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Option One—The Odyssey:  For the first option, focused solely on Homer’s Odyssey

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Option One—The Odyssey:  For the first option, focused solely on Homer’s Odyssey, there are a variety of topics to choose from. Keep in mind that the questions under each topic are intended to stimulate your thinking—you are not required to address each and every one:
The Concept of Justice:  In the very first speech in the epic, Zeus claims that “mortals blame the gods. / From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, / but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, / compound their pains beyond their proper share” (I. 37-40). This emphasis on human responsibility recurs throughout the epic, particularly regarding the suitors, yet at other times fate seems fixed. Consider the degree to which humans bring on their own destiny, and the degree to which fate appears to be decreed and unchangeable. In pondering this question, you might consider the function of prophecy, the role of the gods, and the force of human character on the events of the epic. In the world depicted here, how great a scope is allowed for human choice? Closely related to the question of justice is the question of human suffering. To what extent is suffering deserved?
The Wanderings of Odysseus:  Choose just one episode, or two that are related, in the wanderings of Odysseus as he relates them to the Phaeacians in Books IX-XII and consider how that episode relates to the epic as a whole. What important themes, motifs, and/or images are featured? How do they resonate with the larger themes of the epic?
Testing:  The epic is filled with contests, from tests of physical strength in Scheria and Ithaca to Odysseus’ testing of the members of his household, and their testing of him, to name just the most obvious. Why the emphasis on testing? What is being tested, and why?
Women:  Consider the role of women in the epic, whether mortal or divine. For what are they most praised? Most denigrated? You would do well to choose just one woman, or one contrasting pair (Helen and Penelope, for example) as you consider this question.
Fathers and Sons:  The epic begins with the story of Agamemnon and Orestes, and ends with the image of Laertes, Odysseus, and Telemachos fighting side by side; in between the epic is filled with fathers and sons. What appears to be valued in the father-son relationship?
Odysseus:  Consider the man himself—lying trickster or epic hero? A man of reckless daring or formidable self-restraint? Does he change or is his character consistent (or inconsistent!) throughout?
Option Two—Comparative Essay:  This option asks you to compare elements of The Odyssey and Beowulf. Both are classed as epics, with much in common, yet there are key differences. The choices below ask you to choose one specific element of the epic to focus on.
The Hero:  What is the most important or most interesting difference between Odysseus and Beowulf in terms of their character—who they are as individuals?
The Nature of Their Quests:  Consider the nature of their quests. What are their goals? What do they achieve? What do their differing endings suggest?
Monsters:  How do the monsters the heroes encounter differ? How are they similar? Which epic’s monsters are more human? Which are more difficult to defeat? Which monsters are the most sympathetic? Why?
Women:  Consider the role of women in the two epics, whether mortal or divine. For what are they most praised? Most denigrated? Does this differ between the two texts? You would do well to choose just one woman from each text as you consider this question.
Fathers and Sons, Kings and Thanes:  Both epics are concerned with intergenerational relationships between men, whether fathers and sons like Odysseus and Telemachos or kings and their thanes, like Hrothgar and Beowulf. What appears to be valued in these relationships? Are they really analogous?
As you write your essay, keep in mind the importance of a strong, argumentative thesis. Remember: your thesis must do more than simply state a fact. It must make an arguable assertion about the text. A second key to successfully completing this assignment is staying grounded in the text—analyze the text closely and let it support your argument. Remember: plot summary is NOT analysis! You may consider your audience (your reader) to have read Homer’s Odyssey and Beowulf, so there is no need to recapitulate the plot or circumstances of the work.
A few further “technical” points to remember as you write your essay:  Literature lives in the present moment. That means the action of the poem is conceived of as taking place in a perpetual present: “After the defeat of Troy, Odysseus begins his journey home” or “Odysseus tells his audience the story of his wanderings.” Just because Homer and the Beowulf poet wrote in the past does not mean you should write about the action of the poem as taking place in the past: it lives anew with every reading.
Regarding the format of quotations:  Quotations of less than four lines are integrated into the text, and for verse, slashes indicate line breaks: “Only Alcinous’ daughter held fast, for Athena planted / courage within her heart, dissolved the trembling in her limbs, / and she firmly stood her ground and faced Odysseus …” (VI. 153-5). Note that the capitalization scheme is preserved, as is all punctuation, and the location of the lines of text is specified by designating the book and line numbers in parentheses. Longer quotations are indented, giving each line of verse its own line of text, and do not require quotation marks; the designation of line numbers follows on the last line. No outside criticism is to be used, so there should be no need to cite any sources beyond the poem itself.

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