This, the forth and final book in Geraldine McCaughrean’s stories of Greek heroes, (preceded by Perseus, Hercules and Theseus) is the only one based on actual literature: Homer’s Odyssey. As such, McCaughrean does not have to pick and choose aspects of convoluted and often contradictory myths; her source material has already been written, providing a fairly linear sequence of events. As such, the stories concerning Odysseus have always been more straightforward than those of his peers.
The retelling begins well after the Trojan War, with Odysseus sailing home with his fleet of ships to his small kingdom of Ithaca, where his wife Penelope and son Telemachus await him. He has not seen them in ten long years, and the voyage home is a dangerous one. Meanwhile, interspersed with Odysseus’ journey are “updates” as to what is happening in Ithaca with his wife and child: Penelope has been bombarded with unwelcome suitors who fight for her hand in marriage, leading mother and son to make secrets plans of their own to keep them at bay.
McCaughrean keeps the most famous encounters of Odysseus’ adventure (encounters that even those who have little knowledge of Greek myth are probably familiar with) such as the blinding of Polyphemus the Cyclops, the enchantress Circe turning men into swine, and the twin terrors of Scylla and Charybdis. Along with these are slightly less-known experiences, such as Odysseus’ sojourn into the Underworld to speak with the blind seer Tiresias, hospitality in the household of the god of the winds, and the blissful stupor of the Lotus Eaters. All of this is more or less a condensed version of Homer’s original text, but there is an amusing variation on the nymph Calypso who holds Odysseus “captive” on her island paradise. Turns out that living the life of luxury with an adoring female isn’t quite as appealing as it sounds…
McCaughrean even manages to sneak in minor episodes, such as the unheroic death of Elpenor (poor guy fell off a roof) and Odysseus’ actions to secure his peaceful rest in the Underworld. Come to think of it, it’s amazing just what is packed into this relatively slender book. The pace is rapid (getting slightly sluggish during the Scylla/Charybdis episode) and told in clear but beautiful prose; see here, a description of Circe’s island:
Beyond the herb garden were olive groves and orchards of lemons, apples and limes. Vines entwined the marble colonnades, and hives shimmered with the early morning movement of bees. Tall, dark cypresses swayed like dancers, and the soft green of pine forests was sprinkled with asphodels and orchids.
Odysseus himself closely resembles Homer’s portrayal of the man: a typical “hero” as the Greeks would have considered one. By contemporary standards he is undoubtedly egocentric as well, yet (as with all her retellings) McCaughrean uses this to her advantage by illustrating the human foibles of such heroes. In any case, Odysseus’ renowned cunning is at the forefront of his personality, what with his plan to avoid the Cyclops and the secret infiltration of his own house at the book’s conclusion — he is even given several moments of self-inspiration that were originally passed onto him from the gods; such as chewing the moli flower to avert Circe’s spells.
Customs such as the emphasis on hospitality and various death rites are interwoven into the story’s flow (their importance clear without the need to stop and explain them) as is Odysseus’ opposing feelings of both wanderlust and weariness. Like all the retellings (collected together in an omnibus edition: Greek Heroes), this series can serve as either an introduction to or a deeper look at the heroes of antiquity. Odysseus is perhaps not as memorable as McCaughrean’s other retellings, simply because it is a straightforward adaptation with little in the way of personal innovation, but still, this is a comprehensive, researched, well-told version of one of the most famous stories of Ancient Greece.
Greek Heroes — (2003) Ages 9-12. Publisher: What makes a hero different from ordinary men? Are courage and strength enough, or is there something more that’s needed for battle, whether against a fearful monster or the wrath of the gods themselves? Here are the stories of four heroes, Perseus, Hercules, Theseus, and Odysseus, who follow the path of glory in their many unforgettable adventures. Geraldine McCaughrean is a master storyteller and she excels in combining nail-biting plots with a powerful portrayal of the main characters in all their complexity, their matchless strength and wit tempered by human weakness. The result is a collection of deeply satisfying and mesmerizing stories that will be an excellent addition to any bookshelf.