The Bards of The Odyssey: Commentary on the Role of Narrative in Homer’s Epic (2023)

The Odyssey, as it is well known, falls into the category of “epic poetry.” The term signals that an adventurous tale that was forged in antiquity and delivered orally in front of a crowd is being described. This method of distribution, that is the oral performance, is crucial to understanding The Odyssey. The communal setting in which this performance would have been delivered is also important when analyzing the text. Though today we read the Odyssey alone, with the exceptions of class discussion, we must be conscious that the form we are now receiving is different than the form that the epic was originally conceived with. Keeping in mind that The Odyssey was a product of a larger bardic tradition in the ancient world, we may see the way that the bards within the text signal reflection on the work as a whole. I will argue that in The Odyssey the bards are used to trigger plot movement as well comment on the nature of narrative, asserting the role of narrative in shaping reality; this effectively makes the Odyssey a work which does not allow itself to be self-contained, rather self-consciously blurs the lines of fiction and reality.

One of the ways The Odyssey blurs the lines of fiction and reality and comments on their relationship is by showing the effect of “stories” within the text on the text’s characters. Phemius is the first bard mentioned in the Odyssey. He is appears in the first book, giving the first impression of the role of bards and the importance of narrative within the poem. When Phemius appears he is entertaining the suitors, “the famous bard sang on, and they sat in silence, listening/as he performed the Achaens’ Journey Home from Troy:/all the blows Athena doomed them to endure” (Book 1, 375-377). The Trojan war is the war that Odysseus never returned from. Later we are told that the tale of the journey home upset’s Odysseus’ wife Penelope because it reminds her of her absent husband. This is our introduction to Penelope and gives us information about her situation and her character, helping to frame the text we have just begun. The effect of this relationship between the story within the story and Penelope’s reaction reveals the power of narration to create reactions in characters, who represent “real” auditors. This disrupts the idea of an inside vs outside of a text.

In a few lines we see how the bard’s tale sets off a chain reaction. After Penelope asks the bard to stop telling the story Telemachus tells her not to have hims stop and asks, “why deny/our devoted bard the chance to entertain us/any way the spirit stirs him on?/Bards are not to blame,” (Book 1, 397- 400). This is the first intonation of the fact that bards are inspired by the muse. The language mirrors the title of “Book One: Athena Inspires the Prince.” The inspiration of gods on humans is embodied by the figure of a bard and this is mirrored by Athena’s inspiration on Telemachus. This is an instance in which the explicit narrative of Telemachus going to seek out news of his father is merged with the story within the story and the role of the bard. The bard’s “story,” relates to Telemachus’ “reality,” at least within the fiction. This would all have been enveloped in the single narrator performing the story orally to a large audience. The interrelating and multi-layered dimensions of this narrative all point to an intentionally constructed commentary on the relationship between narrative and reality.

The thematic exploration of narrative is established further by the second bard that appears in the Odyssey. The bard Demodocus appears during “Book 8: A Day for Songs and Contests.” In this chapter of the poem Odysseus has washed up on Phaecia and is being feasted as a celebrated guests and Demodocus is brought in to recite a poem. The narrative tells us, “the muse inspired the bard/to sing the famous deeds of fighting heroes-/the song whose fame had reached the skies those days:/The strife Between Odysseus and Achilles” (86-89). After this introduction to the Bard’s tale the speaker gives us a summation of the Bard’s narrative which details the defeat of the Trojans. Because of Odysseus’ involvement in the story he cries to hear it and his host, Alcinous, notices. Like the effect of Phemius’ tale on Penelope functions as a plot device this song propels the larger narrative forward as Odysseus reaction to the tale gives the King of Phaecia the first intonation that his identity may be more than that of just a strange wanderer. More importantly however, is the story itself. The bard is giving us Odysseus’ background, part of Odysseus’ story being told by a character within his own story. This draws attention to Odysseus’ life being a narrative even within the context of his life, as the bard who recites his rendition of The Odyssey’s narrative gets interwoven with the precursor to the journey that we are hearing about now. This operates as something of a meta device, blurring the lines between the fiction and reality as a real audience imagines Odysseus assuming their position, that is of an auditor.

Demodocus’ songs not only propel the narrative but comment on the overarching themes of The Odyssey, which becomes a commentary on the role of narrative outside of texts. Demodocus’ second song is one of a betrayed husband, Hephaestus. The story begins, “The Love of Ares and Aphrodite Crowned with Flowers…./how the two had first made love in Hephaestus’ mansion,/all in secret” (302-304). The story begins with the adultery which takes place in the absent husband’s house, a dramatic structure which resembles Odysseus’ situation, the driving force of the narrative of the Odyssey being that he must return to his house to rescue Penelope from suitors who would try to seduce her. The difference, however is that Aphrodite is the archetypal treacherous wife while Penelope is the idealistic image of female loyalty. By setting up this opposition between Demodocus’ tale and the overarching narrative the poem comments on its themes of relationships and gender, emphasizing Penelope’s superiority as a wife within the world of the poem. This effectively shows the resonance of stories on “reality” or at least the reality of the dominant narrative.

Demodocus’ tale ends with Hephaestus trapping the lovers in his bed and all the gods are said to have cried out, “Look how limping Hephaestus conquers War,/The quickest of all the gods who rule Olympus!”/”The cripple wins by craft” (371-373). The conclusion of the bard’s story involves a vindicated husband who through wit overcame the odds against him. This is again a parallel image of Odysseus who lays a careful trap against the multitude of suitors and with surprise and strategy defeats them against all odds. This story therefore serves to function as a foreshadowing of future events of the poem in addition to mimicking the larger narrative’s themes. The repeated in-text “tales” or narratives correlation to themes in the larger narrative draws attention to the fictive “reality” in which these characters live. If the stories within The Odyssey correspond to and are relevant to Odysseus’ “reality” then the question arises, “How does The Odyssey” correspond to or become relevant to the listener’s reality. One way is the fact that the story of adultery reflects the views of the time of female fidelity, justice, the value of craft etc., like Odysseus the ancient audience was at least partially hearing a story about themselves.

Demodocus’ third song also blurs the line’s between the auditors’ realities and the world of the text. He again tells a story of the Greeks and the Trojan’s. His song begins,

Stirred now by the Muse, the bard launched out

in a fine blaze of song, starting at just the point

where the main Achaean force,setting their camps afire,

had boarded the oarswept ships and sailed for home

but famed Odysseus’ men already crouched in hiding-

In the heart of Troy’s assembly-dark in that horse (Book 8, 559-564).

This is the third and last time a bard tells the story of the Trojan war. There is clearly an emphasis on war, glory, and masculinity in the culture within the narrative and likely in the culture of the audience. The likely reflection of values present in the bards’ stories reinforces the difficulty of separating the text from its context. The Odyssey also blurred the lines between history and fiction, as I alluded to at the end of my previous paragraph. The history of Troy and subsequently of Odysseus, is not self contained, but assumedly part of a larger reality for the listeners. The audience of The Odyssey would assume they were being told real events, hearing these stories as Odysseus did, effectively making them participants in history. Furthermore, the story brings Odysseus to tears (Book 8, 586) prompting Alcinous to ask Odysseus to tell his tale, launching Odysseus into telling the bulk of his travels, enabling a change of voice from narrator to character. For many books to come Odysseus, the main character, will take on the role of storyteller, or bard. This is another aspect of the many narrative layers of the Odyssey, as we are taken through a series of events that are being told in hindsight by Odysseus to the Phaecians, told to an audience by a poet. As the poet begins to speak as Odysseus, the idea of the Odyssey as a self contained text becomes harder to swallow, as more lines between character and voice are blurred.

Up until this point in the epic the bard’s have only had an effect on the narrative through their poems, however Phemius is able to speak for himself, shifting the focus of a bard’s significance from other character’s interpretations to a bard’s view of himself. After Odysseus returns to Ithaca, Phemius appears again, but not until “Book 22: Slaughter in the Hall,” like Demodocus in his song about Aphrodite, Phemius evokes the Gods, but for an explicitly different purpose: to make a case for why Odysseus should not kill him. Phemius begs Odysseus,

“I hug your knees, Odysseys-mercy!spare my life!

What a grief it will be to you for all the years to come

if you kill the singer now, who sings for gods and men.

I taught myself the craft, but a god has planted

deep in my spirit all the paths of song-

songs I’m fit to sing for you as for a god (Book 22, 362-367).

The purpose of this speech seems to be to reiterate the bard’s place in ancient Greek society. There have been explicit references to the muse’s influence earlier in the text. However, this is the most in depth analysis of the bard’s creative process. The speech shows the relationship between divine inspiration and the poet’s own craft and skill. Both elements contribute to the finished product of the poem. The fact that this analysis comes from a bard character is significant. The bard performing to an ancient audience would then take on the fictional bard character in order to explain the creative process. This merging of speaker and character is similar to the one that occurred when Odysseus took over the narration of the Odyssey. In the case of Phemius it places him within the larger bardic tradition. Phemius’ plea and analysis of his craft does not exist only within the text. This view of bardic craft was prevalent in the ancient world. The real bard speaking to the audience as a fictional bard potentially takes on a didactic tone as well as allowing the contents of the poem to spill out into reality once again. This effectively makes this scene as much about poetry as it existed in the ancient world as it is about the movement of the plot. The effect is to once again expand The Odyssey out of the category of self contained text into a broader context.

Due to the fact that Homer lived during antiquity many scholars are not positive that they can attribute the work to only him. Much like Shakespeare Homer is thought to have drawn from older oral traditions and there may have been several revisions by others to the original piece after completion. We can not know for certain. However, the uncertainty of origin serves to highlight my argument. The Odyssey can not be considered a work that exists in a vacuum. In fact it self consciously comments on the role of narration, oral storytelling, and bardic craft within the then reality of Ancient Greek society. It does so by producing two bardic figures, as well as by turning its main character into something of a bard as the task of orating his story falls to him. Through all of this commentary The Odyssey reveals itself to be a product of its time, making its relationship to the world explicit. It blurs the line between the “inside” and “outside” of a text. It does this by allowing the bards not only to tell stories within the story but by having their stories affect the plot, having the bards tell stories that are relevant to the larger narrative, and by having them express thoughts that resonate with the audience. The Odyssey when analyzed with consideration for the function of the bards, with the oral delivery and communal setting in mind, thereby effectively becomes a meta-text that expands itself beyond the confines of narration through focusing attention on its own structure.

Work Cited

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books, New York: 2006. Print.

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