Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Twists and Turns: The Character of Odysseus

Sing to me of the man, Muse, 
the man of twists and turns,
driven time and again off course.

--The Odyssey by Homer, translation by Robert Fagles (1996)

* * *

In the opening of Homer's The Odyssey, the main character Odysseus is referred to as an anthropos polytropos (a phrase translated above as "man of twists and turns").  You might be able to guess the basic meaning of the phrase if you think of similar words such as anthropology and anthropomorphic, polygon and polygamous, and tropical and troposphere.

In these very first lines of The Iliad, Homer points to two major themes that will be central to his epic--the rage of Achilles and the glory promised by heroic death in war.  In The Odyssey, we turn to a story of what happens after war--that is, the story of peace.  Today I want to talk about some of the themes of the Odyssey highlighted by Homer's use of the word polytropos in these crucial first lines.

First, the central drive of The Odyssey is Odysseus's efforts to return home to his wife and child on Ithaca.  This turning--or rather returning--is the specific story of an individual, but clearly Homer is comparing the return Odysseus makes to the homecomings of other war heroes.  From other literature and mythology, we know what became of other leaders from the long years at Troy.  By the time The Odyssey begins, however, all of the other warriors are either home or dead (or both, as we'll see soon when I read Aeschylus).  Only Odysseus has not yet returned home.

The former warrior's homecoming is threatened and delayed constantly by the vagaries of fortune, the vengeance of gods, and the missteps of his crew.  That is, Odysseus's attempts to return home are thwarted by the twists and turns, leading him from one danger to another and from delay to further delay.

A final meaning of polytropos is the twists and turns of his own mind.  Odysseus was praised in The Iliad for being one of the Greek's best warriors, not because of this physical strength but because of his intelligence.  Perhaps "intelligence" is the wrong word.  Instead we might call Odysseus crafty, conniving, or tricky.  In a future post, I want to talk more about this aspect of Odysseus, how his cleverness is echoed in other characters, and what Homer might have meant by it.

* * *

The Greek word polytropos, weighted with these various meanings, creates both a complication and an opportunity for translators. Here are a few of their various attempts at conveying the polytropic nature of Odysseus:

1. Allen Mandelbaum (1990)

Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile

2. Richard Lattimore (1965)

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys

3. Robert Fitzgerald (1961)

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end

4. Rieu and Rieu (Originally translated in the mid-1940s and recently revised by the translator's son)

Tell me, Muse, the story of that very resourceful man
who was driven to wander far and wide

5. Samuel Butler (1900)

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide

6. Alexander Pope (1725)

The man for wisdom's various arts renown'd,
Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

*  *  *

Depending on which translator we read, Odysseus might be wily or ingenious, cunning or resourceful.  Clearly some of these words are more negative than others.  But even when we use the most positive words, it is very hard to conceive of the hero of The Odyssey as a man trying to live by his moral compass.

*  *  *

When I think of the meanings of the word turning, my thoughts always have a Pete Seeger soundtrack featuring "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and its lyrics straight from the King James translation of Ecclesiastes:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; 
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

In The Odyssey, Homer takes the turn mentioned at the end of this passage--from "a time of war" to "a time of peace."  Other than that, the words of the Bible and the words of Homer are radically different.  Homer is not engaging with the complex message of the acceptance of change that seems to be coming out of Ecclesiastes.  Instead we have a story --albeit with a a somewhat convoluted and twisting narrative structure--of a journey with a clear beginning and a foreordained end.  (More about the narrative structure later.)  In other words, the turning stops when the book stops.

Religious ideas about turning also appear in the Jewish concept of t'shuvah, one of the central conceits of Yom Kippur.  The literal meaning of t'shuvah actually is "turning"--but the Hebrew word carries the idea of repentance as well. T'shuvah only comes when we turn away from lives of dishonesty or injustice, and turn towards a commitment to a changed self.  T'shuvah requires that we acknowledge our limits and our weaknesses and take responsibility for our past actions.

It is this kind of turning that is furthest from what we see in The Odyssey.  Odysseus uses lies and deceit to trick monsters, gods, and good people alike.  He brags about his strengths and tries to erase any perceived cases of weakness or fault.  He blames the men of his crew for many of their setbacks.  He even lies and cheats his way into his palace at Ithaca.

And yet Homer makes sure his listeners and readers are cheering for Odysseus all the way to the end.  This lack of change or thought makes Odysseus seem like a cartoon figure, a character with no depth and no change.  Although I am stunned to say it, The Iliad resonates for me as a modern reader far more than The Odyssey does.  Achilles struggles through such intense personal growth that the book feels like a very modern and meaningful book.  The Odyssey feels more like a superhero adventure story, entertaining but not necessarily transformative.  Did any of you have a similar reaction?  I would love to hear any ideas you have.

(The post of a part of the Book Beginnings meme hosted by Katy of the blog A Few More Pages.)


  1. You thought of King James, I thought of the Shakers--and another view of turning.

    "Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
    'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
    And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
    'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
    When true simplicity is gain'd,
    To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
    To turn, turn will be our delight,
    Till by turning, turning we come round right."

    Do you think, in the end, Odyssey's learns to be simple?

  2. Brilliant, OfTroy! Certainly a lot of the lines fit perfectly. Odysseus is looking to return to the place he ought to be, the place that is his valley of love and delight. And in fact, he even seems unashamed to bow and bend when he is pretending to be a beggar.

    Perhaps learning to be simple is exactly the lesson he needs to learn. Odysseus has been used to being the war hero who everyone celebrates. Now he has to return home to be a family man--a normal plain life rather than the exciting-dangerous world of war. Perhaps struggling through all the twists and turns of his journey helps him conceive of himself as something other than a warrior?

    What I am not so sure of is whether he learns these lessons or not.

  3. The Iliad resonates more with me as well but The Odyssey eventually grew on me until I liked it almost as much. What turned the tide for The Odyssey was the realization that both books are about life and death: for The Iliad it’s a physical death, for The Odyssey it’s a loss of identity and memory. I won’t repeat everything I said in my post on memory in Homer but it’s a draft on this theme.

  4. Thank you very much for the link. I think you've nailed it when you say it is about loss of identity. I think you've just sparked a topic for tomorrow's post, in fact!

  5. This is why I love looking at different translations-you can pull so much more from the piece!

    When I was an undergrad in my first english class, we read all of the intros to the different translations. I loved the Fagles translation the most (and luckily, that was the one we read fully). I have a copy of the Fitzgerald translation as well, I should probably read it sooner rather than later...

    But I love the musicality of Fagles' translation. The last couple of lines of that opening stanza...

    "Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
    start from where you will-Sing for our time too.”

    I love those lines...I want to get a tattoo that condenses it... "Muse-start from where you will-Sing for our time too."

    I have lots of love for The Odyssey...talking about the beauty of the lines gets me all nerdy and excited! :)

  6. Thanks for sharing and pointing out the lyrical words of these wonderful books.


  7. I love when you talk about translations--I find it extremely interesting. I have not been brave enough to wade into The Odyssey yet, but I think if/when I do, I will try the Fagles translation.

    Thanks for participating in Book Beginnings!

  8. Alexander Pope's translation seems marvellous to me. Nietzsche refers to "polytropos" without translating it in his Gay Science, Book 5, No. 344, making an interesting twist rethinking our moral concept of truth.


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