Despite the rather inquisitorial tone of some recent articles, I think it's important to stress that Giant Cannibals is in no way an attack on The Odyssey. I’m still genuinely surprised that the intervening millennia of literary analysis haven’t produced a more probing critique of the Laestrygonian section of the poem, but it’s important to remember that though it may not be logical, neither is the rest of the text – and, I would argue, for good reason too.
Fate, luck and capricious weather-gods are the immediate causes of this specific scenario, but in context, it can rather seem as if “divine winds” are controlling Odysseus and his men throughout The Odyssey. We will put aside that the vast majority of the creatures they face are fictional, or at best exaggerated tropes of real and familiar dangers. Homer conjures new obstacles for his characters time and again, and doesn’t flinch at resorting to the deus ex machina for a resolution.
Odysseus may be the cleverest man in history, but he has more than a little bit of good luck along the way. The Cyclops just happens to be a shepherd, who just happens to keep his sheep indoors. There is a way past Charybdis, even if to navigate it mandates a human sacrifice. Odysseus manages to wash up on the home island of a beautiful sea-nymph, rather than being dashed against the rocks. And did the suitors really take three years to discover that Penelope was unpicking her funeral shroud? A critique rooted in realism would damn this stack of coincidences as contrived plot-pushing, but this misses the point. The unreal world of The Odyssey intrigues us not in spite of its serendipity but because of it.
When Odysseus is offered control of the four winds - perhaps the most valuable gift in the history of sailing - it is not out of step with the rest of the poem that such a gift exists to be given. Nor is it inconsistent that he happens to stow it within easy reach of his discontented crew. But does this matter? I would say not. The Odyssey is a fantasy, one that was never even designed to be written down, and just because it may lack narrative and logical fluency in places, does not mean it has any less of an emotive punch. We are used to reading stories, not hearing them. The written word allows texts to be constructed with forensic rigour, and as a consequence it encourages readers to be ruthlessly stingy with their suspension of disbelief. Ironically, it is the very abstraction of the medium which has driven our collective tastes toward realism.
This is a good time to mention what I regard as the most moving part of the poem. After his return to Ithaca, Odysseus is just a few feet from his front door. He finds his faithful dog, now old and frail, lying in a pile of dung. As they recognise each other, Argos passes away. Obviously the odds of Odysseus' dog dying at this exact moment are incredibly slim, as is that he would recognise his diguised owner after a twenty-year absence. It is rather coincidental that Odysseus walks past his dog at all. Yet in reminding the audience that this mythical narrative is underpinned by a human story, it is crucial. The event injects an intense emotional distress into a part of the poem which, in comparison to earlier horrors, might otherwise seem tame and bucolic.
The incident also illustrates how coincidence can unleash the narrative power of the pathetic fallacy. A dying dog does more than make us feel sad. It tells us that Odysseus' estate has fallen into disrepair, and that the world he left behind has begun to crumble in his absence. It tells us that despite having battled the odds and the Gods to reach a seemingly safe equilibrium, there is still work to be done. This is a poem after all, not a soap opera; abrogating plausibility is not just a means of introducing exotic situations, but a way of telling the story more effectively.
Fortuity is not only crucial to the internal workings of the poem. It tells us that in comparison to The Iliad before it, The Odyssey is a new kind of story. The Trojan Horse established the archetype of a protagonist using ingenuity to escape from a dangerous situation. Achilles, for example, would surely have fought his way out of Polyphemus' cave. Odysseus is a new kind of hero: the warrior who thinks. Were his world not riven with luck, coincidence, the unexpected and the monstrous, how could his legendary cunning be properly tested?
The Odyssey remains one of my favourite tales of all time, precisely because it is a tale. After the grinding realism of The Iliad, here we have a total flight of fantasy. In the harsh crucible of the modern reader's sensibilities, such a narrative must seem patchy in places. But we do not read or listen to The Odyssey for the logic of it. We're not there to guess the next plot twist or discover the culprit, and we have no right to be frustrated when the narrative takes a turn for the unforeseeable. We're in it for the adventure.