The marriage bed of Odysseus and Penelope gives us one of the most powerful images in Homer’s Odyssey. Carved from a living olive tree still rooted in the ground, it symbolizes the centrality of marriage to the health and preservation of a good society. Odysseus’s struggle to return to this bed and his slaughter of the usurpers who would take his place there form a satisfying climax to one of history’s greatest stories.
We need models. We need teachers to show us how to live. And some of the best teachers are those which have never breathed, have never taken on flesh, have never had the urgency of a real death. Some of our best teachers are fictional characters. This is what Leland Ryken means when he says great literature “shows human experience instead of telling about it. It is incarnational. It enacts rather than states. Instead of giving us abstract propositions about virtue or vice, for example, literature presents stories of good or evil characters in action” (p.
The question of how Christians should engage culture is one which garners diverse opinions from people of faith. Many argue that we should participate in our culture. Sometimes, this means conceding to whatever has been deemed fashionable by society. Then there are those who do not see the value of engaging with culture, echoing Tertullian’s question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
The answer to these questions in their totality is complex. However, one interesting literary relationship can shed light on it: The Gospel of Mark’s use of Homer’s Odyssey.
Seventy-five years ago, as the Nazis were methodically implementing their conquest of Europe, the French philosopher/mystic Simone Weil published a long essay titled “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” In her perceptive take on Homer’s poem, she describes force as “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad....,” and defines it as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” (The Nazis brought this practice to a new level, and still stand as role models for
Since the semester started, my sons Alex and Andrew and I have been reading The Odyssey.
I wanted to write something profound about this study but it has turned out to be just Alex and Andrew and I reading The Odyssey.
When book five begins we find ourselves in the same place where book one began: Olympus, where the gods are in session. And, as in book one, we listen as Athena pleads Odysseus' case. “Father Zeus . . . “ she says, “be one whose thought is schooled in justice.” And justice, she claims, demands that both Odysseus and Telemachus be free to return home.
When last we rode with “thoughtful” Telemachus, he and Peisistratos, Nestor's son, were on their way to the home of “glorious” Menelaus and Helen (she for whom his father was fighting when he went missing). As book four begins - and we come to the end of the portion of the Odyssey typically known as the Telemachy - Telemachus and Pesistratos are finally arrving at the King's palace. They are greeted with, of course, a grand feast.
Towards the beginning of his book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan notes that Henry Fielding once referred to The Odyssey as “Homer's wonderful book about eating”. As a wannabe chef I love this; as a literature enthusiast and student I'm intrigued by it. And I think we get our first glimpse of this possiblity here in book three.
The coming of age tale is, I suspect, as old as coming of age itself.
Many of our most beloved books and stories reveal what Dr. Eva Brann aptly calls “a trip towards . . . identity.”
Consider: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, David Copperfield, Treasure Island, Candide, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to name just a few, are all prime examples. And these don't count the myriad unwritten tales that were passed down through oral tradition and local legend.
In the forward to her book, Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey, Eva Brann wrote that “reading Homer's poems is one of the purest, most inexhaustible pleasures life has to offer - a secret somewhat too well kept in our time.” If this is true, and I suspect that it is, then I'm going to be one of the happiest people on earth this fall.