When I first had the idea of writing a series of books about Odysseus back in 1999, I knew the last two volumes in the series would be a chronological retelling of the Odyssey – starting with Odysseus’s voyage back from Troy and ending with his much-delayed return to Ithaca. I’d even created a loose plot line for what would happen in each book, which I intended to flesh out after the first four books in the series had been completed. This worked well when I filled in the blanks for The Voyage of Odysseus, because the hero’s adventures are recounted in just four of the twenty-four chapters of the Odyssey. This left quite a bit of room for my imagination to expand into the space left by Odysseus’s own retelling of his homeward voyage.
Planning the final book in the series, though, has not proved so straight-forward. It has always been my aim to remain as faithful as practical to the original myths, so I wanted to follow the events of Odysseus’s final return home as closely as I could. The difficulty with this was in rewriting a c. 3000 year-old poem as a modern novel. Firstly, both are aimed at very different audiences, with very different cultural expectations. Homer’s original poem was intended for men whose world-view was nothing like our own. They expected heroes who did not show signs of weakness, whose main aim was to establish and reinforce their position in the world, and whose enemies had to be utterly vanquished. So, whereas it was a point of honour for Penelope to defend her marriage bed, Odysseus’s infidelity with Circe and Calypso is acceptable and expected. For a modern audience this is seen as a terrible hypocrisy, because in our era men and women are regarded as equal and the same. It also clashes with the monogamous Christian sentiments of our culture. Another example of cultural difference is Odysseus’s treatment of his unfaithful maids (I don’t think I’m giving too much of the plot away here). To quote Odysseus in E V Rieu’s translation of the Odyssey:
“When the whole palace is restored to order take the women out of the hall between the round-house and the great wall of the courtyard, and set on them with your long swords till you have executed them all and they have forgotten their secret love-making in the arms of the Suitors.”
A little later Odysseus’s friends take a treacherous male servant and:
“…with a pitiless knife they sliced his ears and nose off; they ripped away his genitals as raw meat for the dogs and in their fury they lopped off his hands and feet.”
These may be the actions of a Bronze Age avenging hero, but no modern reader would tolerate them. So to keep with the original myths whilst avoiding stepping on the toes of our 21st Century tastes has been a challenge.
Homer’s audience also lived in a world that had little understanding of science and tended to explain the mechanics of the world through the designs and actions of the gods. This is partly why the gods are so prevalent in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Not that the supernatural is too alien a concept for today’s reader, who is more than ready to believe in superheroes, zombies or The Force. The problem with the gods in Homer is that they tend to intervene too often in the lives of the heroes and resolve their difficulties for them. To an ancient audience, this probably enhanced the status of the main character by showing they were supported by the gods. However, this goes against the grain in a modern novel, where characters are usually expected to be active, rather than passive, in sorting out their problems. In the Odyssey Athena is constantly helping Telemachus with information and advice that, to me, makes him appear incapable of working out matters for himself. Although I have always included gods, monsters and other supernatural elements in my Odysseus series, I’ve had to seriously tone this down in my retelling of Odysseus’s homecoming.
Apart from the cultural differences, there is also the problem of Homer’s timeline. When an author writes a novel set over a few days or more, it’s wise for him to create a timeline of events so that he can stay on top of what went on and when. While creating a timeline for my story about Odysseus’s homecoming, I re-read the Odyssey and plotted the different events chronologically. Books I to IV are taken up with Telemachus’s visit to Pylos and Sparta, in search of news about his missing father. Books V to XIV switch focus to Odysseus, telling of how he is released by Calypso, builds a raft, sails to Phaeacia, tells the Phaeacians about his adventures on the voyage home, is taken to Ithaca on a Phaeacian ship and – disguised as a beggar by Athena – goes to Eumaeus’s hut, where he spends two nights. The passage of time for these events amounts to thirty days, but in book XV we return to Telemachus in Sparta, waking up on what seems to be the day after his feast with Menelaus in Book IV! On researching this in a bit more detail, the chronology of the Odyssey has been a matter of some debate over the years. W B Stanford, a well known Homeric scholar, argued that Telemachus had stayed at Sparta for the full thirty days. I couldn’t see any justification for this in the text, so took the liberty of re-jigging the timeline a little to suit my own needs.
Another problem with plotting the Odyssey is modern writing conventions. If an author sets up a barrier for his characters, the reader expects that the character will have to face that barrier and (usually) overcome it by using his skills or traits. Not always so with Homer. When the suitors plan to ambush and kill Telemachus on his return from Sparta, the modern reader would rightly expect to see a confrontation and a test of Telemachus’s character. Instead, what actually happens is that Athena forewarns Telemachus of the ambush and he simply lands on a different part of the island, thus avoiding the ambush altogether. Which leaves today’s reader asking why did Homer set up the ambush in the first place? The Odyssey has a few such “dead ends”.
Another modern convention is that the reader has the right to expect a proper ending that ties up all the loose ends and serves a sensible purpose. Many years ago I read a book called Chieftains, about a British tank crew fighting the Russians in the Cold War. The author skilfully engaged my interest in the characters, made me care about what happened to them, carefully wound the plot up to a crescendo that had me desperately wanting to know how the final problem was resolved and the tank crew managed to stop the Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Unfortunately, the author didn’t seem to have an answer and ended and otherwise enjoyable book by setting off a nuke that killed all the main characters and resolved nothing. The end of the Odyssey doesn’t involve nuclear Armageddon, but does create a situation that is resolved very abruptly and – to my modern sensibility – unsatisfactorily. In brief, after the final battle between the suitors and Odysseus, the suitors’ families come armed for battle to avenge the fallen. In the last thirty lines of the poem, a particular character is killed off, there is a quick skirmish and then Athena calls for the fighting to stop and brokers a peace between the two sides. This sort of thing often appeared in Athenian dramas of the Classical period (referred to as Deus ex machina – where the playwright writes his characters into a tight corner, then sends a god to sort everything out). But it leaves the reader feeling a little cheated. Fortunately, the Odyssey is too great a poem to be spoiled by a curt ending.
I completed my planning for the sixth and final book of The Adventures of Odysseus some time ago. I hope I’ve successfully bridged some of the 3,000 or so years between the original poem and a modern audience. If everything goes to plan, the novel should be finished and edited by this time next year.