Monday, June 15, 2009

More Than an Adventure Story

The King returns to his home, only to find it is a wasteland, devoured by pretenders who drain his wealth and torment his family. With the aid of the gods, he fights and defeats them, and brings peace and unity to his kingdom.

This theme is so common I could be talking about countless stories, including such classic tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, or JRR Tolkien's The Return of the King. But long before those books, there was The Odyssey.

I came to this book looking for adventure, and it did not disappoint. However, what I thought I knew about The Odyssey, from a version I'd seen in school to the adaptation NBC and Hallmark did to the Coen brothers's fantastic film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was slightly off. The tale of Odysseus' struggle to reach home has a lot more to do with a lost life, the pain of mother and son as they grieve for their absent husband and father, and the struggle to take back what is rightfully yours. Very little of the story has to do with adventure on the high seas, and Homer places this right in the middle of the tale as a short but sweet intermission of sorts.

The Greeks would have been familiar with this aspect; they might not have been so in tune with the story of Penelope, who stayed virtuous until the end, or Telemachus who took a journey of his own in the quest to find his father. This is what Homer gives us in The Odyssey. The story is driven by the inner drama of Odysseus and his family, and there is a noticeable similarity in storytelling to The Iliad, also a story more about inner conflict than about war.

There is a great passage towards the end of the book, on the eve before Odysseus whoops some butt (so to speak). For twenty years, suitors have been harassing Penelope to pick a new husband, all the while eating all of Odysseus' food and drinking all of his wine. They are guests who have overstayed their welcome. As they prepare for another night of feasting at someone else's expense, stuffing their face with butchered pigs, they are completely unaware that they'll be dead by the following evening. Theocymenos, able to see the future, tries to warn them. Perhaps the gods wanted to give them one last chance:

"Their plates were messed with blood, tears streamed from their eyes, their minds foreboded mourning: Theoclymenos the seer cried aloud:

"Ah, miserable creatures, what is happening to you? Night is wrapt about your heads and your faces and your bodies down to the knees, there is a blaze of lamentation, tears roll down your cheeks, walls and panelings are bedabbled with blood; the porch is full of phantoms, the courtyard is full of phantoms, hurrying down to Erebos and the dark; the sun has perished out of the sky, and a thick fog spreads over all."

When I read this section, it sent chills down my spine. I saw these men in bloodstained clothes, laughing, making crude jokes, food and grease everywhere, blood and wine running from the corners of their mouths. They're warned of what's about to happen but they are having too much fun to believe the warning. They are animals, and they are savages, yet they are pitiable for how savage they have become.

As I said, I came to The Odyssey with expectations of a a fantasy adventure, but Homer delivers a lot more. He serves up a tale of a man never without a plan, a son who learns to be brave, and a wife who is the most loving and devoted woman any man could hope to marry.

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