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Foundations of Fantasy: The Odyssey

More than any other genre, fantasy tends to examine ancient epics. Whether it’s the study of archetypes and ectypes, a historical understanding of narrative itself, or simply a desire to experience myths and legends that have lived for ages, these books remain alive to us. This series of posts will be about some of the more important mythic texts in history, and how they relate to modern fantasy.

The Story Behind the Story

Odysseus and CrewThe Odyssey was written much as The Iliad was, in hexameter meant to be spoken aloud, though scholars commonly believe that it was written several decades later. It is the second-oldest book in western canon, after The Iliad.

Much like The Iliad, it is one of the most commonly translated books in the world. Robert Fagles’s translation is the most popular current one, and should be easy to find. It’s very readable, a wonderful blend of poeticism and brevity. Prior to that, one of the more popular academic versions was done by Robert Fitzgerald. In a more classical vein, Alexander Pope did a translation, or rather, half a translation while others did the rest under his name.

While Herman Schliemann searched for Troy, as mentioned in last month’s article, he came across a village. Within the village, he met a blacksmith with a wife named Penelope and a child named Telemachus. Viewing this as a sign, he gathered the villagers into the town square, where he read a chapter from The Odyssey. Schliemann broke down into tears, and moved the villagers so much, they did also.

The Odyssey

Odysseus and Polyphemus by Jael-KolkenThe Odyssey plays more with chronological order than other epics. In particular, a long discussion of earlier exploits by Odysseus takes up the bulk of the middle narrative.

It begins with Odysseus’s son Telemachus on the island of Ithaca. Suitors are attempting to woo Penelope, and have been for years. During this time, they’re squandering the wealth that Odysseus had earned. Penelope is shrewd and can delay them, but not forever. Athena manipulates Telemachus into searching for his father.

The epic then cuts to where Odysseus is—on Calypso’s island, where he’s been trapped for years. He escapes on a raft and makes it to the island of the Phaeacians. He overhears a poet reciting a tale, and asks for the story of the Trojan Horse. As if the poet’s words remind him of who he is, he admits to the people his true identity.

He then explains his exploits of the last several years. One of the key moments in the text is the famous capture by the Cyclops, Polyphemus. When captured and asked for his name, Odysseus tells Polyphemus that he is named Nobody. Later, when he injures the Cyclops, Polyphemus screams “Nobody is hurting me,” causing the other Cyclopes to laugh at him. Had he remained pseudonymous, Odysseus would have saved himself much grief, but his hubris, in typical Greek fashion, causes him to brag his true name to Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon. Poseidon himself then takes an interest in keeping Odysseus from reaching home.

Jealous Circe by John WaterhouseOdysseus tells of his other exploits. Aeolus had provided him with a bag of wind, but while he slept his sailors, believing it contained gold, opened it and drew them further off course. He saw ships and sailors killed by the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. A witch named Circe turned his men into pigs, though Hermes had given Odysseus himself resistance to her magic. After returning his sailors to their human shape, Circe gave them instructions to reach the land of the dead.

Odysseus bypasses other tests such as the Sirens, and Scylla and Charybdis, but when his sailors eat the Cattle of the Sun, Zeus sent them back to Charybdis where the entire ship sank. Only Odysseus survived, and washed ashore on Calypso’s island.

At long last, we return to Odysseus telling the story to the Phaeacians, who give him a ship to get home. He returns, disguised as a beggar, and does reconnaissance. Penelope tells the suitors she’ll marry the man who can string Odysseus’s bow; Odysseus does, of course, and uses it to kill all of the suitors.

Influence

Cold Mountain (cover)The Odyssey remains one of the defining texts of the western canon. Within our genre, it seems closest to Sword and Sorcery. Odysseus must use everything he has—his brawn, his wiles, and his willpower—to make his way home.

The specifics of Odysseus’s route have been copied and made realistic by a number of modern stories. The most obvious is, of course, James Joyce’s Ulysses, which turns a ten year journey into one day around Dublin. The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? uses themes and elements from the epic. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier takes the concept and makes it fit into the aftermath of the American Civil War.

When asked about his preference for The Iliad or The Odyssey, translator Robert Fagles said, “Some days were Iliadic –you felt you were in a war—and some were more like the Odyssey, when all you wanted to do was go home.”

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Jim Webster says:

    Interesting that you spend one small paragraph describing the entire second half of the tale.

  2. A nice article. I’d agree with Jim, though, that the later part is skimmed over. The Odyssey is often seen as being about Odysseus’s wanderings (which are certainly the showiest part) but it’s fundamentally about his return home and the restoration of the proper order.

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