The Odyssey of Homer—far more than the darker and more comfortless Iliad—has been a book with great appeal. Readers, followers, and imitators have abounded. James Joyce’s Ulysses is only one of the more elaborate and fantastic of its variants, along with the enormous and yet more fantastic Odyssey: A Modern Sequel of Nikos Kazantzakis. The Greeks themselves always ranked it below the Iliad; that was the Great Poem, but later generations have often disagreed with their verdict.
The Odyssey is a complex work. It falls into two great divisions. There are the adventures of the hero Odysseus, making his weary way back from Troy to his distant home, the island of Ithaca, through a world peopled by perils, monsters, and magic. The more fantastic of the stories are related by the hero himself, after dinner, to an appreciative audience. They are sailors’ yarns, exciting and—almost—exceeding belief, and the poet prefers not to vouch for their truth. He was given the winds in a bag by a friendly deity, but his foolish men let them all out. He passed the Lotus Eaters, whose drowsy food enchains those who eat of it in a permanent drugged euphoria. He passed the fearsome whirlpool Charybdis, and the six- headed monster Scylla, who seized six of his men as they sailed past. They screamed to him for the help he could not give, as she devoured them before her cave; “That was the cruellest of all the sights I had to see.”
There was also his visit to the World of the Dead, to get directions and advice. It is the first European example of that great tradition of poetical visions of the afterlife, whose high points would include the Sixth Book of Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
There was Circe, too, who seemed so charming. She gave Odysseus and his men hospitality, and then—suddenly—she turned the sailors into pigs and shut them up in the pigsty. Later writers observe that sailors on shore do sometimes make beasts of themselves. Odysseus got her to change them back, and he shared her bed; but his men, not surprisingly, remained terrified of her. There were the Laestrygonians: first just a girl, the daughter of their king, who seemed so nice and so helpful, and who took them home to meet Mama; but the mama of a pretty girl (so true is myth to real life) proved to be a terrifying ogre.
There were some nice girls, too. There was the loving nymph Calypso, who kept the hero on her island, far away, “by the navel of the sea,” trying to make him marry her. There was Nausicaa, a king’s daughter, who also had her eye on the dashing stranger, when he suddenly appeared while she was playing ball with her girlfriends; but any possible romance was nipped by her watchful mother, and the hero, middle-aged and battered but still glamorous, was finally sent on his way home.
The other half of the epic concerns the plight of Penelope, archetype of faithful wives. She is a contrast to the faithless Helen, who ran away with a handsome Trojan and had to be brought back at the cost of ten years of war. She contrasts, too, with the adulterous wife of the great King Agamemnon, who took a lover while her husband was away at Troy, and who conspired with him to murder the King on his return home. “I thought they would all be so pleased to see me!” says poor Agamemnon’s ghost to Odysseus, when his travels include a visit to the Land of the Dead; “but there’s no trusting a woman nowadays!” But he does go on to say, “Of course, I know your wife Penelope is much better than mine.”
And the poet is careful to point out that Odysseus is assured, on the best authority, that his wife has really been faithful. She is at her wits’ end, though, beset by all the local gilded youth, who are convinced that her husband is not coming back, and who see marriage with her as the route to getting Odysseus’ kingship and possessions.
They are taking the eminently unromantic course of wearing poor Penelope down by invading the house, consuming the food and wine of the royal household, and making free with the female staff. Crucially, the hand of Penelope will carry with it the kingship. This is a fairy-tale motif, or wish fulfillment: “So he married the beautiful princess and reigned as king in his turn!” It was never the Greek custom to allow a queen’s new husband to become king, and Odysseus has a son, Telemachus, twenty years old, who should be the heir. Hitherto, Telemachus has been passive, a child; but now, growing up, and encouraged by the goddess Athena, he tries to put his foot down. He orders the greedy suitors to get out. At once, they decide that he must die. It is at this point, as they plan to kill the son and to force the wife to accept one of them as husband and king, that the hero—in the nick of time—returns and, with Athena’s aid, accomplishes their destruction.
Margaret Atwood tells the old heroic story from a female point of view. Most of the twenty-nine short chapters are spoken, in prose, by Penelope—by Penelope dead, discontented with the way that poets have told the tale. The other chapters, in breezy rhyming verse, are sung by a chorus line of the maidservants whom Odysseus, after his return, put to death by hanging, as the punishment for their disloyalty in carrying on with the suitors. Atwood tells us that she has “always been haunted by the hanged maids,” whose harsh fate does indeed take the modern reader aback.
In the nineteenth century, Samuel Butler wrote a book (The Authoress of the Odyssey) arguing that the poem’s attempt to depict male heroism was generally so unconvincing that it must be the work of a woman: a woman, in fact, who put herself into her poem as the young and charming Nausicaa, and who exaggerated, with feminine vindictiveness, the revulsion which we should feel at the loose behavior of the maids. It is true that the sensibility of the Odyssey does not, in various ways, seem quite that of a heroic epic. It is the ancestor of the novel, first in Greek and then in other European languages. Psychology, notably, has become much more complex, more inward, more secretive, than in the Iliad. Especially interesting is the psychology of women.
Homer presents Penelope as inscrutable and ingenious—as well as being still, with a grown-up son of twenty, fabulously attractive. She has only indirect feminine weapons to postpone the day of a hateful marriage, but she succeeds. Most famous is the trick of the web: Penelope pleaded that she must be allowed to finish weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, ready for his funeral (“Or what will people say about me?”). Every night she unpicked the work she had done by day, until a disloyal maid betrayed her secret, and she was forced to finish it.
Penelope is, for the Odyssey, a dignified and virtuous figure. There were other versions of her story, unedifying and undignified. She appeared in satyr plays, that scurrilous theatrical form, where she was, naturally, no better than she ought to be. There was even a version which declared that the minor god Pan, half goat, was the offspring of Penelope by “all the Suitors”: the Greek for “all” is pantes. That canard, however, never became orthodox.
In Atwood’s subtle and perceptive retelling, she is irreproachable, but human. She tells the tale of her twenty years of loneliness, waiting for Odysseus’ return:
Rumours came, carried by other ships. Odysseus and his men had got drunk at their first port of call and the men had mutinied, said some; no, said others, they’d eaten a magic plant that had caused them to lose their memories, and Odysseus had saved them by having them tied up and carried onto the ships. Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, said some; no, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper, said another, and the fight was over non-payment of the bill.
The minstrels, says Atwood, naturally sang the noblest versions in her presence; and that is how we come to have only those versions in our heroic Odyssey.
Other exploits are brought in as the subjects of “The Wily Sea Captain, A Sea Shanty: As Performed by the Twelve Maids, in Sailor Costumes”:
Oh wily Odysseus he set out from Troy,
With his boat full of loot and his heart full of joy,
For he was Athene’s own shiny-eyed boy,
With his lies and his tricks and his thieving!
His first port of call was the sweet Lotus shore
Where we sailors did long to forget the foul war;
But we soon were hauled off on the black ships once more,
Although we were pining and grieving.
To the dread one-eyed Cyclops then next we did hie,
He wanted to eat us so we put out his eye;
Our lad said, “I’m No One,” but then bragged, “‘Twas I,
Odysseus, the prince of deceiving!”
And so on. The songs are good fun. But: Odysseus and his son hanged the twelve maids! What about that? In the Odyssey, there are no consequences. The outraged master exercises his rights, it appears, and that is all. Atwood provides some further developments. Odysseus must stand trial for killing the suitors. That is soon and easily disposed of—the judge agrees that they had it coming to them. But what about the death of the maids? The judge chuckles:
Your client’s times were not our times…. I do not wish to be guilty of an anachronism. Therefore I must dismiss the case.
The maids clamor for justice; the dog-headed Furies appear, to support them; but Athena comes to Odysseus’ rescue, and the trial, and the courtroom, collapses.
Penelope, however, is still with us and still discontented. She pushes her way, nowadays, into séances, when she can, but she is disappointed with what she finds: today’s people, she complains,
are almost too trivial to merit any attention whatsoever….They want to converse with a lot of dead nonentities we in this realm cannot be expected to know. Who is this “Marilyn” everyone is so keen on? Who is this “Adolf”?
As for Odysseus, he is still pursued by the dead maids, through life after life:
He’s been a French general, he’s been a Mongolian invader, he’s been a tycoon in America, he’s been a headhunter in Borneo.
But the dead girls chase him everywhere, alive or dead:
Yoo hoo! Mr Nobody! Mr Nameless! Mr Master of illusion! Mr Sleight of Hand, grandson of thieves and liars!
We’re here too, the ones without names….
We’re the serving girls, we’re here to serve you. We’re here to serve you right. We’ll never leave you, we’ll stick to you like your shadow, soft and relentless as glue. Pretty maids, all in a row.
What has given the nameless serving girls a starring role, and the last word, in the old heroic tale of Odysseus, warrior and king, and his justified punishment of disloyalty in his household? We see here the impact on the heroic myth of democracy, of egalitarianism, of feminism: the impact, that is, of the modern world and a modern sensibility. A democratic Odyssey, a feminist Odyssey: Why not? But—an Odyssey in which Odysseus is more a villain than a hero? Even that, we remind ourselves, would not have disconcerted Sophocles. In his tragedy Ajax he presents an Odysseus whose unscrupulousness has made him hated by heroes of a simpler and nobler type.
The point of myth is its adaptability: its power to work in all possible worlds. This myth, evidently, is still alive. Odysseus is a true archetype, and as such he can appear in many worlds and in many roles, from archaic Troy to twentieth-century Dublin, or to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But who, nowadays, can imagine a poet—as against a movie—being able to do much with that greater hero, the son of a goddess; the simpler character, who chooses to fight and die; the chosen model of Alexander the Great: Achilles?