Otto Steinmayer: CLASSIC GROUND

Seascape with Monsters

[The New Straits Times, 18 September 1991]


HOMER could not have said goodbye to us forever at the funeral of Hektor. Homer knew war is not the whole story, life goes on after heroism destroys itself. Peace follows war, and the Odyssey is Homer's poem of the return to peace.

But getting back is not so easy. Odysseus, cast up on a strange island ("Oh no, not again!" he thinks), wakes up to the bloodcurdling screams of---pre-teen girls, the princess Nausikaa and her friends playing ball after doing the laundry at the river.

Naked, battered Odysseus crawls out of the bushes, covering himself with a polite branch of olive. Now it's the girls' turn to be frightened. All run except Nausikaa, whom tactful Odysseus butters up in the following fashion:

"Mistress: please: are you divine, or mortal?
If you are one of those who dwell in the wide heaven,
you are most near to Artemis, I should say---
great Zeus's daughter---in your grace and presence.
If you are one of earth's inhabitants,
how blest your father, and your gentle mother,
blest all your kin. I know what happiness
must send the warm tears to their eyes, each time
they see their wondrous child go to the dancing!
But one man's destiny is more than blest---
he who prevails, and takes you as his bride.
Never have I laid eyes on equal beauty..." (and so on.)

Homer's battles are tragedy, the Odyssey's fresh linen and flattery belongs to comedy. The Iliad moves from order to disaster, the Odyssey moves from chaos to content, from wrong to justice, from exile to home. The Odyssey reestablishes, as comedy does, the everyday world.
Again, the return from Troy is hard. Many Greeks perish with their ships. King Agamemnon is murdered by his wife. His brother Menelaus, his wife Helen with him, remains uneasy. Like the veterans of Vietnam, the Greeks feel incurable pain from war's horror. As the old hero Nestor speaks:

"Our losses, then---so many good men gone:
Ares' great Aias lies there, Akhilleus lies there,
Patroklos, too, the wondrous counselor,
and my own strong and princely son, Antilokhos..."

Odysseus, eternal survivor, toils ten years towards his native island of Ithaka. To a man in a boat, the Mediterranean waters stretch vast and pathless. No one at home knows whether Odysseus is alive or dead.

Twenty years before, when Odysseus went to Troy, he left behind his infant son, Telemakhos, and his wife, the wise Penelope. Things are hard for them. Telemakhos has grown up without a father. Penelope is pressed by a horde of bullying suitors contending to be king of Ithaka. They hang around the palace, wasting Odysseus' wealth.

If Akhilles is the model for the fierce fighter, Odysseus is the man with brains, the type of the real Zorba-like Greek, resourceful, cunning, and above all, a speaker of bewitching fluency. When Odysseus first appears in the Iliad, Homer says, he is not much to look at, but when he opens his mouth, the words fall as beautifully and thickly as flakes of snow.

Odysseus is the "man of many devices." His endurance, his skills of lying and persuasion will be tested to the limit in his wandering towards home and in outwitting Penelope's suitors.

Not that the man doesn't make any wrong moves. On setting out from Troy Odysseus is tempted to attack a town and fails. (Pirates in Greece, rather as here in the Archipelago 300 years ago, enjoyed a certain amount of respectability.) A storm drives him to the land of the Lotos-Eaters, a tempting flower of forgetfulness. Odysseus rescues his crew from this drug with difficulty.

The original fiction is the fairy tale, and just as children now, the ancients liked best the stories that told about people and events larger than life, the supernatural and the wonderful. An epic would not be an epic without a place for marvels and magic.

The Odyssey swarms with monsters that have a permanent place in our most delicious nightmares: cannibals, a sorceress, sirens, sea-monsters. Homer also imagined places of pure beauty and peace, like the earthly paradise of king Alkinoos' garden. So potent were these imaginations that they spread over the world. Sindbad the Sailor's adventures in the Thousand and One Nights echo the Greek's. Borneo people told again the fable of the Clashing Rocks, that crush ships, and the Whirlpool in the Centre of Ocean.

Then, the strange island of the Cyclopes, giants with a single eye. Trusting Odysseus finds too late that these creatures are uncivilized cannibals, and barely escapes the trap---some of the crew already smashed and eaten raw---by getting the Cyclops drunk and gouging out his eye with a heated stake. But while safely, as he thinks, out to sea, Odysseus makes another mistake, giving the Cyclops his name. The Cyclops calls on his father, the sea-god Poseidon, to curse the wanderer:

"Let him lose all companions, and return
under strange sail to bitter days at home."

Odysseus' company dwindles. He visits the Land of the Dead, and talks with the ghost of Akhilles. A sole ship survives the deadly song of the Sirens, and the passage between the whirlpool Kharybdis and the many-headed monster Skylla. Then Odysseus' crewmen anger the gods by eating their sacred cattle and Zeus smashes his ship in mid-sea.

Odysseus washes up alone on the island of the goddess Kalypso, who detains him an unwilling concubine. At last, by the help of his patron-goddess Athena, he regains his wife, son, and kingdom. But exactly how, I leave to you, reader, to find out. The Odyssey is Greek literature which a modern reader can best enjoy and understand. Children love it. My classical education began when I read a version with pictures in the second grade. Robert Fitzgerald's translation, from which I have quoted here, is a splendid recreation. Don't read it in prose; it makes it harder.

Fantasy makes up only one part of the Odyssey. Homer builds his humour on sharp drawing of character. The plot too rouses up strong sympathies. The Odyssey is an adventure novel that takes us to far corners of the world to see things we will never see ourselves, to get ourselves imaginatively into scrapes, and get out of them by cleverness and courage. The voyage of Odysseus is also the voyage of our lives. It expresses the way we feel about going out into the world, passing the tests, and returning home with experience and wisdom.

...He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men...

His son Telemakhos also journeys. In seeking his father, Telemakhos grows from a boy to a man, and a man's responsibility.
No other poem so praises the homely life and its virtues. As Odysseus replies to Kalypso, who wonders why he will not stay and be her lover:

"...My quiet Penelope---how well I know---
would seem a shade before your majesty,
death and old age being unknown to you,
while she must die. Yet, it is true, each day
I long for home, long for the sight of home..."

Odysseus reunited with the prudent Penelope, whose faith has won out, seem to wed again. Comedies end with a wedding, a universal symbol of the overcoming of troubles and the celebrating of life's ordinary happiness. The Odyssey's end brings the heroic world also to an end, gently, back to earth, the true place for love.

[Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Odyssey is published by Doubleday, New York.]