There is nothing quite so disappointing as reading original source material. By this I do not mean to say that the material itself is disappointing or worthless, but rather that any preconceived notions of a figure in folklore or mythology will inevitably be different in their original, usually in a negative way. Any high hopes for tales of knightly honor and chivalry will be dashed once you actually read Malory’s Morte and learn the scandalous habits of Arthur’s knights. Beowulf, too, begins as an inspiring tale of a great hero slaying a monster and saving a people from destruction, but as the story progresses and Beowulf’s pride grows, his heroism and even his likability as a person become debatable. Then there is Homer and Virgil and their cast of deeply flawed characters who do nothing so well as hurt one another.
Simply put, if you would like to continue idealizing heroes, don’t meet them, not even if they exist only on paper. The names we recognize from bedtime stories—Achilles, Theseus, Lancelot—only remain as impossible paragons of heroic virtue if we maintain only a distant familiarity with their actions. Their full stories insist that they are, instead, complex characters. Among these, there remains one name that polarizes, a figure so complex he simply cannot inspire indifference. To some, he is a wandering and resourceful hero, and to others, a conniving and backstabbing opportunist. For the purposes of this article, let us just call him by his name: Odysseus.
I have personally struggled with the character of Odysseus and whether he can truly be seen as a hero for as long as I have loved the classics. There is no denying that the Odyssey is one of the most important works of western fiction and that Odysseus’ cunning solutions to all his struggles make for an extremely entertaining story, but it is also true that the deception, manipulation, and selfishness that Odysseus displays throughout both the Iliad and the Odyssey make him unlikable not only by the reader, but by his fellow characters. Even Achilles, himself one of the more controversial of the Greek heroes, constantly finds himself at odds with Odysseus and states at one point that he cannot stand scheming in any man, and hates a deceiver as much as he hates death itself. Throughout the Odyssey, Odysseus is constantly lying, threatening, and deceiving to further his own ends, and while he is justified in his desire to return home and protect his family, the means by which he pursues these things is, at times, simply unpalatable.
Possibly the most controversial moment of Odysseus’ character happens after he had returned home and defeated the suitors” who sought to steal his wife and kingdom. All threats have been eliminated, peace is restored, and yet Odysseus feels the need to lie about his identity to his own father when they are reunited. Odysseus’ motivations for this final deception have been the subject of furious scholarly debate with proposed solutions ranging from a test of the father’s loyalty to an ill-timed practical joke.
The solution I would like to propose is one that reconciles not only this moment, but the character of Odysseus: though he is a competent, accomplished, and impressive man, he is struggling to come home. Odysseus, a man accustomed to self-preservation from twenty years of hardship, understandably struggles to re-adjust to a place of safety and peace. I have heard the Odyssey described as incredibly relatable by trauma survivors for this very reason; there are many obstacles (physical and mental) that complicate the path homeward after trauma, as insurmountable for an ancient Greek warrior as they would be, say, for a modern veteran. Odysseus, then, is indeed a hero not because all of his actions are perfectly heroic or admirable, but for his perseverance despite his personal failure and circumstantial distress.
Perhaps this is what inspired the old stories from the first – this understanding of both the failings of humanity and yet its inexplicable ability to occasionally rise and perform admirable actions worthy of the title hero. The old songs and legends are not written about paragons for paragons, but for real people to real people.
We suffer, weep, rejoice, and are seen through the ancient writings. Our heroism, like Odysseus’, comes not from our perfection, but from what we do in our state of imperfection. Flawed figures give us permission to be human, to feel and experience as all humans must. Flawed figures like Odysseus still encourage us through example that it is possible to endure, that you are not alone in your pain, and that no matter how long and twisted the road may become you can always find your way home.