Last night Achilles and Hector were duelling it out again on British television. Achilles’ roar was as alive as ever. What is it about Homer’s storytelling that makes it work so well after nearly three thousand years? Can we bottle it and have some?
This week let’s look at The Odyssey, a work that has been recast and rewritten maybe more than any other in human history. What can we learn?
- It’s a perfect quest
The quest is the simplest plot structure of all. Your main character wants and needs something urgently and goes to the ends of the earth to get it.
After ten years, the Trojan war is over and Odysseus can finally set off for home. He didn’t want to be at war in the first place: when Menelaus came gathering all the other Greek kings for support, Odysseus’s young wife Penelope had just given birth to a son, Telemachus, so ‘wily’ Odysseus pretended to be mad to escape the call-up and sowed salt into his fields. It didn’t work. Menelaus knew him too well; he had to honour the one-for-all treaty and go.
To say Odysseus gets a bit lost on the way home from war is an understatement: his journey takes him another ten years through lethal seas, mythical terrain and an inner exploration that has kept readers, filmmakers and academics rivetted ever since. In his The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says, ‘there is no more complete and profound version (of a quest) than The Odyssey’.
- It’s two perfect quests
As JS Bach knew, we love a bit of counterpoint where two tunes fold together into a more beautiful combination than either one of them alone, and the same is true of storytelling. If you can do two things at once in your story, try it. The first four books of The Odyssey are about the quest of Telemachus (Odysseus’s son) to find his missing dad. His quest mirrors his father’s and both combine in the powerful ending.
- Start in the middle
Homer’s two great poems The Iliad and The Odyssey are both thought to have developed from a tradition of epic tales recited orally. If you have an audience full of good food and chat, wine and flirting, you need to start well, as any after-dinner speaker can tell you. So, the Ancient Greeks and Romans liked to start ‘in media res’, Latin for ‘in the middle’. Horace said that was the proper starting point for an epic, or indeed any story.
You don’t need to start in the high crisis of a battle but it’s important not to hang around. Above all, do not begin with undigested slabs of character biography, no matter how much Dickens got away with it. Your readers will wander off, as I expect diners did thousands of years ago.
Homer (whoever she, he or they were, nobody knows) could have started The Odyssey story with the beginning of the Trojan war, or with scenes of victorious Greeks waving the big man off afterwards. Or while Odysseus is facing one of his tests. Below is JW Waterhouse’s painting (1891) of Odysseus resisting the Sirens …
Instead, we begin at the point of maximum distress for the three main characters:
- Odysseus has just managed to escape seven years of miserable captivity with Calypso and is telling his story (after a meal) to his saviours before they help him on his way back home. Let’s absorb this for a moment – almost all of what we know as The Odyssey is told in flashback.
- If Penelope were a widow, she’d be quite a catch so her home fills up with men jostling to persuade her into marriage. She holds them off, refuses to choose, still hoping darling Odysseus will make it back to her, but there’s a grisly stand-off going on around her while the ‘Suitors’ eat her out of house and home, help themselves to the servant girls and generally make the whole place hell.
- Their son Telemachus can’t endure this wretchedness at home either. When Menelaus lets him know that Odysseus is being held captive, Telemachus heads off to save him.
- If you can do two things at once, why not three?
The Odyssey and Iliad are both double-layered. The ancient gods play active roles, champion their own favourite humans and set up traps and mischief for ones they don’t like. Homer invented this, by the way. This is not how Greeks of the time thought about their gods – it’s a storytelling trope.
When the Trojan prince called Paris falls in love with Menelaus’s wife Helen and steals her away to Troy, that is Aphrodite at work, igniting the story of The Iliad. It’s the goddess Athene who supports Odysseus against Poseidon, a sea god who has it in for him.
Zeus (top god in this pantheism) calls a ceasefire on godly interference in the Trojan war after Hector’s duel with Ajax, then lifts it to release the final stage.
This godly layer of the stories is usually left out of adaptations these days but it’s a pity to lose such mighty divine characters throwing their weight around.
- Magic realism is as old as time
You can have reality mixed with witches, cannibals, giants, gods, rocks that shift around, sea monsters, all at the same time. We have always loved it.
- Homer’s theme winds through every segment
What is The Odyssey’s theme? The need for home and peace? The struggle of an old soldier to find his way back into civilian society?
Classicists contend that the theme is really ‘xenia’. It means hospitality – sharing food, welcoming strangers, listening around the table – with elements of peace and shalom.
Breaking the rules of xenia brought unhappiness and violence in the Ancient Greek world; xenia could bring foes together in peace as we saw last week with Priam and Achilles.
Every element of the Odyssey story has xenia at its core. Calypso is all about glorious sensual hospitality, except that she won’t let Odysseus leave.
Arnold Bocklin’s painting (1883)
Polyphemus eats his human guests – what more gross abuse of hospitality can there be? Penelope’s ‘Suitors’ are overstaying their welcome, if they ever had one, and are abusing her generosity. On the other hand, when Odysseus finally reaches safety, he is nourished and looked after, tells his story in an entertaining way and, when the time is right, his hosts help him safely on his way – perfect xenia. For a more about this, I recommend Emily Wilson’s wonderful new translation, the first ever by a woman.
- Your characters can be as complicated as you like
Odysseus is a powerful athlete and an old man, a beggar and a king, victim and aggressor, adulterer and adoring husband, a liar we trust, heroic ‘city-sacker’ and somebody who did not want to go to war. In The Iliad, even fearless Hector tried to run away at first rather than duel with Achilles. Homer knows all our hearts and sees into all our conflicting corners.
There’s no need for your characters to be consistent. If you do your character work well, you’ll know how to play their different shadows.
- Tricks to identify characters
In the long academic debate about who Homer was or whether the poems were initially oral or written, a key clue to their oral heritage lies in what are known as Homer’s epithets. You’ll have heard maybe of the ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, ‘wily’ Odysseus, ‘prudent Penelope’. Aphrodite is always described as ‘laughter-loving’ even when she’s wounded on the battlefield.
The ancient storytelling bards used epithets to give them time to think while the story bowled along. (This was discovered by Milman Parry, an American classicist who rocked the world of Homeric studies when he published his studies of Serbo-Croat oral balladeers in 1960.)
We can use tricks too to help readers conjure up our characters quickly. I’m thinking of Blind Pugh’s tap-tap-tap, Bill Sykes’s dog, Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’. A kind of code is dropped into the reader’s memory so that slabs of description don’t have to hold up your story.
- The best stories have family at their centre
Though we think we’re 21st century sophisticated people, the human heart hasn’t changed all that much in three thousand years. The best stories have family at their centre.
- The best stories can come from strangers
As Emily Watson says in the final paragraph of her introduction, kindness to strangers can lead us to the best stories too.