What I’m Reading: The Lost Books of the Odyssey

As you are probably aware, if you’ve spent any time on this blog, I’ve got a real fondness for mythology in general, Greek mythology in particular, and the adventures of Odysseus specifically. I do consider The Odyssey one of the finest adventure stories of all time, and the assorted interpretations of that book have entertained me to no end. It wasn’t a hard decision at all to give Zachary Mason’s book The Lost Books of the Odyssey a try.

The book labels itself as a novel, but it’s not really, not if you define define a novel as a book length work of fiction. Instead, Mason gives us a quick read full of 44 alternate takes on the tales found in the Illiad and the Odyssey. As the writer notes in the introduction, before the poet Homer’s interpretation of Odysseus’s story became the standard, there were many versions of the story that were used, moved around, and toyed with by storytellers putting their own stamp on the legend.

This book purports to be some of those “lost” tales, and several of them feel as though they actually could be. “Helen’s Image” shows the woman who launched a thousand ships making a different choice, for example, and in “A Sad Revelation” we see an Odysseus whose wife Penelope has not been as loyal as in the classic version. Some of the other tales, “The Books of Winter” for example, take the framework of Odysseus’s tale and wrap it around a context that would not have been thought of in Homer’s time. More than one of the tales dips its toes into the realm of metafiction, making a commentary on fiction itself.  “Record of a Game” reinvents both Homeric tales as document about the playing of one of the oldest games of strategy.

If you’re trying to accept this book as an actual “lost” tale of Odysseus, it’s not going to satisfy you, but as an alternate take, it works marvelously well. The stories come across like Odysseus told through the prism of the Twilight Zone or Marvel Comics’ What If? series — versions of Odysseus that branch off from or exist catercorner to the version that we’re all so familiar with. I greatly enjoyed this book. It really engaged me, charged up my imagination, and got me to look at Odysseus’s world from a different angle. I definitely recommend this one.

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March 2010

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