I am honored to welcome Laurel Corona, whose new novel PENELOPE'S DAUGHTER was published this month. Laurel has adapted the legendary Greek epic The Odyssey from the point of view of Xanthe, a daughter whom Odysessus has not met and a potential heir in the struggle for the throne of Ithaca. Like her famous mother Penelope, Xanthe turns to the loom to weave the story of her life and keep danger at bay; her adventures include hiding with her beautiful cousin, Helen of Troy, and her initiation into the ecstasies of goddess worship. But when a bedraggled stranger appears at the doorway of the palace, Xanthe's entire life is thrown into tumult as she confronts a fateful decision on which hinges the very future of Ithaca itself. . .
This is a marvelously engaging novel even for those unfamiliar with Homer's tale, full of Laurel's trademark penchant for historical detail and the vibrant colors of a now-lost world, where gods moved men like pawns on the chessboard of fate. In celebration of her novel's release, Laurel has kindly offered this guest post. Please join me in welcoming Laurel Corona!
The Boys of the Odyssey by Laurel Corona.
It’s just a hunch, but I think if you were to ask people on the street to name a character from ancient history, at least some of them would come up with--you know, the guy with a boat, the one who had all those adventures. Odysseus—yeah, that’s the one. Put out the Cyclops’ eye, nearly drowned a few times. Had a wife at home and had to kill all these guys trying to marry her.
It’s a great story, but as I researched Penelope’s Daughter I was stunned by how much more there is to Odysseus’ adventures. It turns out that of all the storytellers about the Trojan War and its aftermath, only Homer unequivocally saw Odysseus as a hero. In fact, he comes off pretty badly everywhere else. There’s a body of fragmentary work collectively called the Greek Epic Cycle, which in addition to the Iliad and Odyssey contains other works dealing with the Trojan War. The works in the collection include the Cypria, the Aethiopis, the Iliupersis, the Nosti, and the Telegony. Hardly household words (and barely pronounceable ones at that!), these works contain several familiar stories either not included by Homer or only briefly alluded to. The first, from the Cypria, is the story of how, when a group of Greek warriors came to get Odysseus to join the troops going to war against Troy, Odysseus feigned madness because he didn’t want to leave his wife and young son. He babbled and acted crazy, including hitching a donkey and ox to the same plough, and sowing a field with salt--craziness indeed because the soil would have been spoiled for crops for a long time to come, and rocky Ithaca had no arable land to spare. He is found out, however, when his baby son is placed in the path of the plough and Odysseus turns it aside to save his child’s life. It’s a sweet story, I think, but not really consistent with the “willing warrior” stereotype.
It illustrates a quality in Odysseus that Homer calls wiliness or craftiness, but other sources see as downright sneakiness and moral laxity. For example, when Agamemnon, the Greek commander, is stranded in Aulis by lack of wind and cannot sail to Troy, Agamemnon decides that a sacrifice to the gods would be in order. He sends Odysseus to Mycenae, where Agamemnon’s wife and family live, to get Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, to bring their daughter to Aulis to be sacrificed. Of course no mother is going to agree to this plan, so Odysseus lies to her and tells her Iphigenia is going to Aulis to be married to Achilles. They pack up and goes, and voila!—she is led off to sacrifice wearing her wedding dress. And guess what? Right afterwards the winds come up, so Agamemnon ends up looking like quite a visionary. Homer doesn’t include stories of Odysseus’ cold-blooded murder of a rival, Palamedes, nor the children he sired, according to some sources, while held captive by the goddess Circe. Slick and devious, or creative and resourceful? Self-serving plunderer, or homesick family man? It depends on who’s telling the story.
Homer also ends the Odyssey a bit prematurely, avoiding plot complications that would show Odysseus as far less faithful to Penelope than she was to him. In the Telegony, Odysseus has scarcely left Penelope after his return to Ithaca, when he arrives in the land of the Thesprotians, promptly marries Callidice, their queen, and has a son by her. When Callidice dies, Odysseus leaves the kingdom to their son, and goes home only to discover—surprise, surprise!—that Penelope had in the interim borne him another son. (You can imagine how I felt when I discovered that a baby born during the father’s absence was already part of the story!) Years later, Telegonus, one of his sons by Circe, fails to recognize the father who had abandoned him and his mother as a child, and kills him in battle. When he discovers his error, Telegonus takes Telemachus and Penelope, along with Odysseus’ corpse, back home to Circe’s island. Once there, Telegonus marries Penelope, and Telemachus marries Circe. Perhaps it’s best that Homer stopped where he did!
One more crazy story does appear in Homer but it is so nonsensical I’m not surprised most people miss it. After Odysseus kills all the suitors and reclaims Penelope, he turns around and leaves immediately--after almost twenty years away!--saying he has to go find a place where people have never heard of the sea (not heard the sea, heard of it), which in the world of the ancient Greeks would have been hard to imagine. Why did he have to do this? So he could plant an oar and sacrifice some oxen. Then, he promises he will come and grow old in Ithaca. Okay, the gods told him to do it, but does anybody want to lay bets on how quickly he’ll be back?
A second boy in the Odyssey really is a boy, Odysseus’ and Penelope’s son Telemachus. A great deal of the epic revolves around Telemachus’ ineffective attempts to assert his manhood. He’s really a sorry excuse for a warrior king’s son.Though Homer uses the stock phrases of oral poetry, making Telemachus “discreet” in thought and “godlike” in appearance, it’s hard to see how even Homer could find much of merit in his incessant whining both directly to the suitors and to others about what bullies they are. “I’m just a helpless little kid,” he seems to be saying, “but just you wait until I grow up!”
Wait a minute—aren’t we in the twentieth year of Odysseus’ absence? Doesn’t Telemachus have to be at least twenty-one? Exactly what is his excuse? Even Homer explains Telemachus’ uncharacteristic courage in the battle with the suitors as resulting from a spell cast by Athena, so I doubt even the bard himself would take too much issue with what I think is a very well deserved although rather negative characterization of him in Penelope’s Daughter.
Despite Homer’s disinclination to think of women as more than helpless victims or terrible temptresses, I think the women are by far the most interesting characters in the story. It was wonderful to imagine how Penelope, a child bride still in her teens when Odysseus left, would handle the absence of her husband for twenty years. Surely she would do more than weave and weep, as Homer suggests. We see Helen briefly in the Odyssey when Telemachus goes to Sparta for news of his father. Helen was reputedly twelve when she was married and left behind an eight-year-old daughter when she ran off with Paris to Troy. Telemachus visits in the twentieth year of Odysseus’ absence, when Helen is forty, old by the standards of the day. With all she has seen and all the powers she has gained, I found it far more interesting to imagine her at that age, when in her teens no one seemed to be able to come up with much of anything to say about her except that she was very, very beautiful. Introducing a daughter into the Odyssey broke the story wide open for me, making the tale of those left behind every bit as exciting as battling monsters, gods and heroes.
I hope my readers agree.
Thank you, Laurel. To learn more about Laurel and her work, please visit her website.