When we started approaching people about this project, the question we kept hearing was “When is it going to be on the radio?”. Truth be told, we'd asked each other that same question a long time earlier, back when we first settled on writing an audio treatment of the story we'd sketched out. Performance, sound, no pictures. Radio, right?
That notion did not last long. We knew that radio (like any established medium) has a rich history, a dependable audience, and many other advantages besides. We also knew that it wasn’t right for us. It sounds odd when you're drawing on such an ancient and respected source, but The Odyssey, like any text distilled from an oral tradition, is not singular, sacrosanct or untouchable. In fact it is fundamentally conducive to being re-told in new ways. That's a big claim for us to make, and this article is an effort to substantiate it.
The Odyssey is a largely fictional sequel to a fictionalised re-telling of an historical event three thousand years distant from our own civilisation. Though by no means unchallenged in their assertions, the scientists Magnasco and Baikouzis, using astronomical events within the text, have believably dated the poem’s ten-year setting to 1188-1178 BCE.
Clues within the text tell us that the Odyssey we know was composed for oral re-telling around four centuries later, and not shackled to the written word until several centuries after that. Even to have deduced this much is somewhat remarkable. Fragments aside, our oldest extant sources date from the Middle Ages – almost two millennia after their verses were composed. Where then, in this fog of whispers, is the poet’s real intention? Where is the crystalline “first final draft”? Which words were Homer’s?
Pointing to the “earliest written copy” doesn’t mean much. For one thing, we don’t have it and we likely never will. And even if we did, it would be exactly that: a copy of a text that was originally composed for another medium. Peter Jackson’s award-winning screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings may be meticulously faithful and arrestingly vivid, but could we credibly state that Jackson’s work is closer to the “truth” of the source than J. R. R. Tolkien’s own writing?
Whether by a single poet or a group, and no matter how it changed in its early life, The Odyssey was undoubtedly composed for the human voice. At a fundamental level, its meter and content are structured using repetition, redundancy and mnemonic devices. Most of the words are “spare”, so its entropy is low. This means that little mistakes or alterations, inevitably introduced with each re-telling, don’t change the meaning of the message being conveyed; the noise never exceeds the signal. From the ground up, The Odyssey is designed for storage in a raconteur’s brain. How, then, can it faithfully be reproduced in dead ink?
Perhaps we can be forgiven for worshipping sources based on an arbitrary measure of their transmission fidelity. After all, we live in the twilight of the Age of Print. Since the presses started rolling, humanity has been able to render its cultural history nearly immutable: when committing information to our collective memory, we no longer need to make the agonising choice between precision and volume. This is great for historians, whose profession requires them to find truth in the past, but artists only need a good story to tell, and they’ve been doing that since long before Gutenberg and Caxton made their mark.
However, to an artist, the advent of print gave a second advantage: it was easy but not too easy. Publishing required time, effort, money, and sometimes permission. Mass distribution was easy enough that the stable, sober written word could viably out-compete a volatile oral tradition, but such expense meant that a value-judgment was made before each reproduction: is this worth the work of printing it? It follows that unlike the audience for a spoken-word story, a reader of printed work knows, before alighting their eyes on the first sentence, that someone respects it. Literate society became a civilisation of many listeners and few speakers.
In the past ten years, this has begun to change. Thanks to the recent explosion of mass literacy and near-universal technology, it is now significantly easier to publish your diary online than to shout your thoughts from a soapbox. Writing has overtaken speech in its accessibility, flexibility and transmissibility. The effort to publish is now so trivial that any listener can not only consume art immediately, but can speak their reply in the same medium, and with the same authority. As a result, texts have begun to evolve even in the earliest stages of their distribution. The written word is no longer our unchanging font of authority; we are back to Chinese Whispers. Thomas Pettitt describes this shift as the closing of the Gutenberg Parenthesis.
Transmedia suits oral literature for this very reason. Where traditional media are monolithic and enclosed, transmedia deliberately fragments itself. Where they have a beginning and an end, transmedia begs you to skip to your favourite bit. Where they are presented as authoritative, finished products, transmedia thrives on being humble, unfinished, imperfect or in progress. Like any oral poem, a transmedia text is an alive and changing thing, aware of its own plasticity and without the need or desire to homogenise its audience’s experience. The Internet has been recognised for some time now as the ultimate engine for word-of-mouth distribution. Transmedia is a repurposing of print-age tools to tell word-of-mouth stories – and it’s worth remembering that word-of-mouth is where our story started.