THE CHARACTER OF ODYSSEUS – THE WOUNDED HERO

What are we to make of the character of Odysseus? For the first four books he is not there in person for us to garner an impression of him from his own words and deeds. The picture we are presented with is from other people’s descriptions of him and these are universally glowing. Many epithets are attached to him. For Penelope, his wife, he is ‘the best of husbands’ and ‘her beloved husband’ and also ‘that admirable king’ and finally if you haven’t got the point by now, ‘my noble lion-hearted husband.’  We are also told he is ‘dauntless’ and ‘indomitable’ and ‘of all the Achaeans who toiled at Troy it was Odysseus who toiled the hardest and undertook the most.’

Interestingly the first time he is described by Athene, he is crying.

‘It is the wizard’s daughter (Calypso) who is keeping the unhappy man from home in spite of all his tears.’

And that is also what he is doing when the reader first meets him in person in Book 5. Then he is …

‘…sitting disconsolate on the shore in his accustomed place tormenting himself with tears and sighs and heartache and looking across the barren sea with streaming eyes.’

At this point he has had nine years of fighting at Troy and been kept prisoner/sex slave by Calypso for seven years and he seems markedly different to all the glowing descriptions from his family and friends. This is a man who is in fact depressed, upset and pretty paranoid, especially about the Gods’ intentions for him, and horribly homesick. And when he says of Calypso’s warnings of miseries to come…

‘Let this new disaster come. It only makes one more.’

It makes you wonder whether he really cares whether he lives or dies. He is also far from dauntless. When a huge wave threatens to engulf his boat

‘Odysseus’ knees shook and his spirit quailed.’

Of course, this is very good writing because it runs counter to the expectations of the reader. We are not presented with an indomitable heroic warrior. We are presented with a broken, all too human man. How, we wonder, will Odysseus cope if he gets back to Ithaca? Will he really be able to see off the suitors and reclaim his wife and home? We are in no doubt that nine years of war and many years of exile have taken their toll on him. He is not the burnished warrior he once was. He has been changed by his experiences and is a much more complex wounded individual than the glowing epithets of the first four books might suggest. The perfect warrior husband is no more, thank God, and Odysseus is much more interesting for it. This is a man we want to go on a journey with because the outcome is no longer a foregone conclusion. His emotional state has introduced a new element of uncertainty. This makes us curious to know what happened to change him (we get this in an extended flashback) and how and if he will prevail.

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