Homer, as I said in the previous post, is one of the great story-tellers because in The Iliad he gave us a heart-rending and timeless look at wrath. Now look at what he did in the Odyssey! Wow. Those two stories could not be more different.
There is a theory on the periphery of academia (is that a redundancy?) that the Iliad and Odyssey were actually written by different authors. The Iliad, in this theory, was authored by a man; the Odyssey by a woman. I don’t know and I don’t care, but the mere hypothesis is telling because the two stories are so very different.
The Iliad is about young men being heroes. They either win or die, heroically. It is a story written, if not by a young man, certainly for young men.
The Odyssey is a story about and for older people: It is about trying to return to something lost and traversing a liminal realm known today as the midlife crisis. (Just think of the main character in James Joyce’s Ulysses.)
The return is a classic theme of the monomyth theory by Jung and Campbell. For example, there is an entire genre of plays and stories that have to do with the heroes of the Trojan War, now as older men, trying (and often failing) to return home. Agamemnon comes home to be murdered by his wife in his own bathtub. Aeneas wanders all around the Mediterranean. Ditto Odysseus.
I’ve heard that the Odyssey is often used in seminars for Vietnam vets. Apparently the story speaks to them in a particularly direct and intimate way.
Limen is the Latin word for threshold. The Greeks and Romans often put little statues of Hermes/Mercury near their thresholds, because they believed that crossing thresholds was of particular significance and had its own divinity. The biggest thresholds are death and middle age (the “death” of the young hero and “rebirth” as old man.)
The Odyssey is about this extended liminality of midlife. Odysseus (like Aeneas) literally walks through Hades, the underworld of the dead, with Hermes. For ten years, he has a full-blow midlife crisis: Dangerous women, crazy ideas, irresponsible behavior. But he also yearns for stability and reconnection with his son, Telemachus, and wife, Penelope, whom he last saw twenty years ago. His home is in chaos; his status is in question; he no longer knows who he is and must redefine himself. This is midlife!
So don’t be fooled by the colorful stories of Sirens (pictured above) and Cyclops and what not. All of those famous adventures are part of a story within the story, a speech that Odysseus himself gives to his hosts to explain what he has been through. It is assumed that he is spicing some of his adventures up for the telling.
But most of the Odyssey is about his son Telemachus trying to find his absent father, about Odysseus trying to come home, and then about trying to reestablish himself at home.
So how does my story-telling theory fare? The Odyssey is less simple than the other stories I’ve featured so far, but that’s because it aims at older audiences that savor complexity; it has great momentum; and, yes, it has a universal idea.