Last week I mentioned that The Iliad is a boy’s book, and The Odyssey is a book for men. The only way to identify with Odysseus is by getting older.
I once spent a brief but memorable vacation on a beach in Southern Italy rumored to have inspired some of the scenes from The Odyssey. I was 32 years old, just old enough to begin understanding Odysseus. Every beach and cave seemed to remind me of the long-enduring hero, and shed light on my own experiences.
Going off to fight at Troy was a duty Odysseus owed both to his overlords and to the moral code of Greek culture: the Trojan prince Paris had been the guest of Menelaus, and by seducing the wife of his host Paris committed a shocking act of impiety that had to be punished. But even if it was a duty, the adventure must have appealed to Odysseus: he was a trained warrior in a warrior culture, and this was a chance for glory, honor, and loot.
But no one could have anticipated that Troy would hold out for nine long years. No one could have anticipated the disasters that delayed or ruined the homecomings of so many heroes: Achilles dead, Ajax driven mad, Agamemnon murdered by his adulteress wife, and Odysseus himself enslaved another nine years to the nymph Calypso. Immortal Calypso can’t figure out why her captive is always so sad; nine years are nothing to her.
The sorrow of Odysseus is the sorrow of lost years, time bleeding away, far from home. It is the sorrow of realizing that you are a mortal man, with only so much life left to you, and that circumstances beyond your control are not letting you live them the way you had hoped.
And such sorrows challenge our understanding of an orderly universe. The goddess Athena, Odysseus’ special patron, challenges the gods of Olympus thus: “let no man holding scepter as king / think to be mild, or kind, or virtuous; / let him be cruel and practice evil ways.” Her logic being that if a good king like Odysseus is so rewarded by gods and men, then what is the point in being good? Why not just be evil? What is the point of trying so hard, and only wanting to do the right thing, if it only leads to one dead end after another?
Under Athena’s constant prodding the gods eventually get their collective act together and set Odysseus on his way back home. But they cannot give him back the lost years. Can Odysseus make the best of the years remaining him? Will he use them better, knowing now just how precious they are?