Art That Drinks from the Well of ‘The Odyssey’
Some great stories not only stand the test of time but go on to inspire great art for generations to come. Homer’s Odyssey, the story of Trojan War hero Odysseus’ journey from the battlefield to his home and family is one such masterpiece. Over 2,500 years after it was written (or spoken), The Odyssey continues to shape a sizable portion of Western arts culture—so much so that even the stories it has inspired are inspiring contemporary artists.
In a recent interview about Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which plays the Mark Taper Forum through May 15, 2016, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks explained that while the play is not a retelling of The Odyssey, Homer’s tale nonetheless came to influence the work:
The Odyssey is in our drinking water. So you get bits and pieces and shards and shrapnel of a lot of things. The Odyssey is a big thing you get. It’s a big thing that people latch onto and think I’m doing a retelling of The Odyssey. No, I’m not. That’s not where I’m coming from. It’s Star Wars! It’s Ulysses S. Grant.
In celebration of Parks’ new classic, we’ve gathered together a list of works that also share drinking water with Odysseus’ daring journey.
1. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922)
No discussion of artistic works inspired by The Odyssey can begin without mentioning James Joyce’s masterwork. This modernist novel follows Leopold Bloom of Dublin as he goes about the minutia of an ordinary day—June 16, 1904, to be exact. While a novel of such domestic leanings may not seem—at first glance—to have anything to do with The Odyssey, each of Ulysses’ 18 parts draw direct thematic connections between Odysseus’ epic journey and Leopold’s everyday one. Ever the bedevilment of college professors and literature students alike, Joyce once remarked that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”
2. Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (1967)
This free-loving musical odyssey is a direct reference to one of the most famous episodes of Odysseus’ epic journey, in which a band of sweetly singing monsters—the Sirens—almost manage to lure Odysseus and his men to untimely deaths. Odysseus only managed to elude them by filling his sailors’ ears with wax. He himself wasn’t so lucky, however, and as Eric Clapton’s rock supergroup put it: “How his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing / For the sparkling waves are calling you to kiss their white laced lips.”
3. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece draws more than just its title from The Odyssey. Where Homer writes of demi-gods communicating news of Odysseus’ journey to Zeus (whose Latin name is Jupiter), Kubrick depicts the Monoliths, mysterious, otherworldly beings that communicate with the planet Jupiter about the technological development of humankind. Perhaps the film’s most direct reference to its source material is HAL 9000, a psychotic one-eyed supercomputer who is a clear reference to the Cyclops.
4. George Lucas' Star Wars Trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983)
George Lucas has said that 2001: A Space Odyssey was “hugely influencing,” and Lucas, too, tackles many of Homer’s themes in his three original Star Wars films. Loyalty is a theme both Homer and Lucas explore deeply. Odysseus must choose between loyalty to his family and his own immediate happiness as he is constantly tempted to quit his long journey home. Likewise, Luke Skywalker must choose between loyalty to the way of the Jedi and becoming a Sith apprentice to his father, Darth Vader, and the “Dark Side” of the Force. But most obviously, both Star Wars and The Odyssey are tales about a journey, in which the main characters travel to and are changed by the many lands and beings they encounter.
5. Hayao Miyakazi's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Upon first glance, Hayao Miyazaki's post-apocalyptic anime in which the world has been covered in a toxic jungle and massive insectile monsters hunt the remnants of humanity at every turn doesn’t seem to have much of a connection to The Odyssey. However, Miyazaki’s Nausicaä is named after and partly inspired by a supporting character: a princess who provides aid to a shipwrecked Odysseus. While Nausicaä of The Odyssey may take a back seat to Odysseus, Miyazaki’s Nausicaä takes center stage as she desperately struggles to prevent a war between two nations on her dying planet.
6. Carol Ann Duffy’s “Circe” (1999)
Dice it small. I, too, once knelt on this shining shore
watching the tall ships sail from the burning sun
like myths; slipped off my dress to wade,
breast-deep, in the sea, waving and calling;
then plunged, then swam on my back, looking up
as three black ships sighed in the shallow waves.
Of course, I was younger then. And hoping for men. Now,
let us baste that sizzling pig on the spit once again.
When Odysseus lands on the island of Aeaea, half his men have the misfortune of encountering the sorceress Circe, who transforms the men into pigs. Poet Duffy’s 1999 feminist reimagining of Circe—released as a part of her poetry collection, The World's Wife—takes place years after this encounter, as she describes how she loved cooking the different parts of the pig as a young woman: “One way or another, all pigs have been mine— / under my thumb, the bristling, salty skin of their backs, / in my nostrils here, their yobby, porky colognes.”
7. Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a fairly faithful adaptation of The Odyssey featuring many plot points from Homer, including a protagonist on a journey to reunite with his wife after an absence of many years; an encounter with a Cyclops; and singing Sirens—all within a gritty and absurdly humorous vision of the Deep South in the midst of the Great Depression. Interestingly, neither Coen brother had read the source material before writing the script.
8. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005)
Atwood’s novella is part of the Canongate Myth Series, which asked modern authors to reimagine ancient myths from many different cultures. In Atwood’s contribution, Penelope—long dead—looks back on the events of her life. She recounts her life in Sparta as a young woman, her marriage to Odysseus, and the events depicted in The Odyssey. All the while, she corrects historical misconceptions about herself and ultimately questions why it is that her husband—a man who was not well respected in his own lifetime—should be remembered so fondly by history.
9. Enda Walsh’s Penelope (2010)
Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s modern tragicomedy concerns the attempts of four men to win the affections of Penelope while residing in the wreckage of a dried-up swimming pool on her and Odysseus’ estate. The play attained critical acclaim at Edinburgh’s 2010 Fringe Festival and according to Ben Brantley’s New York Times review, “dares to suggest what it might have been like had Samuel Beckett, instead of James Joyce, decided to reinvent Homer’s Odyssey.”