Ulysses, discovered as a kid in school when I was six or seven, remains one of my favorite heroes, and certainly the first of my heroes, and Kirk Douglas’ portrayal is the definitive article. And this scene will forever resonate with me.
Now here’s something… unusual.
An operatic version of Homer’s Odyssey, set to music in 1765 by Gluck*, and represented in 1940s costumes and setting.
The opera is Telemaco, ossia L’isola di Circe (Telemachus, or Circe’s Island).
I like the setting quite a lot.
The idea of Ulysses as a lost flyer is quite interesting.
And when Circe the sorceress as an Oriental Dragon Lady gets into play, the whole thing assumes a curious pulp tone.
Here’s a first excerpt – you can find the rest on the Tube.
*The libretto for the opera was written by a guy called Marco Coltellini – which of course means Mark Small Knives, in Italian.
Homer was also called Melesigenes (son of Meles) by the name of the brook which flowed by Smyrna, and today, through İzmir. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The first story that really struck me was probably the Odyssey*.
Not in its original version: the Homer poem was adapted in a number of forms and media, and I guess I first found a simplified illustrated version among my uncle’s old books, in my grandmother’s attic.
A “boys library” book from the fifties of some sort.
I was six, and I was learning to read.
A TV adaptation was produced and broadcast in Italy in 1968, featuring some state-of-the-art SFX (for the time), and co-directed by Italian fantasy cinema giant, Mario Bava; I probably caught a rerun in ’73 or ’74, more or less while I was reading it in school – this time in a comic-book adaptation.
And later still I finally read some of the original, again as part of the History and Literature curriculum in school.
So, let’s say that between the ages of six and twelve, I was exposed to multiple re-tellings of the same story.
And the story is straightforward and well-known – a veteran of the War of Troy, Ulysses is on his way back home to Ithaca, together with his crew and companions. He faces a number of challenges, often being himself the instigator of the problems he is going to face. He meets mythical creatures and strange phenomena, he seduces and is seduced by dangerous women, he faces and defeats various enemies, he finally comes home to reclaim his own.
Ulysses at the court of Alcinous (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The story is episodic, and part of it is narrated in the first person as a flashback by Ulysses himself.
The Odyssey is also used as a classic example of the so called Monomyth, or Arch-plot – not that I cared much as a kid.
What captured me as a kid and still stays with me today is the fact that Ulysses is an explorer – a man of intelligence and cunning, not just a muscular hero. His problems often arise from his cunning and his curiosity – a dumber hero would probably never get caught in some of the situations Homer describes.
Ulysses is not a martial hero, and while being an action character, he speaks for the intellectual thrills of adventure, for the fascination of the unknown, as much as he does for the more traditional challenges involving brawn and bravery.
To a rather solitary kid in a large industrial city, the adventures of Ulysses spoke loud and clear.
Then there is the world in which Ulysses moves – a world in which human intelligence is matched against supernatural occurrences, capricious gods, strange creatures.
It’s a fantasy world (or, at the time of Homer, a science fiction world), and yet it is superimposed on a real geography, a real history.
It’s a strange world, but one that to a kid – or an adult – is extraordinarily exciting.
As a kid, being able to read about cyclops and sirens, about ghosts and gods, and yet find books with photographs of the treasures of Troy, maps of the Greek isles in which the places mentioned by Homer could be found, was an exploration in itself.
And I think in the end being exposed to such a massive dose of Odyssey in my early years led to a number of personal choices in matters as different as deciding my course of studies, setting my reading tastes, and finally influencing my writing.
* It’s a close thing with the Arabian Nights, which was heavily featured in my childhood, in the form of bedtime stories, coloring books, and assorted media adaptations. But I guess the Odyssey came first and struck deeper.