Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey appears in our Summer issue. Here, she remembers performing in a child’s production of the Odyssey as a girl in Oxford, England.
When I was a shy, awkward eight-year-old living in Oxford, England, I was moved to a new school. The transition was hard at first. I left behind a beloved best friend and traveled to a world where many things had to be learned all over again, starting with the daily routines (here we had to sit cross-legged on the rug for attendance, not upright on plastic chairs) and handwriting (my scratchy, illegible scrawl was no longer acceptable). I felt lost, as if in a foreign island or out at sea in a storm—although in fact, the school was only three blocks from my house.
But there were good things in this strange new world. It was a Church of England school, and the teachers made us sing cheerful songs about “sharing and caring.” We learned to make pot holders, quiche Lorraine, and lumpy ashtrays out of clay—talents that are still more or less the pinnacle of my domestic abilities. I made a new friend, a girl with an adorable freckly smile.
By far the most exciting thing that happened that year was the school play: an ambitious adaptation of the Odyssey, enacted by us children. I had some dark moments when my younger sister, she of the gorgeous blonde ringlets, was cast as Helen of Troy. But I had no good reason to be jealous. Helen was a nonspeaking role, and my beautiful sister spent her single brief dramatic appearance being tugged across the stage by the sweaty little boy playing Paris. I was Athena, the most kick-ass goddess of them all. Though Odysseus is the hero (acted by our class troublemaker, a clever, rowdy British Pakistani boy on whom I had a secret crush), I was vastly more powerful, and I got to tell him exactly what to do.
Like many adaptations of the Odyssey for children, my school play focused primarily on Odysseus’s wanderings, not what happens when he reaches Ithaca. There were two big highlights of the production. The first was the scene on Calypso’s island, where Odysseus is stranded for seven years in the company of the goddess, unable to get back to his family. Our version featured a lot of fun limbo dancing and (of course) calypso music. The second, the showstopper, was the sequence in which the giant Polyphemus the Cyclops, played by the school headmaster, has his single eye gouged out by Odysseus and his gang. In an old photo, an elegant ponytailed Calypso and I, in my wristwatch and elaborate tinfoil headgear, kneel beside the giant’s prostrate body. Our class spent many happy hours in the art room constructing the one-eyed mask out of papier-mâché, trying to make it look appropriately monstrous with lavishly applied poster paint. On stage, the boys playing Odysseus and his henchmen pretended to twizzle the eye out with a broom handle—an unrealistic but deeply satisfying performance of aggression against our ultimate representative of adult authority. The hero’s return to Ithaca—where his forgettable wife was laboring over a pot holder—felt like a tedious afterthought.
After playing Athena, I was inspired to read the ancient Greek stories for myself, starting with the adaptations by Rosemary Sutcliff and Roger Lancelyn Green. I have returned to some of these children’s retellings as an adult and have discovered even more, such as the excellent graphic novelization by Gareth Hinds, which includes every book of Homer’s original. But Hinds is an outlier in the field. Like our school play, most of these adaptations zoom through Odysseus’s return to Ithaca; his slow, gradual consolidation of power while in disguise as a beggar; his violent, bloody revenge on the suitors; his reunion with his son, his slaves, his wife, and his old father; and his continuing effort to establish dominance on the island. They naturally prune away all the extramarital sex (between the seven years he spends in bed with Calypso and his year with Circe, Odysseus had plenty), and they eliminate most of the violence, focusing instead on the fantastical dangers encountered by Odysseus and his men on their journey: the Sirens who lure him to listen to their song forever; the lotus-eaters who are too stoned to remember their goal; the man-eating, six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis; the cool witch Circe, who turns men into pigs; the trip to the land of the dead; the god Aeolus with his bag of winds; and, of course, the Cyclops. This kind of reduction makes the Odyssey into a story about an isolated human (with his band of undifferentiated sidekicks) who faces extraordinary obstacles.
These versions of the Odyssey taught me that the most interesting things happen in the spaces in between: not in the war or in Ithaca, not in school or at home, but somewhere else. At school, I was lost and homesick; but at home, I often felt equally lost. My parents—an academic and a writer—were busy and distant. My sister and I learned early on that silence was the easiest way to avoid their displeasure. My beloved adaptations of the Odyssey pointed me to the possibility that one might yearn for home without actually wanting to spend much time there. Somewhere else, there was a world of fantasy in which a person with patience, determination, brains, and the right kind of divine help could achieve wonderful things and discover temporary homes—an idea I found enormously comforting. I had already discovered that daydreaming, playing pretend, and books could take me to places where my anxieties melted away. As an introverted child, I wasn’t able to articulate how the Odyssey connected with my deep feelings of unbelonging. I only knew that I felt at home in the world of Odysseus’s wanderings—because it was a story of not being at home.
All children know what it is like to struggle with transitions, to miss home and family, to feel powerless and lost, to encounter strange new places and cultures. As people who have only recently begun to forge boundaries between reality and playing pretend, children often relish literature that allows them to reflect on the relationship between the two worlds. They like stories about disguise and transformation; they know from recent experience what it’s like to mutate from speechless, floppy blobs into competent, thoughtful people. They’re just beginning to glimpse the fascinating facts that words can mean more than one thing, and things may not be as they seem—which is why the funny trickster (like Anansi the Spider, Brer Rabbit, or Bugs Bunny) is always popular. Children love the scene with Odysseus in the Cyclops’s cave, when he claims his name is Noman—so when the poor blinded giant cries out that “no man is killing me,” his friends conclude that there is no need to help him. As a child, I used to spend many hours pretending to be an orangutan or a gorilla, till my jaw ached with the effort; I loved that Odysseus could transition so easily from being somebody to being nobody, and back again, and that Athena could be male or female, young or old, in an instant.
Kids also like to be scared—by not-mothers who are witches or Sirens, or not-father giants who might eat you up, or dangerous not-pet monsters and beasts with six heads, or by a world where you might be drowned, trapped, kidnapped, or find yourself making a terrible, irrevocable mistake, like eating a mysteriously forbidden food like the Cattle of the Sun. The powerful, sometimes hostile, sometimes protective gods of Olympus allow children to reimagine their own teachers and parents as beings who have enormous power over those smaller than they are, beings who are immune from normal pain and who spend much of their time squabbling among themselves. In many children’s adaptations, the central story is how Odysseus is trapped in the middle, between Athena (Odysseus’s supporter and, literally, “mentor”) and Poseidon (enraged with Odysseus for blinding his son the Cyclops)—a theme that felt truthful to my childhood experience of adults.
But people often forget that more than half of the original Odyssey happens in Ithaca, where suitors have invaded Odysseus’s home. Most children’s adaptations shield young readers from the fact that other people may be just as difficult to deal with as storms, gods, witches, or monsters. When Odysseus finally returns home, he remains in disguise as a homeless old beggar and only very gradually reveals himself to those who have remained loyal to him, including his son, his wife, and his bereft old father. The Ithacan books are a sustained reminder that home might not be a matter of geographical location. Odysseus comes home slowly and sporadically, by gradually re-creating or reinventing his identity. He reestablishes his most important relationships and proves that he can act like himself by telling long, elaborate, often false stories, and then stringing his own bow to slaughter the suitors.
For Odysseus, this homecoming is a triumph. But it is experienced very differently by every other member of his household, including his slaves. One is tortured to death, several are hanged, others are forced to scrub the blood of the massacre from the master’s palace floors. I live with my three young daughters in a nice detached house on a leafy street in West Philadelphia, a neighborhood dominated by middle-class professionals and hipsters. My daughters go to good schools downtown. A few blocks further west and further north, there are far higher rates of poverty. I find myself constantly thinking of the Odyssey’s disturbing recognition that one person’s identity and sense of belonging may come at a huge cost to someone else.
I have lived in the United States for the past twenty years, and I turn back to the Odyssey when I try to make sense of the fact that my home is not in my native homeland. My real self is with my American family and the sunflowers I planted this year in my Philadelphia garden. At the same time, I feel a certain kinship with the little British girl I used to be, and I still love the threads in the Odyssey that appealed to her. I still love magic. I still want to be Athena—competent, powerful, and with the capacity for self-transformation. I wonder if it is possible, or even desirable, to be like Odysseus: to remain, or to become again, the person I was decades ago, or to establish a permanent sense of belonging. We all create identities for ourselves through our actions and our relationships, our disguises and our words. The Odyssey helps me think about home, less as a particular place than as a state of mind. What is it to be an insider, or an outsider? Is it about where you are or where you come from, how you behave or the stories you tell? How can strangers become friends, or the other way around? What is cultural difference? Does it matter?
Emily Wilson is a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania. Read an excerpt from her new translation of the Odyssey here.