The Modern Variation of Ulysses Compared to Its Origins

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Some characters seem to have existed forever. Through time, they go through minimal variations but represent the paradigm of the collective imagination. One of these is legendary figure of Ulysses, originally known as Odysseus, which remains one of the most fascinating and controversial of all antiquity. Its peculiar characteristics have made him the object of a continuous revival by dozens of authors belonging to distinct and temporally distant periods. The perception that the King of Ithaca aroused in those who made him the protagonist (or character) of their works, has evolved constantly over the centuries and the myth of Ulysses, who had always been the incarnation of the Journey, has therefore become a ‘constant cultural logos’. His archetypal curiositas, his resourcefulness and his unprecedented shrewdness have made him a true symbol of the human being, as well as concrete objectification of all those skills and abilities that make him so; an example for Greek culture and beyond. ‘There is no other character’, says the philologist Franco Montanari, ‘that in the millennia after its appearance (...) has had an equally continuous and multiform presence (...), so generous of itself to bear and stimulate every kind of shooting, quotation, revisiting, metamorphosis, distortion.’

The texts, although not explicitly referring to the Greek hero, propose characters and motifs that seem to be attributable to him, in fact, are so numerous that Ulysses is present, from various agles, in the Western literature of every century. The human desire to shape reality and the need to find answers into the reinterpretation of the past is a non-stop operation, and in its various and infinite forms, Ulysses seems to embody the man of every age. As Harold Bloom retraces in The Western Canon, starting from Homer ‘the figure of Ulysses undergoes extraordinary transformations in Pindar, Sophocles, Euripides, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Dante, Chapman, Calderòn de la Barca, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tennyson, Joyce, Pound and Wallace Steven, to name a few.’ From the writings of Homer, so, he wore different masks, lending himself to a thousand successive reinterpretations. But there are some crucial moments, some stages of this path that mark points of no return. Moments in which literature modifies the figure of Ulysses, charging it with original meanings which are fixed inside the tradition and construct a whole new model. Two of the most important tamperings are, undoubtedly, the one made in Dante’s Inferno, in which Ulysses has gone beyond the pillars of Hercules up to the mountain of Purgatory, and the one of the English poet Alfred Tennyson, who devotes an entire poem to the Greek hero, presenting an Ulysses returned to Ithaca for years, but now unsatisfied with his current life and longing to leave for one last trip.

The aim of this dissertation is to retrace these fundamental steps, examining how the character of Ulysses has evolved through different historical periods and how, thanks to its malleability, it has become a symbol of the human being itself, adaptable to every age and thought. Attention will be focused mainly on how certain authors have been able to create ‘crucial fixed points in time’ with their interpretations making sure that the context and the actualization of Ulysses’ motifs would shape the character in different forms. The three pillars of the dissertation will therefore be the three works that have been most succesfull and have had a major impact in shaping the modern conception of Ulysses: Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno and Tennyson’s Ulysses. In Piero Boitani’s words: ‘with Ulysses you know where it starts from (from Ithaca and the Odyssey) but not where it ends.’

Why Ulysses?

Ulysses is by no means the only figure to have been ‘subject of frequent literary revivals’. Most of the heroes belonging to Greek mythology have been taken back and re-presented in order to become ‘types, or even symbols of some periods of European history’, for example Achilles, Agamemnon, Nestor, Prometheus. But Ulysses is not just a mythical character, belonging to a specific story and concluded in that same narrative. Although his character is conventionally considered an invention of Homer, there is no evidence of this fact. There seem to be many theories according to which Odysseus has a prehomeric history, that the character ‘in his essential lines’ had ‘already taken form before Homer’ as the son of a tradition from which Homer only drew and synthesized, in order to configure a typical character, making Ulysses an amalgamation of values at the base of the ideal Greek Man. On the other hand, however, this homeric synthesis is anything but simplified. In fact, Ulysses’ complexity is fundamental: characters such as those mentioned above have simple and schematic connotations, consequently they offer less possibility of adaptation. Ulysses instead is, according to W. B. Stanford: ‘both more varied and more ambiguous than the character of any figure in Greek mythology’. It is the mixture of this ambiguous multi-form and its almost-representative function of the age in which the character is written, to make Ulysses prone to re-elaboration more anyone else. In the post-homeric tradition, in fact ‘Odysseus complex personality becomes broken up into various simple types ‘ and by adapting his personality to become a model of contemporary moral standards, an author is capable of radically altering his original nature: ‘A Ulysses set in an environment of intrigue after post-reform or twentieth-century eroticism is destined to act more or less differently from a Ulysses in Archaic Greece or Imperial Rome. (…) Part of this metamorphosis has not had a permanent effect on the main tradition. But others, as will appear, have made a lasting contribution to the myth.’ So, in order to study the change of the character it is necessary to draw a psychological outline of the moral, political and personal ideology of the authors and the epochs in which they write, since it is through this silhouette that the character is re-interpretated. This silhouette is composed of several factors, which are the same that every author must consider if he intends to compose a new portrait of the hero: ‘the effect of the tradition, the problems of transation, the tendency to historical assimilation, the variation in moral standards, the exigencies of the chosen genre, and each authors personal reaction to the personality of the mythical figure.’

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The Origins of the ‘Many-Forms’ Hero: Homer and Odysseus’ Odyssey

To fully understand how the modern variations of Ulysses differ from the original, we must outline its main features from the origins, those features that define him as a character and, at the same time, associate him to the ideal of the man of the time. The Odyssey, written in the Sixth century B.C., divided into twenty-four books and considered ‘archetype of the novel’, tells the story of Odysseus’ return journey home after leaving the defeated Troy. The journey, afflicted by Poseidon’s adversity and lasted about twenty years, constists of twelve stops and each one highlights the aspects of the articulated personality of the protagonist: from the Lotus Land to Circe’s Island, thorugh the stay at the nymph Calypso up to the Phaecians’ island. Animated by the desire to return home and find his family, Ulysses manages to dominate every insidious situation until the actual return to Ithaca, where he defeats the suitors of Penelope, his wife. The help of the Gods, especially Athena, is very valuable for the positive outcome of the trip and the success of the final revenge, but Ulysses’ deeds, unlike those of the other heroes of the Iliad, are not driven by the search for honor or glory, but by the desire to return to Ithaca, his home. Homer, in the famous incipit of the Odyssey, already deals with all the themes that he will then develop extensively throughout the poem and, exalts from the first line the versatile intelligence of Ulysses (v. 1-10).

The reflexive and intelligent maturity, different from the instinct, is therefore a distinctive aspect of Odysseus, who from the first book of the Iliad is presented as the ‘shrewd’ one, who was delegated to bring Chryseis back to his father in order to restore peace. He is also ‘a man as wise as Zeus’ and he receives from Athena the task of holding back the Achaean army from Troy. She will be the one to give him rthe epithet ‘resourceful’, which characterizes him as an intelligent man capable of restoring order. Moreover, he is praised by Diomedes when he wants to choose a companion to enter the enemy camp, and, among those who volunteer, he chooses Odysseus ‘whose heart and proud spirit are beyond all others eager in all manner of toils’. It is precisely in the Iliad that his talents as a warrior (Ulysses took part in the expedition led by Agamemnon who left for Troy and fought the ten-year war against the Trojans), his ability to speak to soldiers or intervenes in assemblies are highlighted. He is the one who designes the deception of the wooden horse, with which he penetrates the Greek soldiers inside the walls to demolish the Trojan city.

Throughout the Odyssey, he reconfirmes his shrewdness, already prominent in the Iliad, and also shows himself as a curious man who wants to experience the world, whose fundamental characteristic is the thirst for knowledge: the vehicle of every event inside the poem. It is precisely that curiosity that leads him to explore the Island of the Cyclops, episode in which his slyness will help him to blind Polyphemus (Poseidon’s son) and to escape from his cave or to listen to the dangerous singing of the Sirens. He is not a man who can limit his mind to the narrow knowledge of the ancient world and this it is another of the features that most fascinated later authors and encouraged them in the resumption of the character. Another characteristic that distinguishes him is patience: he is repeatedly referred to as the ‘much-enduring godly Odysseus’, epithet representing his ability to adapt to any situation, endure the reverses of fate and the changes imposed by the Gods. This element is particularly evident in the episode in which his companions, driven by hunger, kill Zeus’ oxen, while Ulysses has the strength to wait and endure: he knows now that the Gods see everything and will punish the sacrilege. Or the scene with the raft, built by himself after leaving Ogygia: Poseidon, furious because of the blinding of Polyphemus, unleashes a violent storm and reduces the raft to the wreck, but Odysseus does not lose heart by landing laboriously on the Island of Scherie. It is in Scherie that he meets Nausicaa, daughter of the Phaeacians’ king, and with which he demonstrates his ability with words (a legacy received from the Iliad) which consists in knowing how to find the right way to express himself according to his interlocutor. He, in fact, obtains the help of the princess praising her beauty and telling her his story, without revealing his identity, but with a register that convinces Nausicaa to lead him to the king and the queen where he will obtain salvation. Alcinoo will congratulate him by telling him that he possesses ‘grace of words’ and that his story is ‘told with skill, as doth in minstrel’.

Ulysses is therefore the hero and the esthete of the word. So, he personifies the ideal leader of the city, in which the power of speech will be decisive for the success of the politician: ‘[The word] becomes the political instrument par excellence, the key to every authority in the state (…). This power of language of which the Greeks made a divinity.’ The importance of the word is also emphasized by the memory of the paternal grandfather of Odysseus, Autolycus, who ‘among men excelled for dishonesty’. This ancestry strengthens Odysseus' dualism mentioned before, but in the Odyssey the protagonist has already metabolized this ancient component, and it has favored the development of his intelligence and his skill in the use of language. Furthermore, Odyssey' Ulysses is more a single man than a member of a political-institutional collective (as it was in the Iliad) which obliges him to a wide use of ambiguous, deceiving words in order defend himself. In the Odyssey there are no more common ideals (patriotic or warlike) for which it is worth fighting. The only value that seems to exist is strictly private: returning home, among their loved ones, where he can rule over Ithaca. Derived of a centuries-old civilization based on the political confrontation of the parties and on the superiority of Greek language and art, this refined astuteness in the Odyssey, which makes Ulysses ‘reach us from the depths of time’, prevails on the brute force of all the other characters and also on all their other human characteristics.

Regarding the ambiguity within the character of Odysseus, the adjective associated with him in the very first line of the poem deserves a wider consideration: polytropos in Greek, which means ‘from the many turns’ (from polys, 'very' and trépein, 'turn'). At first glance, this term would seem to be simple a reference to the journey: Odysseus would therefore be ‘the man who has traveled a long time’. But in the same verse it is underlined how he ‘wandered full many ways’ and would therefore be an unnecessary repetition. A second hypothesis interprets polytropos as ‘ingenious’, and a confirmation of this thesis comes from the book X, in the only other passage in which appears the adjective: it is used by Circe when she realizes that the potion that transforms men into animals has no effect on Odysseus, since he is equipped with an antidote. In Robert Fagles' translation, however, polytropos is rendered with a ‘many forms’, metaphorically ‘the man of twists and turns.’ So we find a well-defined connotation of Odysseus's shrewdness, that is his ability to change appearance: the hero recurs several times in the poem to the art of disguise, or he invents a false identity to test the character and the thought of people. This term certainly shows an ambiguity that would explain why his nature ‘vacillates between good and bad, between credit and infamy.’ In fact, in the post-modern tradition critics often debate whether his figure is that of a good man or not, always respecting the principles of the time and space in which he is placed.

‘Here is another long odyssey for Odysseus to endure’ comments Stanford, but Homer, ‘the unmoved mover in this chaotic cosmos of tradition, does not vex his own or his heros’ mind with any such problems in split personality or ambivalent ethics. He is content to portray a man of many turns.’ This ambiguity has the characteristic of becoming infinite, potentially eternal, since it is not resolved even in the conclusion of the story. In the first lines, in fact, Homer introduces the theme of the hindered return by providing immediately the reason why the hero and his companions have not yet returned home: we learn that Ulysses is a victim of Poseidon's anger and has also broken the laws of hospitality, of which Zeus is protector, triggering further catastrophic consequences. This theme drives the philologist Montanari to elaborate different theories on the ending of the poem, and to emphasize how the Gods’ anger lasts, according to him, ‘even beyond the end of the poem’. After defeating the Penelope’s suitors, and regaining his reign, the adventure of Odysseus terminates. But quoting Montanari, ‘the story that does not end with the death of the protagonist is an unfinished story.’ He therefore believes that the ending of the Odyssey ‘proves the stature of Ulysses’ as it is one of the reasons why the postomeric imagination has not never stopped working on what happened after the return to Ithaca, in particular on the possibility that Ulysses will leave again (with the attempt to calm the anger of the Gods once and for all) encouraging then the reworking of the character: ‘you can not add nothing to the fate of the other Homeric heroes but Ulysses is an infinite character. (…) His figure began to grow over time, acquiring an unknown dimension also to Homer.’

Without attempting to frame Ulysses in its complex connotation, one could not understand any textual re-elaboration of the traveler. He constitutes a model, a multi-form of human life full of potentiality, a paradigm of the knowledge of the world and of himself, but also a living oxymoron that denies himself to rediscover his identity. In the Odyssey the theme of nostos takes shape from the words of the hero, transmitting the idea of life as a story and of the journey itself as a narration. All of these characteristics, together with his ambivalences, will be one of the many themes treated by the poster authors: the fearless hero will then become the fragile one, the one eager for freedom and the antihero. It will always be ambiguously suspended between opposed attitudes of human soul: temptation of fidelity, return of travel, contemplation. This is why Bernard Andrae defines him ‘archeology of the European image of man’.

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