I remember the moment I first encountered The Odyssey. It was the spring of my 9th grade year, in English class. Ms. Saunders was reading.
This charismatic, enthusiastic young teacher had already opened my eyes and ears to many amazing things that year (for instance, she lent me her copy of The World According to Garp, which as I quickly surmised was decidedly not part of the curriculum) and had encouraged me to explore my creative impulses, igniting my passion for poetry by, for example, challenging us to compare a popular song, such as “Love Me Two Times,” by The Doors, to a classic poem, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”
So I listened attentively. And, after hearing her recite only the first few lines,
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy…
I fell head over heels, helplessly, haplessly, like Alice did, down the rabbit-hole into a wonderfully blissful abyss of imagination and discovery. (Thank you, Ms. Saunders, wherever you are.)
It was love at first sight — for the book, for the exotic culture of ancient Greece, for the alluring words and phrases, and for the captivating story of the wandering hero, Odysseus (and for my teacher, too, but that’s a story for another post). And it’s a love affair that I’ve maintained over the many years since, and one that has colored and shaped my life in many ways.
But acknowledging and publicly declaring my love for a 3,000 year-old epic poem is one thing. Figuring out why I was smitten at such a young age and why I am still entranced by it, after all this time and the hundreds of other poems and books I’ve read since then, is another issue entirely. It’s a little like trying to figure out why the author, Homer, wrote what he wrote, or whether he even existed at all.
Homer, whoever he was was, is credited with producing two classics of the Western canon, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both poems cover roughly the same period of ancient Greek civilization and tell two slightly different versions of the same story, the siege of the walled city of Troy. I’ve read both works, several times, for schoolwork and for pleasure, and I quickly came to prefer The Odyssey. That may be due to the fact that I read The Odyssey first and so its sibling, which though it comes earlier chronologically, has always seemed like a tedious sequel.
Also, I grew up near the water, messing about in boats, so the nautical nature of the poem has always held strong appeal. More than once I have been out on the river in a small craft and, spying storm clouds rolling in, poured out an offering (whether wine or wine-dark Kool-Aid) to the god Poseidon for protection, just like Odysseus and his crew did many times. And, though I didn’t have much more luck than our heroic yachtsmen in thwarting the oncoming squall, performing such a ritual, even crudely, made me feel at ease by connecting me to something a lot larger than myself.
My enduring interest in the poem may also derive from my desire to learn the origins of things, how they were formed and possibly why. It’s for this reason I have always been fascinated by etymology, or the study of word origins (from the Latin origo, “to arise”). Although it isn’t necessarily necessary, I gain a greater appreciation for and deeper understanding of an object when I know how it was created. For example, as you may know, the Star Wars saga is not just some story idea that occurred to George Lucas. It is based on the writings of Joseph Campbell, specifically his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which in turn is an investigation into the way The Odyssey and other tales of mythology and ritual have influenced human development.
Does knowing this affect your enjoyment of Luke Skywalker’s final battle with Darth Vader? Not really, I’m sure, but it might help explain why the series has been so successful. They’re more than just great action-adventure movies; combined the six episodes tell a universal story of self-discovery and transformation that is as old as civilization itself.
That’s a bit eggheaded, I know, and I’m sorry (I realize some of you read this early in the morning). I can find many other, less scholarified examples, right under our noses. In fact, the tale of an Odysseus-like wanderer, challenged by the gods, battling monsters real and imagined, giving into and resisting temptations, seeking revenge for injustices, and returning home triumphant lies at the root of many, many different stories, in nearly every country and culture — from the lives of the Buddha and Jesus, for example, to the fictional characters played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood on the big screen.
Poets and writers have been telling and retelling the story of Odysseus, his patient and faithful wife, Penelope, and their dutiful son, Telemachus, ever since it was first uttered around the campfire some 30 centuries ago. And it serves as the source for a vast library of literary and cultural works familiar to everyone, including everything from Gulliver’s Travels to “Gilligan’s Island”; from Robinson Crusoe to “Cast Away” and “Lost”; from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to “Lost in Space” and “The Amazing Race”; from Odetta’s “I’m a Stranger Here” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound,” to “The Lotus” by R.E.M. and “Dumb It Down” by Lupe Fiasco; from Sinbad to Siddhartha, Pinocchio to Pip; from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to James Joyce’s Ulysses and Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Odysseus is everywhere and he’s in all of us.
But I suspect the real reason I fell for The Odyssey is this: I just like the singular story of the battle-weary soldier, and his strange and fantastic homebound voyage, much better than the collective story of the conquering Greeks. It’s the like the difference between watching an episode of “Dr. Who” and reading an issue of JAMA. The story told in The Odyssey is messy, surreal and sublime, shifting back and forth in both space and time. Whereas the plot of The Iliad hinges on a series of graphically realistic catalogs of unrelenting bloody carnage and suffering. Sure, plenty of gore follows Odysseus — take, for instance, the encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops, who grabs O’s men and eats them by the handful, dropping them into his mouth like a frat boy downing live goldfish. But the otherworldliness here lends a comical, yuck-yucky element to this and many of the other violent episodes in the book that separate them from similar chapters in The Iliad — for example, the part where Achilles slays Hektor then drags his corpse around the dead body of Patroklos for nine days. Yuck.
My passion for the book became a personal obsession when I began collecting different versions of The Odyssey. On my shelves now stand several copies of the vibrant Robert Fitzgerald translation (including my copy from high school), an audiobook (on 16 cassettes!) of the recent translation by Robert Fagles, read by British actor Sir Ian McKellen; the infamous prose translation by T. E. Lawrence (aka, “Lawrence of Arabia”); as well as translations into many different languages, most of which I cannot even begin to read.
This bibliomania seized me while browsing in a book shop in Edinburgh and stumbling across a slim volume of “selections” translated into native Scots — Tales frae the Odyssey o Homer. It was a delightful discovery and inspired me to seek out other, similar variations. At that time, Amy and I had quit our jobs and were on an odyssey of our own, duffel-bagging our way around Europe (we were too sophisticated to go backpacking, we had decided, and too poor to go suit-casing). So I began casting about for the book in every country we went to. It was a great idea in theory — looking for a bookstore and a book as a way to explore a city. Until I realized that not all the books would be slim and I would eventually have to carry them all under my arm. The law of diminishing returns caused me to call off my search.
Eventually, though, I came home with The Odyssey translated into Scots, French, German, Hungarian, Czech, and Italian. And for a few years following our trip I asked anyone heading abroad to find a copy in that land’s native tongue (that request still stands, by the way, dear readers). Consequently I garnered translations into Polish, Portuguese, Russian, modern Greek, and Spanish. Nothing terribly exotic, though, like Mandarin or Australian Aborigine. I’m sure a copy exists in such languages, but none of my farflinging friends have been able to find me one. It’s a silly habit, I know, collecting books I cannot and never will read. But what worthwhile pursuit isn’t at least partly ridiculous? Being deliciously pointless is the point.
Truth is I haven’t opened or read the book, in any language, in several years. However, my interest in The Odyssey was rekindled this year because my teenage daughter is now reading and studying it in her middle school English class. And beyond relishing the fact that we now have something in common to talk about (which is a real-life Trojan Horse, so to speak, as anyone with a teenager can attest), I’m thrilled to see her enjoying the book the way I do. She is partial to the mythological and magical elements of the adventure, as well as the scenes where Odysseus has to use his “craftiness” to save himself and his shipmates. And, as any young girl would do, she pays very close attention to the romantic sections. Best of all, she has begun to discover traces of The Odyssey in other things. For example, her class also read the young-adult novel Whirligig, which tells the story of a teenage boy’s odyssey of tragedy, redemption and self-discovery of the effects his actions have on others.
And she and the rest of the family are starting to recognize Homer’s influence elsewhere, too — in obvious places, like “The Wizard of Oz,” “O Brother Where Art Thou,” and Suzanne Vega’s “Calypso,” as well as the more obscure, like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the BBC’s “Robin Hood” and even Nintendo’s “Super Mario Galaxy” videogame. Looking for Odysseus has become their obsession, as well as mine.
And most recently, partly at my daughter’s urging, we embarked on an odyssey of sorts for our spring break. Driving down the East Coast from Maryland to points south in tidewater Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, we mapped our adventure, drawing parallels to the exploits of Odysseus and his fateful crew along the way: from a fog-thwarted scenic view along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (Aeolus and the bag of winds), and a meandering dead-ender from Kitty Hawk to Corolla (the Lotus Eaters), to being seduced by the call of the outlet mall (the Sirens), and stopping for a fortuitous visit with a bearded relative (Tiresias).
We plan to make a scrapbook from the trip, cutting up the maps and writing down the key points in our adventures, then decorating the pages with photos, artifacts, and mementos, like seashells, restaurant menus, and NCAA brackets. It will be a fun way to remember our trip, and maybe the book will serve as a chronicle that the kids can use to entertain their children in years to come.
I guess you would call my love for Odysseus and his story a “bromance,” in today’s parlance. But unlike other examples of such a relationship, this one (though heavily one-sided) has been literally fruitful for me. And it’s a curious bond that I hope I never will fully unravel.
As always, leave a comment and let me know what you think. Do you have fond memories of reading The Odyssey? Or is there another classic book that has been a favorite of yours since high school or college?