Looking at Odysseus’s narrative in Books 9 through 12, think about the techniques Homer uses to portray the magical and fantastical aspects of Odysseus’s adventures. How does he handle what we might call special effects? That is, how does he make his monsters fearsome, his goddesses stunning, the dangers frightening, etc.?
In Books 9 through 12, Odysseus relates a series of thrilling and colorful adventures. As in a successful horror movie, the spine-tingling elements and vivid characters are effective not simply on their own terms, but because of their careful deployment at just the right moment in the narrative. Two key narrative choices are made in these books of The Odyssey: Homer hands the storytelling reins over to Odysseus, and Odysseus decides to create a suspenseful tale rather than a straightforward one. It is these narrative decisions that make the so-called special effects in this section so convincing.
By allowing Odysseus to tell these stories in the first-person, rather than narrating them in the third person, Homer draws the reader in and creates a sense of immediacy. He puts us on the scene, giving us the sensation that we are sitting among Odysseus’s audience. Instead of regarding the story at arm’s length, as we might when reading a third-person narration, we identify with Odysseus’s listeners. Like them, we find ourselves leaning forward to hear what will happen next. In addition to luring the audience further into the story, the choice to narrate these books in Odysseus’s voice lends urgency and proximity to the events described. Because the character Odysseus actually experienced the adventures he describes, his account of them is more compelling and convincing than a narrator’s account would be. When he describes the “sweet transports” he enjoys in Circe’s bed, or the “brains and mingled gore” covering the ground of Cyclops’s cave, the details—the special effects—are especially vivid because the speaker is not a faceless author but a participant describing what he saw with his own eyes.
In addition to his presence as first-person narrator, it is Odysseus’s incredible facility for constructing gripping narratives that makes the individual elements in his stories spring to life. He has a variety of tactics for creating suspense, one of the most effective of which involves forcing the audience to wait for key information. Instead of giving the headlines first and then filling in the story, as one would when writing a summary of Odysseus’s adventures, he sets the scene, hints that something big is going to happen, and then, after prolonging the anticipation, describes the main event. For example, he takes his time setting the scene on Aeaea, describing Circe’s lineage, the terrain of the island, and what the men found there to eat. At last, he shares the really fascinating information, the things that his audience actually wants to hear about: what happened when the men were turned into dogs and what it was like being Circe’s lover. Odysseus also has a knack for intentionally inspiring unease in his audience. Like a movie director who knows that the sudden appearance of a murderer will be even more terrifying if it is preceded by two minutes of silence, Odysseus understands the value of setting an eerily perfect scene that signals the approach of a disaster. Before he and his men go to Cyclops’s cave, for instance, he spends a great deal of time detailing the restful night they passed on the ship, the “pleasing ground” they saw upon awakening, and the “nine fat goats” they killed for food. The idyllic quality of the scene is unsettling, giving us a pleasant thrill of fear in anticipation of what will happen next.
Books 9 through 12 of The Odyssey are filled with first-rate special effects: blood and bones, cruel giants, daring escapes, sexually ravenous sorceresses, and more. But carelessly deployed, these same effects could make up the ingredients of a tawdry melodrama. It is the skill with which they are embedded in the narrative that makes them spring off the page in such a compelling fashion.