Edith Hall’s The Return of Ulysses

Edith Hall wrote The Return of Ulysses to update and modernize, with a twist, earlier studies of the impact of Odysseus on world culture. She modernizes earlier studies, like The Ulysses Theme (1954), by covering feminism and post-colonialism. The twist is that she looks at the impact of The Odyssey rather than just its eponymous character. Her coverage, while it looks comprehensive, is not: It focuses on areas Hall feels most comfortable in, fiction, poetry, theater, and film, and is more sparing in its references to painting, sculpture, dance, and crank theories.

In the first chapter, Edith Hall states one of the themes of her presentation, that The Odyssey has had enormous, virtually universal appeal. Most obviously, it is a book for the young, middle-aged, and old, as symbolized by the characters Telemachus, Odysseus, and Laertes. It is likewise a book for men and women, with a cast of female characters like the seductive Sirens, Calypso, Circe, Helen, and Nausicaa, the reliable and completely trustworthy Eurycleia, the clever, skilled, but enigmatic Penelope, and the transgendering goddess of wisdom, Athena. It also appeals to different classes, with a cast of characters whose status in life changes. In addition to the comprehensive types of people to identify with in the story, writers have identified with Homer himself.

The penultimate chapter provides another compelling rationale for The Odyssey‘s limitless appeal: sex. There is almost none. What there is of sex is implied or businesslike. Penelope and Odysseus go to their bed to delight each other … in their stories. Odysseus clearly has sex with Circe, but Homer tells only about the drawn, metal sword. There is plenty of sensuality and seduction, but The Odyssey keeps the love-making behind the bedroom doors. This makes The Odyssey tasteful — everywhere.

Edith Hall divides her fifteen chapters into three sections: Genetic Mutations, World and Society, and Mind and Psyche. These divisions are appropriate if not entirely distinct.

The first section contains Embarkation, an introductory chapter, named suitably for the beginning of the prototypical sea-faring novel, Turning Phrases, a chapter on Homer and translation, Shape-Shifting, which covers not only actual Odyssean shapeshifters like Proteus, but also the capacity for The Odyssey to be conceived of as melodrama, tragedy, comedy, or burlesque, Telling Tales, which happily locates The Odyssey in the science fiction tradition, and Singing Songs, which looks at music and singing in the Odyssey as well as musical presentations based on the epic.

The second, sociological section again combines literal and figurative chapter titles. Facing Frontiers touches on Odysseus’ Greek colonialism, colonies that trace their ancestry to Odysseus, and space, the final frontier, another reference to the prominent place The Odyssey deserves in the annals of science fiction. The next chapter, Colonial Conflict, looks at the other end of colonialism and works that show the Cyclops as the wronged indigenous people. Rites of Man looks at Odysseus as a hero in initiation or redemption cults, and at The Odyssey and particularly young Telemachus as a tool in millennia of pedagogy. Women’s Work elaborates some of the feminist themes alluded to elsewhere. Women are crucial to The Odyssey, patently behind the scenes, even if such illustrious figures as Aristotle summarized The Odyssey without mention of any female. Some have even argued, earnestly or not, that Homer was a woman. Hall says it’s because of The Odyssey that the first significant female quest hero — that is a female not looking for a mate — wasn’t written until 1900 when L. Frank Baum penned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Class Consciousness again shows the wide appeal of Homer and how its characters can stand on opposites sides of status lines, depending on who is doing the interpreting. In addition to diametric opposition, The Odyssey has ordinary indivduals, peasants, and even a peasant-farmer king.

The third section goes from the sociological to the psychological. In Brain Power, Homer and Odysseus are considered as philosophers. In addition, Hall looks at philosophical uses made of The Odyssey, including Frege’s logical example using Odysseus. The next chapter, Exile From Ithaca, looks at the theme captured by Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, one of the thousands of examples of derivative works based on The Odyssey. Blood Bath looks at the violence of The Odyssey>, excessive and sometimes unprovoked. The modern descendant is the X-rated action hero movie. Sex and Sexuality follows. In the U.S., parents are more alarmed by sex scenes than they are with untowards violence. The Odyssey goes along with this preference. In this chapter, Hall also examines the influence of Penelope’s sexual tension on later literature. The final chapter looks at The Odyssey‘s Nekuia, visit to the Underworld land of the dead. Many writers since Homer have had similar scenes, the most familiar being Dante. Hall also concludes her book in this chapter with two passages on the greatness of Homer.

Edith Hall’s The Return of Ulysses is a whirlwind tour of the vast array of material that owes its existence to The Odyssey. To summarize the material she references: It seems very little important literature would have been written had not “Homer” first penned the adventures of Odysseus.

The Return of Ulysses
by Edith Hall
I B Tauris & Co Ltd (January 30, 2008)
256 pages


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