then establishes quite compellingly that this is not the case: the Odyssey is a GRAND Design. Those scholars who do not accept this tend to look on the author (Homer, whoever) as "noble savages" who could not possibly have the kind of intellect needed to actually create the amazing structure of the Odyssey. Louden takes the opposite view arguing that large scale design - intentional - is the overwhelming nature of the Odyssey.
Considering that, we then can consider that there is a serious reason for this over and above just the need for a bard to have a structure that enables him to "improvise." I would even suggest that this pattern - that it is STILL THERE - argues against serious corruption of the text; the structure may be what has preserved the text relatively intact. Louden is convinced that this structure is not there just for aesthetic reasons, that the structure argues for a larger design than previously recognized by most scholars. He notes that the repetition evident in the design helps drive home the poem's central, primarily ethical points, particularly the importance of self-control and the ability to observe the gods' behests in the face of adversity.
In book 8 of the Odyssey, Odysseus himself suggests the importance of sequence in the epic narrative. After Demodokos performs two songs, Odysseus asks him to sing of the Trojan horse, promising reward "if you should narrate these things for me in good order." The Greek used here connotes "an ordered succession" that relates something "point by point." That is, a correct epic performance consists of a point-by-point narrative succession that does not fail. Here, the emphasis is on sequence as a central index of epic competence. Odysseus singles out sequence as a fundamental criterion of performance and composition.
Louden argues that a large sequence of successive type-scenes or motifs - the extended narrative pattern - underlies the bulk of the Odyssey. The FULL EXTENDED PATTERN OCCURS THREE TIMES in the text. This pattern, in its three full versions is the skeleton of 90% of the plot.
Louden proposes that the reason this has not been really noticed before is due to the fact that themes and type scenes do not always exhibit verbal - word for word - correspondences. Louden points out that the theme is not so much a grouping of words, but a grouping of ideas in a particular order.
In the three different sequences, the type-scenes occur in precisely the same order (with rare exceptions). And there is some intervening material less directly related to the pattern and its components. Some details may get more or less expansion or ornamentation in one sequence than another and this may be evidence of some improvisation. But the overall structure argues for excellent survival of the original text.
The three large sequences are interlocking ring compositions: A1 B1 C1 C2 B2 A2.
A1: Ithakan Sequence, book 1 through book 4
B1: Skherian Sequence, end of book 5 through book 8
C1: Aiaian Sequence: book 9 through book 11:332
C2: Aiaian Sequence: book 11.383 through book 12
B2: Skherian Sequence, book 13.1-187a
A2: Ithakan Sequence, book 13.187b through book 24
The recurrence of the narrative pattern suggests greater attention should be paid to some of the specific subgenres of myth, especially theoxeny, and key motifs, notably divine interdictions and divine wrath around which the poem has centered the sequences of this narrative pattern. The selectivity the text exercises in emphasizing one type of mythic vehicle over another is one of the best tools for extracting the meaning of the poem.
The mythic subgenre to which the Odyssey belongs is that of a local, contained apocalypse, resulting from a deity's anger at mortals' impiety, in which the "one just man" in the community survives.
I think that there is something about the Odyssey and this pattern thing that makes the poem affect people on several levels depending on the individual, of course. Obviously, knowing the structure, being able to pinpoint the line of force of the text, is the optimal way to combine heart knowledge and head knowledge that one can get from reading this epic.
This should give you enough to think about as you get started. I'll pull out some more interesting stuff tomorrow!
You don't have to race through it, either. Taking your time and thinking about what you have read and trying to "see the unseen" meaning might be useful!