Real Life Odysseus

Sammy Sunset

I used to have my students write an essay every year called “Odysseus and Me” in which they pulled out characteristics of Odysseus and explained when they also had shown those character traits. It was an exceptionally easy essay to write, as Odysseus reveals enough traits that even the dullest of readers can recognize a few, and who can’t sufficiently compare Odysseus to him or herself to fill five paragraphs?

That lack of challenge is actually why I don’t use the essay as widely as I used to. (Now I assign the Odysseus and Me essay as a “B” option and have students who want an A compare Odysseus to something more involved, like a character from a book or an historical figure.)

On a somewhat related note, this fall I read The Iliad for the first time. I liked it much more than I thought I would and can see why in different eras The Iliad has carried a higher reputation than The Odyssey. I found it interesting how magnetic the characters were, and how their favor in my eyes waxed and waned. Early on I favored Hektor far above Achilleus, but as the battle raged and Hektor boasted too boldly (he couldn’t match up against Telamonian Aias, let alone Achilleus), I found myself less sympathetic. On the other hand I loathed Achilleus early on as he carried his grudge to its unfortunate conclusion; yet when his compassion for Patroklus was exposed and he fought for vengeance, I held him in far greater esteem. Like I said–it was fascinating.

In the course of my reading I made a passing comment about wanting to be more like Aias than Hecktor, but by the time I finished the epic I found my comparison somewhat laughable. Sure, there is a way in which I could be like Aias, and there are ways in which my students can be like Odysseus, but the great separation between us is not the presence of the characteristic but the degree in which it is present. Sure, I have had moments of fearlessness and resourceful strength, but I have not stood before Hecktor’s great spear and responded by casting a massive rock that could fell him almost fatally.

Degree is the fun of these epic poems, and I suppose that is the essence of the word epic. When I tell students that an epic simile is essentially a long, drawn out version of a regular simile, the difference between the two types is degree. The same principle applies to the epic heroes. People like Odysseus and Achilleus don’t exist, they’re like a compilation of our most heroic possibilities, exaggerated to mountainous proportions. The relief makes these heroes and gods as clear as can be.

Then I realized that though I do not possess Odysseus-like characteristics in any notable degree, it does not mean no one ever did.

This occurred to me after I read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. I love an adventure story–it’s no wonder I enjoy The Odyssey and The Iliad as much as I do–and I go on periodic obsessions related to particular adventure stories (Into Thin Air and Mt. Everest, for example). With Endurance, the story starts off interesting but the further it goes, the more fascinating it becomes.

By the time I reached the end I was reading it out loud to my family at the dinner table, and my wife and her father (our guest for dinner a few nights that week) were applying warmer layers to themselves to offset their active imaginations, which were effectively empathizing with Shackleton’s plight.

Ernest Shackleton’s wayward battle for survival in the Antarctic is as close as a living being can come to achieving epic, and I have decided to share this book with my ninth graders as a read aloud. We’ll take 15-20 minutes at the beginning of class each day for the next couple months, and we’ll discover a real-life Odysseus; or at least we’ll discover the closest thing I have ever seen to a real life Odysseus.

It is a comparison I am convinced Lansing had in mind when he crafted Endurance. The book’s action begins in medias res, with Shackleton and his men stranded on an ice floe in the middle of the Weddell Sea. Only after describing how the ice floes finally crush the ship that was to have taken Shackleton’s team to the Antarctic coast for a trans-continental stroll does it return to the beginning of the story to trace how these men ended up in such a preposterous situation.

Further, Lansing’s description of Shackleton himself excuses the man’s eccentricities as mere flaws understandable in living epic heroes:

Shackleton’s unwillingness to succumb to the demands of everyday life and his insatiable excitement with unrealistic ventures left him open to the accusation of being basically immature and irresponsible. And very possibly, he was by conventional standards. But the great leaders of historical record have rarely fitted any conventional mold. And it is perhaps an injustice to evaluate them in ordinary terms. There can be little doubt that Shackleton was an extra-ordinary leader of men. Nor did the Antarctic represent to Shackleton mearly the grubby means to a financial end. In a very real sense, he needed it. Something so enormous, so demanding that it provided a touchstone for his monstrous ego and implacable drive.

In ordinary situations Shackleton’s tremendous capacity for boldness and daring found almost nothing worthy of its pulling power. But in the Antarctic, here was a burden which challenged every atom of his strength. For all his blind spots and inadequacies, Shackleton merited this tribute:

For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundson; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

Perhaps the tribute is overdone, but after reading the book, I have begun to feel that in some ways Ernest Shackleton was even greater than Odysseus. After all, Shackleton brought every one of his men home.

I’m excited to see if my students think the same thing.

Thanks for reading.


Elephant Island on Flickr by: Tim Ellis