Part One: Ulysses
I love the concept of reinterpreting a character from fiction. It is a tremendously exciting and rewarding model for the basis of a story, which can uncover hidden gems in the plot only hinted at before, and breathe new life into characters that are thousands of years old.
Every character in the history of fiction has a potential life off the page, and The Odyssey is no exception. Indeed, Odysseus is a figure that has inspired writers across the generations. It is not necessarily because he is so involving as a character; rather that his adventures are so interesting, and he chooses a novel way to deal with most of them, there is so much visual imagery and narrative for a creative to play with.
Over my next few articles, I will examine a few in detail, in an attempt to discover how The Odyssey has permeated our culture. This time around, Iím looking at two Ulysses: James Joyceís novel, and Tennysonís poem. Whole careers have been spent unpicking the meaning of these works, and I shanít even come close to attempting a definitive guide; rather, these are my personal interpretations of each textís approach to re-interpreting The Odyssey.
James Joyceís Ulysses takes one of the most epic stories in the history of storytelling, and distills it to a modernist take on a day in Dublin. Modernism was a fascinating exploration of the question ďwhat is art?Ē. It is a testament to the period that Joyce is able to use one of the oldest poems in the history of our species as a resource for an avant-garde narrative relevant to his own time.
Yet famously dense as Joyceís reinterpretation is, Homerís inspiration is clearly apparent within the text. This is because he uses the power of the mind as the basis of the epic nature of the story. Ulysses is filled with stream of consciousness, and gives some of the most lucid thought-descriptions ever put on paper. Thought Joyce may be stuck in early 20th century Ireland, he shows how the theatre of the mind and imagination is something that crosses all of humanity, much as The Odyssey has crossed generations of narrative tradition.
Tennysonís is certainly a clearer reinterpretation of the story, but contains elements that are just as fascinating. He explores an older Odysseus, sitting bored on his throne, thinking back to the excitement of his quest to get home. We find out what happened to our favourite characters after the end of the story. The Odyssey ends far too succinctly for the richness of its protagonist, and so to see a little more in his future is not only fun, but adds an extra layer of humanity to him.
Also, it highlights something that is hinted at in the original, but can be explored in much more detail. Odysseus is a flawed protagonist. Despite being the first Western hero whose primary attribute is his cunning, he makes mistakes, and is of dubious moral character. Tennyson beautifully highlights manís emotional dichotomy. The Odyssey is nothing without Odysseusí struggle to return home, and yet here he misses that struggle. Isnít that a classic human trait? How many times have we struggled and strained to achieve something, willing for the task to be over, and then missed it the moment itís gone?
After looking at just two texts, we have discovered two interpretations of The Odyssey on different ends of the writing spectrum, and yet linked by their love of the character. One that deconstructs its narrative into, and one that proves that Odysseus may be a legend, but he is certainly human. What is common to both is that they jump in with little explanation of who Odysseus is. They know we know who these characters are, and the place Odysseus and his adventures have in the collective storytelling cache.
On a personal note, especially pertinent to us is that Joyce and Tennyson discovered The Odyssey in their youths. Iím sure it hardwired the story into their narrative cores. I know that Mike and I did the same, and without a doubt itís the perfect time to discover this story of myths and monsters.
Most importantly, they give us sight of how prior generations that have kept the story going, in a way that is relevant to their generation, built of storytelling brick from their own time. Thousands of people over thousands of years have enjoyed these stories, and Giant Cannibals will at the very least be another retelling.