Stories: the Odyssey and Ulysses

Stories are tales of the past recounted in the present. Each of these elements – the past, the recounting, the present –  is important to an understanding of how stories work. In storytelling, the important relation is not between the story and its original (a mistake moderns are increasingly prone to make) but between the audience and the story.

All stories wear the guise of being about something that has happened – ‘once upon a time’ – and in an age obsessed with journalism and news-reporting, this can mislead us. We can too readily suppose that for the story to be ‘true’ it must correspond as precisely as possible to a set of actual events – ‘what really happened’ – and the closer the correspondence, the truer the story will be; but this is a misunderstanding.

The past is inaccessible: you cannot go there. Nothing exists in the past. Life is lived in the present. The Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, our Neanderthal cousins – all lived, as we do, in the present. Stories are about what happened ‘once upon a time’ but they are told or read in the present and in the present is where they do their work.

In truth, a story has no relation to actual events. Was there a prince of Ithaca called Odysseus who went to the Trojan war and took a long time coming back? It does not matter. There was a place called Troy, certainly, and doubtless there was a war (that is one thing you can rely on: men fighting) and Ithaca – which is a real island, though not perhaps the one now called by that name – likely had a Prince, and his name could well have been Odysseus.

But did he dally with the nymph Calypso on Ogygia after being shipwrecked in the culmination of a series of adventures that saw him escape the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, steer between the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, hear the sirens sing, see his men turned to swine by a sorceress, and visit Hell along the way?

The question is a foolish one. A story stands or falls by what is in it, not its relation to something outside it. What is true about the Odyssey is the character of Odysseus, the resourceful man: he deals with life – particularly in adversity – as we feel a man ought to – he is bold, but not reckless; he takes risks but shows judgement: the sirens are worth taking risks to hear. He shows the proper attitude to life, making the best of it and bearing up under adversity.

What matters is that he gets the better of Polyphemus, that he finds a way past Scylla and Charybdis, that he contrives a means to hear the Sirens sing and yet not perish – it is not the specific nature of the obstacles, but the fact he overcomes them that matters. That is what heartens us, encourages us as human beings.

Life is an Odyssey: even everyday life. That is what James Joyce’s Ulysses tells us: the two need to be considered together; they shed light on each other, and on what storytelling is all about.

2 thoughts on “Stories: the Odyssey and Ulysses

  1. So how does this square with the Norse Sagas, long held to be based in factual events involving real people, albeit a tad dressed up to accommodate some myth? When Skallagrimsson was trying to compose his “Head-Ransom” Drapa, he was disturbed, blocked even, by the presence of a swallow, which he suspected of being a shape-changer – and it is suggested elsewhere that Egil himself was one such.
    And surely the many accounts of berserks, and the standard procedures for dealing with them, support the continued existence of Neanderthals right into the Middle Ages?

    • I’m not saying these things didn’t happen, but rather that it does not matter whether they happened or not – I imagine that (ultimately) most stories derive from factual events and real people, either directly or indirectly (one must start somewhere) but my point is that the story is not made any better or more significant by being related to a set of external facts. (Consider that till recently the story would have been the only account of the ‘facts’; and still is, in many cases) Nor is it made ‘true’ or ‘false’ in virtue of that relation, because the storyteller is not a journalist reporting from a warzone – his business is with his audience, and he is trying to convey the spirit of Njall, or Odysseus – what manner of man he was (cp Finn’s generosity ‘if the wide wave was silver and the autumn leaves were gold, Finn would have given them all away’). The analogy to consider here is with painting, and the parallel question why the photograph has not replaced the painted portrait. Is a portrait of an unknown man any less good for our not knowing who he is? If it is a good portrait, we will know him from it – it will tell us the sort of man he was (and that is just the sort of thing people say when looking at pictures ‘I feel that I know him’ etc). The same with stories – all they have to say is within them: we do not need to suspend our judgement till we find out whether it is factually accurate. I think it unlikely that the ‘Odyssey’ is factually accurate, yet I have a very clear sense of the kind of man Odysseus was.

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