This series is an attempt to unpick one of The Odyssey’s most enigmatic and under-researched stories, and to reinterpret one of the central questions that hangs over Homer’s narrative.
Why and how do the optimism and ambition of Odysseus’ journey degrade so deeply and so rapidly? At the story's outset, we are charting the homecoming of a victorious army. By the end, there is only the survival-struggle of a desperate man. And this does not happen gradually. In Book 10, within 130 short lines of verse, Odysseus loses eleven of his twelve ships, and with them almost all of his men. In the space of a single incident, his horizons have narrowed by an order of magnitude, and our only account of what happened is delivered not by the poet himself, but by his rather slippery protagonist:
As the vignette begins, Odysseus is in a strong position. After seven years at sea, his homeland is in sight. The weather blows in his favour, thanks to a gift and blessing from Aiolos, Master of Winds. His fleet of twelve ships, and his hundreds-strong crew, seem unstoppable.
What Odysseus describes next is a terrible chain of cause and effect. One after the other, he suffers through a vicious mutiny, the theft and destruction of his talisman, a predictable dose of divine wrath, six days of punishing storms, a desperate bid for refuge in a strange land, and a massacre at the hands of the giant cannibals who live there.
This incredibly brief passage, whose length amounts barely to a passing anecdote, comprises the single bloodiest documented episode in Odysseus’ life since the end of the Trojan War, and yet it is recounted using fewer lines than many of the poem's less eventful asides.
Stranger than the tale’s brevity are its contradictions. The attack is claimed to be immediate, but by the time it happens, Odysseus has been there long enough to talk about the royal family, the names of places, and the local economy. The Laestrygonians are “giants, not men” and “tall as mountains”, but the hero’s first encounter is with their princess, whom he describes in very pleasant terms. The two get on so well that she formally introduces him to her father.
The narrative volte-face - from civilised strangers to murderous, bloodthirsty giants - begs a bold leap of plausibility, to say the least. There may be metanarrative reasons for these structural gaps, but taken as part of the hero’s arc, Odysseus’ story does not make sense. Giant Cannibals is what we’re doing to put the pieces together.