Monday, January 31, 2011

Oh, The Odyssey

Finally, the blog post I've been meaning to write for over a month. I know you've been looking forward to it just as much as I have. I figured I need to get it done before home-schooled teen and I get enmeshed in our next epic, The Aeneid, which, startlingly, I have never read before (although I was supposed to have in Lit 101, not sure how I got away with not doing it).

So, onward.

As I said in my previous Odyssey post, this is my fourth or fifth time reading the epic and each time I read it, I notice new things. This time, I was noticing the way the story is structured and found myself completely surprised by devices I thought were more recent literary developments.

The Odyssey was written around 700 BCE about events which occurred around 1500 BCE. There's debate over whether The Odyssey and its companion epic, The Iliad, were written by a collection of oral poets who came to be known as 'Homer,' were the work of one poet who worked only in the oral tradition and the works we know were transcriptions of his performances, or if the works we know were actually written by a single author named Homer. There's evidence to support any of these views. That they were originally performed from memory as oral poems is shown by the repetition of certain set pieces - the putting on of armor, the washing of hands before eating, the pouring of libations to the gods - all of these devices gave the bard time to organize his thoughts before beginning the next sequence of events. There's also evidence that the works were written down, namely the length of the poems. The Odyssey would have taken three full days to be performed as it is written (kind of like watching a production of Hamlet in which all of Shakespeare's lines are used - it's very rare to see productions like that these days).

I support the view that the works we know today as The Iliad and The Odyssey were probably transcriptions of performances (again, the Folios of Shakespeare were transcriptions of performances since there were no traditional scripts from which to make master copies) that Homer (and I do think there is a single author, a single, organizing consciousness at work in the poems) used as the basis for his written copies. The Odyssey, at least, is too complex, too layered, to have been composed in the moment of performance. And I'll come back to this thought in a bit.

Many people think The Odyssey is only the fantastic voyage Odysseus made on his way home from the Trojan War. They remember the cannibalistic Laistrygonians and Cyclops, the Scylla and Charybdis, the Lotus Eaters, Circe turning Odysseus' men into pigs, and Odysseus' descent into the underworld. James Joyce, in writing Ulysses, only used this portion of the story. But this part of the story takes up only a small part of its telling - only four out of the twenty-four books, or chapters.

The story opens on Ithaca, with Telemachus, Odysseus and Penelope's son, who is on the threshold of manhood at twenty one years old. Odysseus has been gone for twenty years, and Telemachus is getting fed up with the suitors who have been sniffing around Penelope for the past three years and partying on Odysseus' tab. Athena comes to Telemachus and tells him to go visit two of Odysseus' comrades, in fact, the only two kings who made it back from Troy and are still alive - Nestor and Menelaus, which he does.

So the first four books of The Odyssey don't start out with Odysseus at all. They start with his son and the stories about Odysseus - how cunning he was, what an amazing warrior he was, and, oh yes, you look just like him, Telemachus, you are truly his son. We get to hear all about Odysseus from Nestor and Menelaus and Helen (who seem to have a pretty strange relationship - one of my favorite scenes is when they're telling Telemachus about the Trojan Horse and Helen basically says, oh yeah, remember when you guys were all in the horse and I came around pretending to be your wives and calling out to you in their voices and trying to get you guys to come out so the Trojans could kill you? And, yeah, only Odysseus kept his head and told everyone to stay where they were, which was a good thing because I was really ready to come home to Sparta. I don't know what came over me. And then she drugs everyone so they go to sleep and forget their woes.)

The first look we get at Odysseus is in Book Five when the gods send Hermes to tell Calypso she's got to give up her boy toy and let him return to Ithaca. She goes to tell him and finds him where he always is, sitting at the ocean's edge, his eyes fixed on the horizon, looking for even a shadow of his beloved island. This is not the great warrior, the cunning thinker, we've just been hearing about. This is a man stripped of everything that makes him who he is. None of his skills, his bravery, his intelligence, can get him off Calypso's island. The best his intelligence and brave heart can do is keep him from accepting her offer of immortality. And when she first tells him he is free to leave and return home, his first lines are "I don't believe you. You're plotting something new. I won't get on a raft until you swear you are letting me go." He is completely powerless at this moment.

And this is the first thing that struck me in this reading of The Odyssey - how modern this opening is. The build up of the hero by others so that we have one picture of this man in our heads and then the reality shattering that expectation, so that we can see how much this journey has taken from him. We don't need to be told at this point everything that has happened to him, the evidence is right in front of us that it's been bad.

Another aspect of the first eight books I found interesting was that the timeline is not linear. Homer does this a couple of times. He sets the clock ticking with Telemachus leaving Ithaca to visit Odysseus' friends and leaves Telemachus as the boy is telling Menelaus he must return to Ithaca. Then Homer rewinds the clock a few days to show us Odysseus on Calypso's island making preparations to leave. What this does is allow Telemachus and Odysseus to be starting their respective journeys at the same time so that later they will reach Ithaca at almost the same time. If this were a movie, you can almost see the cuts from father to son, both performing the same actions but in different locations.

After bringing us to Calypso's island, Homer keeps us with Odysseus until Book 15. Odysseus builds his raft, sets sail for Ithaca and is waylaid by Poseidon who is furious that Odysseus is being allowed to return home. He shipwrecks Odysseus on Scheria where he's found by the Phaeacians princess, Nausicaa, and, using those wits, gets himself treated as an honored guest at the palace without revealing his true identity to his hosts. He's able to keep this up until the last night of his stay. The Phaeacians are going to give him parting gifts, put him on a ship, and return him to Ithaca. At the feast, Odysseus asks the bard to sing about Odysseus and the Trojan Horse, which the bard does, and Odysseus begins to weep openly. At this point, his host looks at him and says, "Okay, who the heck are you? We've got a pretty good idea that you're one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War, but you've got to tell us." And Odysseus does. In a first person account.

Again, this was another place that stood out for the way in which Homer chooses to tell his story. Up to this point, the bard is narrating the story in the third person. Now Odysseus steps forward to tell his own story in his own words. He is the hero acting as bard and the bard (when this would have been performed) acts as the hero. It's a neat bit of doubling which underscores the doubling that occurs in the story Odysseus tells. Every event in Odysseus' journey has a double or mirror image.

Leaving Troy, Odysseus and his men sack a small city. This city was an ally of Troy, so sacking it wasn't a bad idea, it kept the risk of retaliation to a minimum. The first place they stop after that is the island of the Lotus eaters where the men forget all about their journey home and Odysseus has to round them up and drag them back to the ships. The Lotus Eaters are actually congenial hosts - sharing what they have freely and generously (as the Phaeacians will do at the end of Odysseus' journey), although the result is that the men will never leave, while the Phaeacians will help Odysseus return home. Then they reach the Laistrygonians who capture all but one of Odysseus' ships and eat his men. Again, consumption, but this time with bad hosts. Then the Cyclops who also eats several of Odysseus' men and would have eaten all of them if Odysseus hadn't blinded him and had his men hid beneath the bellies of the Cyclops' sheep.

But, of course, Odysseus has to tell the Cyclops his name. He shouts it as his ship is departing so that the Cyclops will know who has gotten the best of him. At this point, the Cyclops calls on his father, Poseidon, and curses Odysseus' journey home. The mirror of this? Odysseus' unwillingness to reveal his name to the Phaeacians. He only reveals it once he trusts they will take him home.

They travel next to Aeolus' island where Odysseus is given the bag of winds which contains all the winds except for the one which will take them home. They are within sight of Ithaca, they can see the fires on the shores, when Odysseus' men open the bag which blows them back to Aeolus, who is no longer a happy host and sends them on their way with angry words and threats.

They travel to Circe's island, where she turns some of his men into pigs (which can be seen as a doubling of how the Cyclops treated them, they were like livestock, now they are livestock), Hermes gives Odysseus a magic herb so Circe will have no power over him, and he ends up staying with Circe for a year until his men remind him about Ithaca and that they want to get back there (like the Lotus Eaters). Circe tells Odysseus he must consult Tiresias in the underworld before going leaving which he does.

And here's another interesting thing. In the underworld, Odysseus sees the ghosts of Achilles and Agamemnon. He knows Achilles died at Troy, but he has no way of knowing that Agamemnon is dead at this point in time. Remember, he's telling this story to the Phaeacians after being on Calypso's island for seven years. Agamemnon returned home from the Trojan War to find his wife had taken up with a lover and conspired with him to kill Agamemnon. This story is told and retold several times in The Odyssey. Telemachus even says he wishes he were like Orestes who avenged his father's death because then he would have the strength to take on the suitors and drive them from his home. But in the underworld, we finally come face to face with the man himself. He tells Odysseus how he died and warns him to assess the situation at home, make sure of Penelope, and take nothing for granted. Not only does he give good advice, but he also provides credibility for this fantastic story Odysseus is telling. Could he have heard about it while on Calypso's island. Yes, he could have. But he relates another event (and I can't think of it right now) that he heard about and tells the Phaeacians the round about way in which he came to possess this knowledge. He doesn't do that here. He saw Agamemnon with his own eyes and learned, from him, something he would have no way of knowing otherwise. It is an ingenious bit of storytelling on Homer's part.

Returning to Circe, Odysseus learns about the rest of his journey - that they will be stranded on Helios' shores and under no circumstances are they to eat the sun god's cattle (which, of course, the men will do), they will need to pass by Scylla and Charybdis (which Odysseus will do twice - once with his men, once on his own - again, a mirror journey - the first time, he passes close to Scylla and loses six men, the next time he is swallowed by the whirlpool and then tossed back up).

After all this, Odysseus ends up, alone, on Calypso's island, the mirror of Circe who willingly gave Odysseus up when he said he needed to go home.

Having brought his story full circle, Odysseus ends his tale, and the Phaeacians send him home. But remember that doubling? Remember the city Odysseus sacked as he was leaving Troy? Poseidon can't take revenge on Odysseus, he's fated to reach Ithaca, but Zeus lets him take revenge on the Phaeacians by walling their city off by tall rocks so they will never be able to help another lost traveler.

To me, the layers of narrative created on this journey, the way in which all things encountered are encountered twice, speaks to the way a writer works - that layering of elements. I don't know that it can be created by an oral performance no matter how many times the story is told. I also found the elegance of its telling pretty stunning. Another thing I realized this time is that Mr. Johnson (my freshman high school teacher) was right when he taught us that Odysseus is stripped of his identity, piece by piece, until he is this shadow of himself. In the underworld, Tiresias tells Odysseus he will never reach Ithaca until he learns to master himself and his emotions. By not telling the Phaeacians who he is immediately, by exercising caution when he is found, naked and encrusted with salt, by Nausicaa and following her advice to make his supplications to her mother rather than her father, Odysseus shows that he's learned this lesson. And his reward? The Phaeacians give him more treasure than he would have brought home from Troy.

To me, this also speaks to the foundation of the Greek society as a culture of thinkers. Odysseus' reward is for his story rather than his prowess as a warrior. He tells his audience a great tale. When he tells of the underworld, he speaks first of the women he saw there (a nod to Arete, the queen, who is the one he has to please most to get what he wants), and Alcinous, the king, asks if he saw any of his fellow heroes from Troy there or any of the great heroes of legend, and Odysseus immediately adds them to his tale. In return, Alcinous tells his people they need to give Odysseus even greater treasure than they were going to give him before and sends them all back to their homes to bring better parting gifts to their honored guest.

There is one last time shift. After Odysseus is brought to Ithaca and meets Athena on the beach, she tells him to go to the swineherd, Eumeus, and she will make sure Telemachus meets him there. We follow Odysseus as he encounters Eumeus and starts to learn what's happening in his palace. Then we back up a day to follow Athena while she goes to Sparta to tell Telemachus he needs to leave and, oh, by the way, you might want to visit the swineherd on your way home. Just 'cause.

From there, it's pretty much straight-forward story-telling. Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar, he enters his own house, sizes up the situation, meets Penelope, tells her he thinks the arrow through the axe head contest is a REALLY good idea, all the while keeping his disguise in place, demonstrating that he has learned the control Tiresias told him he needed to learn. He reveals NOTHING. Though I am convinced Penelope recognizes him, knows him from the moment he steps foot in the house, but also knows the danger they are all in if Odysseus can't get rid of the suitors, and therefore follows his lead even if she doesn't know what his plan is.

And that, I think, pretty much wraps up what I was thinking as I read The Odyssey this time around. More than any other reading prior to this, I found myself marvelling at the way in which this story, written almost 3,000 years ago, was put together, at the internal organization of it. I find it a stunning work of the imagination and can't wait to read it again in another couple of years.

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