What does the word ‘home’ mean to you? The place where you live now? The flesh and blood people you live with – your community of friends, husband, wife or partner? The place you raised or are raising your children? The bricks and mortar of the house or flat? The surrounding city? The country? Your childhood home? The people you were raised by? Mother, father, grandparents, brothers and sisters? Over this festive season lots of people will have been travelling home with all sorts of expectations and with varied outcomes. Coming home is the central theme of The Odyssey and if you think a bit about what home means to you and how complex that is and how the meaning changes over time, you’ll see why the dramatic possibilities of the ‘homecoming’ have been so popular with film makers, playwrights and novelists ever since.
Recently, I went back to the city that was my home for the first twenty-one years of my life, Oxford. The last time I was there was for a literary festival in my old college. Before that it was for my father’s memorial service. I don’t go back very often. I walked around on a sunny, bitterly cold, winter morning. I sat in a restaurant, eating on the exact same spot I had come to with my father to set up my first bank account. I listened to the bell of Tom Tower ringing 101 times at 21.05 pm. I had breakfast in The Grand Café which is, I think, on the site of the old Co-Op shop, where I was sent to get milk by my mother. Today this café has golden plaster, Jean Cocteau arms, reaching out of the walls, holding candlesticks, and a sign on the wall saying it was the earliest coffee-house in England. I was not chased up and down by a fat woman in a nylon coat, crackling with static electricity, who thought I was going to steal her sweets.
This time I enjoyed my visit and I marveled at the beauty of the city. Was I really brought up here, I wondered, and what effect did that have on me? My memories were no longer tinged with grief. It’s only taken thirty years! Oxford, I have come to the conclusion, is not an easy city to leave. When I was twenty-one, I was naive enough to think it was as simple as getting on the bus to London.
The second half of the Odyssey is given up to what happens to Odysseus once he returns to Ithaca nineteen years after he set off to the Trojan War. One of the first things is a spectacularly flirtatious scene with Athene ‘of the flashing eyes’, who first appears to Odysseus as a beautiful, young male shepherd. Odysseus immediately lies to her. He can’t help himself. It’s his nimble wits. Does she mind? No, she does not. Instead she is highly appreciative. She caresses him, turns back into a beautiful woman and says
‘What a cunning knave it would take to beat you at your tricks! Even a god would be hard put to it.’
Later she adds
‘How like you to be so wary! And that is why I cannot desert you in your misfortune: you are so civilized, so intelligent, so self-possessed.’
You see? Very, very flirtatious. Athene – get a grip, girl! Fortunately, she does just that by turning him into a withered old man. It’s a disguise to protect him but I have the feeling she’s also reasserting her power over him just a little.
One of the most touching scenes in the whole book occurs shortly afterwards when Odysseus is reunited with his son, Telemachus, who was a babe in arms when he went off to war. I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in the whole book
‘… Telemachus softened at last, flung his arms round his noble father’s neck and burst into tears. And now they both broke down and sobbed aloud without a pause like birds bereaved, like the sea-eagle or the taloned vulture when villagers have robbed the nest of their unfledged young. So did these two let the piteous tears run streaming from their eyes.’
This is also an example of something else that I love in the book. Men are allowed to express powerful emotions by crying and this is not viewed in any way as unmanly. Odysseus cries a great deal. Given what he goes through this is not at all surprising. He is also a mighty warrior, ‘a sacker of cities’ but there is no suggestion that his masculinity is compromised by his tears. The Greeks, it seems to me, were obviously a lot better adjusted around manly tears than we are!
Do you have a favourite homecoming scene in film, theatre or books?