“A man who has been through bitter experiences and traveled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time”
― Homer, The Odyssey
“Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? Or do you think
any Greek gift’s free of treachery? Is that Ulysses’s reputation?
Either there are Greeks in hiding, concealed by the wood,
or it’s been built as a machine to use against our walls,
or spy on our homes, or fall on the city from above,
or it hides some other trick: Trojans, don’t trust this horse.
Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts.’” Vigil, the Aeneid
[Note: for those of you unfamiliar with ancient literature, Ulysses is the Roman name for the Greek Hero Odysseus.]
Odysseus is one of the greatest heroes of classical literature, and a personal favorite. The Wily King of Ithica stands out among the Greeks for his intelligence and good council. He is a secondary character in many ways in the Iliad, but he rated enough interest to get the second book in the series, the Odyssey, all to himself. Odysseus is a hero who is fated to wander. As I noted in one of my posts about Fate and Causality, you could take most of the islands he visits in the central parts of his travels and recount them on their own or even mix them up in order and the only way it would disturb the narrative is with the size of the ever shrinking crew. Odysseus is fated to wander and until he serves his time the plot is more interested in defining his character through his wandering than resolving any story.
Odysseus desperately wants to return to Ithica. The Trojan war has taken up ten years of his life. He has a son, a wife, and subjects who miss him. Sadly for him, his Trojan horse stunt has caused Poseidon to focus on him as the reason that his beloved Trojans lost (even though that was fated too). Poseidon, brother of Zeus, outranks most of the Gods, and so he calls upon her powers and his allies to drive Odysseus off course. Odysseus’ patron Goddess and her allies are able to ensure his safety and an eventual end to his exile by interceding with Zeus, but not until the Gods have toyed with the man for ten years. By this time Twenty years have passed, his wife is holding off a legion of obnoxious suitors,and his son has grown to manhood. Things are rather ripe by the time the wandering king returns.
In most cases Odysseus is depicted as the man with the plan. He overcomes obstacles not through brute strength or skill of arms, but with planning or trickery. He is certainly brave, strong, and skilled but his cunning is what sets him apart from Heroes like Ajax and Achilles. The Trojan horse is his most famous ruse. He convinces the Greeks to pull their fleet offshore and make it seem like their are leaving. Meanwhile they construct a giant hollow wooden horse and hide their elite warriors inside knowing that the Trojans would take it inside the city, which will allow them to come out at night and open the gate for the rest of the army. It is worth noting that the wooden horse is a sacrifice to Poseidon, a convincing sacrifice to give to the god of the Sea if one wishes safe passage for a large army. Thus we can add blasphemy to the reasons Poseidon takes a dislike to Odysseus. The Trojans cannot resist taking it, even when warned, partly because of fate but also because they wish to steal the God’s favour away from the Greeks. In the end the ruse works and Troy falls in a single night. It is not a pretty end at all, full of fire, bloodshed, and rape. One gets the sense that Homer feels it is right to punish Odysseus for the damage that his cunning plan wrought, although he sympathizes with the Ithican’s desire to end the war at any cost so he can return to his wife and son.
His ruthless pragmatism is a staggeringly modern trait: one that is largely absent from ancient tales of bloodthirsty killing machines like Cu Chulain or honorable, chivalrous killing machines like Roland or the Knights of the round table.
One almost feels bad for Odysseus’ enemies. The Trojans suffer, but they are fated to do so. The Cyclops Polyphemus, a foe that the entire crew could not overcome in battle, is quickly bested when Odysseus figures out how to get him drunk, blind him with a specially constructed “spear”, and escape by clinging to the underbellies of his flock of sheep when he lets them out in the morning. The cyclops gets what he deserves to a certain extent, but in many ways he is in the right for attacking the Trojans for trespassing on his land.
The tales of Odysseus also show another very modern idea, the perils of being too inquisitive. When Odysseus defeats Circe, he is forewarned of many of the dangers that await him. Thus he knows to plug the ears of his crew so that they do not heed the music that would lead them to their doom. Interestingly Odysseus is curious to hear this sound for himself and leaves his ears uncovered, lashing himself to the mast so that he can listen, and putting himself in grave danger just to satiate his curiosity. Indeed, wanderlust seems to suit Odysseus well, despite his loyalty to his family overcoming all obstacles. (Interestingly his loyalty to Penelope does not stop him from having sex with a few nymphs and a sorceresses, but one also wonders about Penelope and the suitors, if one reads closely.)
In the end Odysseus returns home, and passes a few trials that demonstrate his identity, then he kills the suitors rather viciously before he reclaims his Kingdom and his life. This is the only time he acts where brute strength is
emphasized over guile. The tale of a returning veteran finding corruption in his homeland is also one that resonates in modern day, and I often wonder if this was the inspiration for the the return of the hobbits to the shire.
Modern renditions of Odysseus vary in quality. My favorite is Damid Gemmell’s in the Fall of Kings, a book finished by his wife after he died. Mr Gemmell paints the Ithican as a master storyteller, whose vivid tales inspire his crew and whose plans often have a dreamlike eureka quality to them. The author must have been aware of his own mortality and the ending of the tale creates a parallel between Penelope’s longing for Odysseus and the loss of the writer and his own wife. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
Oh Brother where art thou also deserves an honourable mention. It follows a very Odysseus like character trying to re-unite with his family after escaping from a chain gang in the depression era. The Ithican easily adapts to this modern setting while remaining easily recognizable underneath the Hollywood veneer.
Odysseus is the archetypal cunning hero. He is brilliant and ruthless. He is a trickster whose main concern is furthering his own goals, noble as they may be. His genius gets him out of trouble all the time, but the consequences of his acts are often brutal. His curiosity is also the downside of his brilliance, often leading him into further danger. A very well made character that has stood the test of time and feels fresh even alongside the cutting edge of fantasy.
Edit: see below.