Rhapsody in Penguins II — First Movement: The Odyssey

The Odyssey
by Homer
translated by Emile Victor Rieu (1946)

Fresh from five months in Australia, the temptation to compare my own experiences to that of Odysseus is of course present. Like Odysseus, I have been a stranger in a foreign land, fighting wars that I only participated in out of love for my one true home (the world of literature, of course), and upon my return I have been forced to tell the story of my wanderings endless times, to people who are bound to nod off after the third sentence I utter. Plus, the people I have encountered may not actually be specimens of homo sapiens. (Seriously. The Ozzies can chug beer at inhuman levels.)

But I tell my stories with no burden in my head. Let’s see what Odysseus thinks of his own stories:

“Why go again through all this? … it is tedious for me to repeat a tale already plainly told.”

You can practically taste the annoyance in Odysseus’ mouth as he finishes his tale: “HOW MANY TIMES must I talk about how I was ruined basically because I couldn’t control my crew?” When all you want to do is go back home, recounting your adventures can be quite the ordeal. Little does he know that he’s only at the end of book 12, and that he still has half the story to go.

And that’s what strikes me the most as I read the Odyssey (once, in the summer of 2014). Readers who have read the entire book will know that of the twenty-four books that make up the Odyssey, only FOUR are given over to the tales we know so well — Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclopes, the island of Circe. And sure, having your crew being swallowed up by a four-eyed, six-necked monster is inherently exciting. But the fact remains that it is just one solitary episode in an adventure that spans twenty whole books, an adventure that cannot be defined just by how he’s been blinding monsters and living out a life as a hermit.

This is an adventure that begins not with the hero, but with a search for him: in order to accompany the hero on his travels/travails, we must find him first. It’s Telemachus who occupies much of the narrative in the first four chapters, but I’ve read a lot of commentary that argues that he’s just a surrogate for his own father: courageous, courteous, and getting a long poem named after himself. As Athena tells him:

Telemachus, you will neither be a coward nor a fool if your father’s manly vigour has descended on you — and what a man he was in word and deed!… Few sons, indeed, are like their fathers, but you are by no means lacking in Odysseus’ resourcefulness.

Poor Telemachus, getting compared to his father everywhere… it’s not his fault that he looks and sounds a lot like his father, is it? (I get compared a lot to my father but with all due respect, my father is nowhere near Odysseus except in age.)

But still, it’s like we’ve already met Odysseus through his son. Through these little comparisons, we first get a glimpse of the legendary character Odysseus is made out to be, and the ball of Odysseus’ adventures start rolling because of his reputation. That we spend four books trying to find Odysseus by way of his lingering scent proves just how embedded the man’s legacy is in his own adventures. It’s the journey of the reader as much as it is the journey of Odysseus: a quest to find this fabled man, for us to discover who he is. In other words, Odysseus’ adventures began long before we even met the man.

But of course we do need to meet the protagonist, and ultimately we find him — on an island isolated from nature, having a besotted woman keeping him prisoner (though thankfully this one hasn’t chopped his feet off). He is set free, and he goes back to his rightful homeland of Ithaca after undergoing the longest storytelling session a guest can give and also the worst (or most adventurous) ten years of his life.

These are the adventures we all know and love, and when he lands at Ithaca, you’d be forgiven for thinking that his adventures have come to an end: he’s home and dry (well, as dry as a man who’s spent ten years at sea can be), so close to comfort. But no, we still have half the book to go, and his exploits are actually just beginning as he struggles to find his way back into the palace and into the arms of the woman he loves, going through all sorts of degradation and humiliation (among them: having his dog die on him immediately after seeing his old master). As the old saying goes, “no rest for the wicked”, and the naughty Odysseus (well, he did allow his crew to eat sacred cows) still has a lot of feats to accomplish, to prove himself, even on his own homeland.

At the end of the book, Odysseus wins, he gets into bed with Penelope again, everyone’s lives return to normal — and still that is not the end of the story. We’ve gone through so many false endings, I’ve run out of ways to express them. Just where do Odysseus’ adventures end? My Penguin copy has a helpful chronology with which I can check Odysseus’ entire history, and I assure you that it doesn’t stop with the end of the Odyssey. In Book 11, it’s mentioned that:

…when you have killed these Suitors in your palace… you must set out once more; take a well-cut oar and go on till you reach a people who know nothing of the sea.

The prophecy only ends with Odysseus’ peaceful death. Only by ridding himself of the world will Odysseus stop having adventures: despite seeing more than enough of his share of the world, he is destined to wander, in a quest to make peace with all his internal and external demons, long after the book ends. What this passage reminds us is that Odysseus’ story never really stops. He continues to have a life of his own, and he will keep travelling, keep having wonderful adventures. It’s just that this book doesn’t have the room to tell us everything.

It’s the sort of constant travelling that makes me think of my own friends: they always seem to be popping off to places every now and then: Taiwan, Japan, Finland to see the aurora borealis, Morocco to hear the whispers of Arabian sands. I, who unfortunately am not that good at earning money, have never really managed to get on a plane much. But even at the risk of sounding like a case of sour grapes, I’ll put this out there: an adventure is not simply going out and seeing the world. Having spent so long in Australia, I can say with confidence that the real pleasure of going out is the implication of coming home; similarly, we are never satisfied when we trace our steps back home, and it’s not long before we seek to venture out again. The cycle repeats ad infinitum, each individual journey a mere detail in this long odyssey we call life.

The adventure does not begin the moment your plane takes off, the moment you check in at the gate, even the moment you step out the door of your own house. Odysseus’ adventures began long before the gods decided to end his suffering, and it continued long after he finally made it to (with?) Penelope again. As it does with us: our adventures began the moment we were unceremoniously thrust (erm) into this world, and it only ends when you give up your soul to whatever deity or force you believe in. The journeys we usually think of are just a second layer, a part of this long and winding road we call life, an adventure that will bring us experiences galore — some good, some bad, but always thrilling.

I urge you to enjoy it.

Next time: One may of course go and discover infinite sights, but of course there are places that should be left alone. Places like the dark underbelly of Paris. So our next book, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, will thankfully do the exploring for us.

(Quotations from the Penguin Classics edition of “The Odyssey”, translated by Emile Victor Rieu and revised and edited by Dominic Rieu, published 2003, featured photo from cover of said book.)

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