- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ODYSSEUS THE REBEL

By Steven Grant and Scott Bieser Big Head Press, $12.95 182 pages

Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

“Damn the gods,” says the movie trailer for “Clash of the Titans,” released in theaters Friday. The film is a remake of the 1981 Desmond Davis-directed flick about the myth of Perseus, with a predictably modern twist. It is, among other things, a 3-D-glasses-sporting argument against the gods. The hero, a half-god himself, insists, “If I do this, I do this as a man.” Another character, Draco, says, “When I spit in the eye of the gods, then I’ll smile.”

Predictable but still curious: What is behind this hostility to long-dead deities? The impulse is likely not religious, as modern religions have little to fear from Greek mythology. No matter how awesome Liam Neeson sounds ordering, “Release the kraken!” Zeus worship isn’t coming back into style. As the haikuist would say, “You protest so much / against enemies long gone / it seems excessive.”

That same loud protest animates “Odysseus the Rebel,” writer Steven Grant and illustrator Scott Bieser’s retelling of wily Odysseus’ long and tangled return home from the Trojan War to his island kingdom of Ithaca. We learn from the jacket copy that this is not your father’s Odysseus. This Odysseus “time and again defies the gods with every fiber of his being” and has “an unyielding hunger for personal freedom.” He is “not only a new kind of hero but a new kind of man.” What kind of man? “[T]he kind beyond the reach of any god but his own will.”

The jacket copy does justice to the work itself. Mr. Grant and Mr. Bieser’s Odysseus is much given to ranting against the gods. The winged god Hermes gives him a friendly warning. Ahead, he says, “you’ll find only death” by sailing into Hades. Odysseus snarls, “Then I’ll die, but I go where I want and ask no leave of god or man. So piss off.” The gods in turn are much given to bickering among themselves over how best to put Odysseus in his place. How much pain will be enough for the hero of the Trojan War finally to cry uncle?

In the original story, the ultimate solution to the caprice and cruelty of the gods was the favor of other gods, but this work is having none of that. In the author’s afterword, Mr. Grant writes, ” ‘The Odyssey’ climaxes as Odysseus, after a decade of resisting the will of the gods, surrenders to it and is allowed to claim home and family. But that always seemed edited to me.” He expresses some sympathy for the view that “The Odyssey” was Greek mythology’s final act or very close to it. “[T]he gods were heading toward eclipse,” and Greek civilization “shortly thereafter turned increasingly toward science and philosophy and theater.”

Broadly speaking, Mr. Grant probably is right about Greek civilization after “The Odyssey.” Philosophy is the sworn enemy of mythology. Socrates’ scathing criticism of the gods is as fatal as it is funny. It points us either toward atheism or monotheism and leaves little room for all the residents of Mount Olympus to strut their stuff.

The author also is very deft at filling in some of the back story of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Homer did not do a good job getting the listener and reader to hate Queen Penelope’s suitors. After all, it was not unreasonable to assume that a man lost at sea for 20 years was, in fact, dead. By the time Odysseus and son Telemachus start to slaughter them in Mr. Grant’s tale, the reader is rooting for their deaths.

But the broader point Mr. Grant is trying to make just seems to miss the mark. Odysseus’ world is not ours. He does not work well as a modern existential antihero, and some of his rantings at sea are unintentionally quite funny. It’s a bit like that scene in the movie “Forrest Gump” in which the angry amputee Lt. Dan sits atop the boom of his fishing trawler in the middle of a torrential downpour, cackling like a madman, flipping off the Almighty, yelling, “You call this a storm?”

Jeremy Lott is editor of the Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency” (Thomas Nelson, 2008).

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