THE ODYSSEY – HOMECOMING

The Provost's Lodgings, Queen's College, Oxford

The Provost’s Lodgings, The Queen’s College, Oxford

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.

The University Church, St Mary's and the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

The University Church of St Mary’s and the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

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.

The Queen's College library, Oxford

The Queen’s College Library, Oxford

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.

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

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.’

Magdalen College tower from Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Magdalen College Tower from Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

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.’ 

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

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?

 

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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.

HOMER’S ODYSSEY – OVERCOMING MONSTERS

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

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
  • comedy
  • tragedy
  • rebirth

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?

WRITING TIPS FROM HOMER: THE ODYSSEY – BOOKS 1-8

A penguin with a past

A penguin with a past. Also a bronze relief of Odysseus in the Department of Antiquities, Berlin.

I’ve been re-reading Homer’s Odyssey. The last time I read it I was sixteen and I can’t remember much about it other than the fact I wasn’t that thrilled. But those Penguin Classics have the knack of hanging around waiting until you’re ready for them. There it was in all it’s bath-soaked, wrinkled glory on my shelf and I thought I’d give it another go. What tips can be gleaned from this 3000 year old great grand-daddy of the novel? So far I’ve read the first eight books (chapters):

  • Basic plot – Odysseus is trying to get home after the Trojan War but the god Poseidon hates him so he’s been trapped on the island of Ogygia by Calypso who wants to marry him. In Ithaca his wife Penelope and son Telemachus do not know if he is alive or dead. Penelope is beset with suitors who are eating her and Telemachus out of house and home;
  • Pace – God, it doesn’t half crack along. It’s an absolutely rip-roaring yarn;
  • Emotion – It’s much more emotional than I remember. There’s a lot of crying. Telemachus, Penelope, Odysseus, all absolute sobbers but unlike in Hollyoaks they usually pull up their purple gowns and cover their faces when they do it, even if their tears are rolling down to the ground;
  • Sex – Odysseus is forced to have sex with Calypso every night. This however does not make him happy. Even though she has ‘lovely locks’ he sits on the beach during the day crying for his homeland;
  • Main Theme – Home. What it means to Odysseus and how he overcomes the obstacles to get back there;
  • Love story – Athene, the goddess, absolutely adores Odysseus. We could all do with her in our lives. She goes to Telemachus and tells him to go looking for his father; when she’s worried for Odysseus’ safety she throws a mist round him; when she wants him to look his best she makes him look like a god.  Yes, we could all do with  Athene on our side especially on the morning after the night before;
  • Baddies – the suitors who are eating Penelope and Telemachus out of house and home by slaughtering their cattle and drinking their wine and generally behaving like hooligans while they wait for Penelope to decide which one of them to marry. Poseidon who really does not like Odysseus at all. Also the Cyclops is coming up in the next chapter along with other monsters;
  • Structure – a nice bit of juxtaposing present and past or time-slip in modern parlance which is very fashionable. Homer’s agent would be pleased;
  • The Gods – frankly, they’re terrible drama queens. Shakespeare wrote in King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.’ There’s a fair bit of fly squashing. Poseidon, for example, hates Odysseus. Poseidon is Zeus’s brother and Athene’s uncle so that’s all nicely complicated. The Gods have their own soap opera going on to match that of the mere mortals;
  • Food – well, there’s enough feasting to satisfy fans of Jamie, Nigella, Nigel, Mary Berry, The Great British Bake Off and sweary Gordon;
  • The Sea – there’s a lot of it and a lot about it. It’s ‘wine-dark’ (don’t ask) and ‘fish-infested’ and the ships on it are always black;
  • Epithets – these are fun: Athene, of the flashing eyes;  Nausicaa of the white arms, Dawn is usually decked in crimson or rosy-fingered; Odysseus is much enduring and nimble-witted and Menelaus has red hair. Not brown or black or blond, red hair. Definitely red;
  • Setting the Scene – he’s very good at it. There are fantastic descriptions of Calypso’s cave and also the palace of King Alcinous.

Finally my favourite bit so far. Odysseus is in the sea off the coast of Scherie, the land of the Phaeacians. A huge wave has washed him towards the rocks. He clings onto one and then is caught in the back wash, torn from the rock and carried back out to sea:

‘…pieces of skin stripped from his sturdy hands were left sticking to the crags thick as the pebbles that stick to the suckers of a squid when he is torn from his hole…’

There’s also a rather touching description of Phaeacian ships:

‘For the Phaeacians have no steersmen, nor steering oars such as other crafts possess. Our ships know by instinct what their crews are thinking and propose to do. They know every city, every fertile land, and hidden in mist and cloud they make their swift passage over the sea’s immensities with no fear of damage and no thought of wreck.’

Now that is exactly the sort of ship I’d like to travel in. Next week Book IX: The Cyclops! A book which should be titled: What happens if you steal a one-eyed giant’s cheese. Tip – look away now.