How do you summarise an epic? Lessons from a rockstar classicist

How can you condense one of the greatest books in Western literature into an half hour radio show?  Humorously and in a single take if you’re Natalie Haynes. 

I was lucky enough to be at the recording of the BBC’s latest series of Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, and in an absolute tour de force Natalie romped through each of the 24 books that make up Homer’s The Odyssey, with barely a break to draw breath.

She revisited the well-known story of Odysseus poking out the Cyclops Polyphemus’ one eye, somewhat stretching the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour for a guest.  Although it’s worth remembering that hospitality was very important in ancient Greek culture, so trapping guests in your cave and eating them (I’m looking at you, Polyphemus) was pretty terrible hosting.

Natalie also highlighted what it means to be a good wife.  When Odysseus was presumed dead, his devoted wife Penelope insisted she could not take another husband until she had woven a burial shroud for her father-in-law.  Then every night she unpicked what she had done during the day to stave off her unwanted suitors.  In contrast, Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra started a love affair with Aegisthus, then colluded with him to murder her husband when he eventually returned from Troy.  Although – to give Clytemnestra a run for her money – Agamemnon had literally sacrificed their daughter and then brought a concubine home, so there are also questions about what it means to be a good husband.

On which note, Natalie pointed out that of the ten years Odysseus spent journeying back to Ithaca, he spent seven of them living with the nymph Calypso and a year with the enchantress Circe, which makes you wonder how much of a rush he was really in to get home.

And, whilst we’re doubting some of Odysseus’ choices, I’m not convinced that any of his men would have sailed with him if they’d known firstly that it would take ten years, and secondly that Odysseus would be the only one of them to actually survive the journey.

He is certainly not a straightforward hero, and The Odyssey is full of depth and complexity.  It raises questions only to offer conflicting answers.  To capture so much of it in half an hour is in itself an epic feat – kudos to Natalie Haynes for such a brilliant summary. 

But don’t take my word for it, you can hear her yourself when the new series of Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics starts on 14th August.

If you can’t wait until then, I would seriously recommend catching any or all of Natalie’s previous series.  And if you’d like to do a bit of reading, why not whet your appetite with Natalie’s article The greatest tale ever told? written after The Odyssey topped a BBC poll in 2018 of the 100 stories that shaped the world.

PS If you’re questioning the title of this article, and whether there is even such a thing as a ‘rockstar classicist’, let me tell you that people were queuing from before 4.15 for a recording that didn’t start until 7.30.  I got literally THE LAST SEAT IN THE THEATRE and the people sitting next to me described themselves as ‘Super-Fans’.  So, yes, Natalie is a rockstar.