A meandering return

Odysseus sailing aboard his solitude (Paris, BnF, Français 254, French manuscript from 1467)

Erring away from home, and for what? Homer is unclear about Odysseus’ reasons for joining the Greeks on their expedition to Troy.

Despite championing the Greek cause, we are never told why Odysseus left his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus in Ithaca for Troy. There are stories written after Homer that try to clarify this point.

In one, Odysseus is so reluctant to go to war that he feigns madness like a modern-day murderer on trial. He may be polytropos, the man of many twists and turns, cunning and crafty, but it seems he can’t outwit fate. What needs to happen will happen. And Odysseus must stay away from home for twenty years, without any guarantee of return. And even if guaranteed, the return would feel like Trojan War 2.0.

The Odyssey is the greatest experiment in literary delayed gratification. For the hero as well as for the reader. In the poem, Homer, whoever he is, has tested us to see how far we can make it on the high seas of the written word. How far we can withhold our own siege of expectations. Personally, I like to think that the pre-homeric version of the Odyssean myth was far more convoluted and thick with challenges for the meandering hero, and that the audience wasn’t happy with it, prompting the poet(s) to revisit the plot. The enduring appeal of the homeric Odyssey is that everything, absolutely everything in it, is pharmaceutically dosed and surgically elaborate.

Odysseus’ meandering return, though beset with challenges and frustrated at every turn, is right on target for us, readers. Too straight, and it would’ve lost its value, too twisted, and it would’ve overpowered us.

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