In his brilliant book The Seven Basic Plots Christopher Booker identifies the seven as being:
- overcoming the monster
- rags to riches
- the quest
- voyage and return
Although perhaps a bit light on comedy, The Odyssey contains most of the other plots but before I get too bogged down in theory let’s move swiftly on to Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops, which obviously fits the bill nicely for overcoming the monster.
The main thing that struck me after reading Book IX was how sympathetic I felt towards the Cyclops, Polyphemus, and how extremely irritated I was by Odysseus. I had forgotten that the Cyclops is a shepherd and there are rather tender scenes of him milking his ewes and goats and then returning their lambs and kids to them. These scenes are admittedly intermingled with him crunching up Odysseus’ companions and tearing them limb from limb.
However, when they first arrive in the cave, Odysseus’ followers plead with him that they should steal some sheep and cheese and get the hell out of there but Odysseus decides they should wait. And his reason?
‘I wished to see the owner of the cave and had hopes of some friendly gifts from my host.’
Well, how wrong can you be? In other words he is a greedy, reckless fool. Six of his companions are chomped up by the Cyclops before Odysseus’ nimble wits lurch into action and he devises a plan to get them out of there. It involves calling himself Nobody, getting Polyphemus drunk and a stomach churning eye-gouging scene.
‘… we handled our pole with its red-hot point and twisted it in his eye till the blood boiled up round the burning wood. The fiery smoke from the blazing eyeball singed his lids and brow all round, and the very roots of his eye crackled in the heat.’
Even with his eye out, the Cyclops is endearingly tender with his rams. Odysseus and his men strap themselves under the sheep to get past Polyphemus, who is blocking the exit from his cave and running his hand over everything that goes past him.
‘Sweet ram what does this mean? Why are you the last of the flock to pass out of the cave, you who have never lagged behind the sheep… Are you grieved for your master’s eye, blinded by a wicked man and his accursed friends, when he had robbed me of my wits with wine?’
Well, I’m still on Polyphemus’ side. And what does Odysseus do then? When they are out at sea he taunts Polyphemus, who starts hurling rocks at their boat, which creates such a swell that the boat is pushed back towards the beach and danger. Even then Odysseus will not shut up. He can’t resist bragging:
‘Cyclops, if anyone ever asks you how you came by your unsightly blindness, tell him your eye was put out by Odysseus, Sacker of Cities, the son of Laertes who lives in Ithaca.’
Oh great, so now Polyphemus knows his name and he calls on his father, Poseidon, to curse him. Yes, by the way, Polyphemus’ father is a god with the alarming epithet of ‘Earthshaker.’
‘…grant that Odysseus…may never reach his home in Ithaca. But if he is destined to reach his native land, to come once more to his own house and see his friends again, let him come late, in evil plight, with all his comrades dead, and when he is landed…let him find trouble in his home.’
Now Odysseus has a god against him who, we are told in the first paragraph of the book, ‘pursued the heroic Odysseus with relentless malice.’ Of course he does because Odysseus has blinded his son. So a monster is overcome but now Odysseus is cursed and inadvertently brings about the deaths of his own men. By the end of the chapter it has become clear that tricking the Cyclops was the easy bit. What Odysseus really needs to do is get a handle on his own monstrous egotism.
Do you have a favourite ‘overcoming the monster’ story?