Friday, January 10, 2014

What's up with Ulysseus and his darned Odyssey?

I have always loved The Iliad and The Odyssey and have always been a little sad that we don't get to teach
[Ulysseus Deriding Polyphemus, Homer's Odyssey- JMW Turner, 1826]
one or both of them at my high school. Needless to say, (I love using that phrase as it is the pet peeve of many...if it's needless to say than why are saying it? but, I digress) I was really excited when my friend Kate tagged me on FB when one of her friends (a person I do not know) had this really great post analyzing The Odyssey .

Her comment was:

"You should talk to my friend, Stephanie!"

And, I had so much to say that I had to put it in a blog post!

1] Feelings about Ulysses

Here's what was said
I wanted to abandonedly, thoughtlessly pull for the protagonist Odysseus the entire time. But I couldn't. Does anybody else have conflicted feelings about him? Does he ever seem just like a jerk, really? I loved the Odysseus of the Iliad-- always the coolest head in the room, always the smartest guy in the debate, and absolutely deadly in battle. He was all of those things in the Odyssey. But he was a jerk about it. Right?

My thoughts
Odysseus is a tragic hero and we're supposed to like him as much as we hate him. His hubris is the very fact that we know that he will not have the best go of it. We know that hubris is the downfall of many a tragic hero and while Odysseus may not die, he does spend 20 years wandering away from his family, he does have to get to know his son and understand that his mother died while he was gone. He has to save his family and his honor and kill the suitors, all while learning to be less prideful.

2] Ulysses subterfuge with his father

Here's what was said
[Spoiler alert.] If I were drafted into the service tomorrow, and I left (which I would), and only returned home after 20 years to find my mother dead from grieving my assumed death and my highly aged father literally throwing ashes over his head at the mention of my name, upon seeing him for the first time, I don't think I'd play games with him by "testing him" with a story, pretending I was someone else, and mentioning that I'd seen his son. Does that just seem really cruel to anyone else? Or am I missing something? I get the approach with Penelope-- a literal horde of men is waiting day and night outside the house to marry his wife, and threatening violence, and Agamemnon returned home from Troy to find Clytemnestra having taken up with another man, or another man having taken up with her, or both, or something, and the two of them offing him. So a ginger approach is prudent. But with your ancient father Laertes? Is there just too much subterfuge? Is Odysseus too cute by half?

My thoughts
Odysseus is not being 'too cute by half' nor is he playing games. He understands that his father is going through a tough time, but does not excuse the way he has been acting in the absence of his son. Laertes is a great king and leader who does not seem to understand that morality is part of what it means to be alive. Odysseus needs to know that his father accepts this, has a proper cry about the death of his son, remembers the good and then is willing to move on. Odysseus knows that his father must accept that he is dead before he can appreciate that he can he is actual back, alive and well.

3] Those pesky suitors

Here's what was said
[Telemachus: All of the heroics none of the hubris]
Was hacking or shooting every Suitor entirely necessary, especially as they begged for mercy in a locked room with no defense?

My thoughts
This seen isn't really for the benefit of Odysseus but the benefit of Telemachus. In some/most/all ways The Odyssey is as much the story of Telemachus as it is Odysseus. Telemachus learns how to be a man on his quest to find his father. The killing of the suitors is a 'rite of passage' for him and proves to his father and others that he is just as much a man as Odysseus. They were all given a chance to leave and instead of doing that they just kind of set up camp around the home, and, like those people who state at your house long after the party is over, they were becoming a nuisance and they were definitely pests. Because they did not leave, because they did not believe the warnings and because they wanted to cause Odysseus' family hard, they all had to be taught a lesson. In sum: they deserved it. They had to be shown who was in charge and, well, now, should Odysseus ever leave again nobody's bothering his wife and family.

4] The Ending

Here's what was said
[Another spoiler alert.] What was with the ending? Does it feel like waking up from a particularly vivid dream to anyone else? Weird. The Suitors' families are approaching to attack Odysseus and his family. Athena, Odysseus' patron goddess, asks Zeus what to do. Zeus tells her to urge both sides to make peace. So Athena urges Odysseus to attack. Once the fight starts actually killing people, Athena urges Odysseus to make peace, at which point Zeus throws a thunderbolt at her, and the story is over with only the mention that everyone decided to go into town to talk. Bizarre. Right?

My Thoughts
Who's in charge of it all? The Gods. How do we know? This scene. Who's in charge of the Gods? Zeus. How do we know? This scene. Who dies in this scene? The father of Antinous, a person we are led to believe deserves it, just like Antinous deserves his demise. Antinous, after all, was the voice of all the suitors.

Just in case you haven't gotten enough of this story, here are my two favorite poems about it. 

Gosh, writing this just made me want to teach it more, and maybe read it again or at least read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood! sigh...

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