O Hero, Where Art Thou Now?: Odysseus in a Modern Context
[We read the Odyssey in English class, and had to write a variety of assignments (ok, fine, just two) on it. One of these assignments was a comparative essay, in which students could choose their thesis, yet on the criteria sheet, ‘all students must use the same thesis’. The thesis in question was that an old Coen Brothers’ comedy (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), loosely based on the Odyssey, represents Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
I thought the Hero’s Journey was just some old man saying that all cultures’ hero stories had a beginning, a middle, and an end. He also claimed that these stories reflected humanity’s ‘collective unconscious’, and that people like to hear stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Although it seems obvious to us, it is pretty coincidental and influential in studying comparative mythology and evolutionary psychology. Yet, I thought that the Hero’s Journey structure offered no insights into modern ‘heroes’ journeys’.
This jaded me immensely, and like the contrarian hipster I am, I decided to advocate for the Devil. The result is below; formatted, but unedited. If it seems to jump around in places, it’s because I condensed it to one page of 1000 words, ‘for the lulz’. I like it, but I still haven’t gotten my grade back, and I have the feeling that my English teacher won’t like people casting the Hero’s Journey aside…]
In the 1988 PBS documentary The Power of Myth, mythologist Joseph Campbell talks of his theory: a universally archetypal Hero’s Journey originating from the fundamental human psyche. The Hero’s Journey’s plot points, although useful for comparative mythology, are too generic. To differentiate Heroes’ Journeys from regular Journeys, Heroes’ Journeys must star a hero with heroic traits, deeds, and growth.
Ancient poet Homer’s Odyssey is about protagonist Odysseus’s voyage home from the Trojan War. Although contemporary Greeks heroized Odysseus, in a modern/Roman context, he possesses few heroic requirements. The Coen Brothers’ modern film O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s protagonist Ulysses represents Odysseus, and also lacks these requirements.
Neither O Brother, Where Art Thou?, nor its hypotext, the Odyssey, represent the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is a meaningless, overgeneralized distillation of generic storylines. Campbell synthesized his theory from a hodgepodge of diverse cultural myths. It naturally reflects underlying human ‘collective unconscious’ archetypes. Thus, many narratives subconsciously follow this structure, despite not being Heroes’ Journeys.
Heroes’ Journeys embody traditional dramatic structure, creating a confounding variable that introduces spurious relationships with Aristotelian drama. The Exposition is the Call; the first turning point is the Threshold; the Rising Action is the Initiation; the Climax is the Belly of the Whale, Ritual Death, or Apotheosis; the Dénouement is the Return; the Resolution is the Ultimate Boon.
Similarly, the Hero’s Journey’s plot points are generic to the point of triviality. All stories with guides or companions include (Super)natural Aid, which subsumes the (inappropriately sexist) Meeting with the Goddess; all adventure stories include Trials; many coming-of-age stories include an Atonement with the Father; a Rescue from Without is simply a deus ex machina. Thus, almost all adventure Journey stories would exemplify the Hero’s Journey, including the Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The difference between typical ‘Journeys’ and Heroes’ Journeys are heroes. A distinction must exist; otherwise, all ‘Journeys’ become Hero’s Journeys, and the ‘Hero’ modifier becomes unnecessary. Furthermore, if all people were heroes, then ‘hero’ loses weight. Thus, heroism entails extraordinariness.
Context matters—the ancient Greeks valued different qualities than current audiences do, and ‘heroes’ were originally just demigods. Roman honour and Christian chivalry heavily influenced modern notions of ‘hero’; purportedly descended from the Trojan Aeneas, Romans condemned the deceit of Odysseus that the Greeks admired. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is set in post-chivalric Depression America. Although Ulysses still inherits Odysseus’s guile, his ‘heroism’ must thus be seen through modern criteria, such as those below:
– Heroic traits: honour, courage, selflessness, moral excellence
– Heroic deeds: ‘ultimate boon’—Solution to traditional plot’s Problem—benefits all humanity
– Heroic growth: overcoming hamartia (tragic flaw), e.g. hubris, ambition, jealousy, ignorance
As Classical Greek drama, the Odyssey has an Exposition, Climax, and Resolution. Other examples of the Hero’s Journey are primarily examples of a typical Journey. An odyssey is “a long series of wanderings”—heroism inessential—as the Odyssey’s bulk thematically invokes nostos, or Return (Random House Dictionary, 2012). Nostos fundamentally differ from Journeys. Journeys have two goals: finding the ‘ultimate boon’ and returning to the ‘old world’. Nostos only concern the latter, and thus lack a Call.
The Odyssey, as nostos, lacks a Call for Odysseus; Odysseus is Called to Adventure in the Iliad, and Telemachus in the Odyssey. However, O Brother, Where Art Thou? only references Odysseus and the Odyssey. Thus, both their adventures begin in medias res with their Return. As typical adventure tales, both contain Hero’s Journey plot points. Nevertheless, noting works’ conformity to the Hero’s Journey accomplishes nothing. Similarly, although O Brother, Where Art Thou? frequently alludes to the Odyssey, most are superficial gimmicks. Awareness of Big Dan Teague’s connection to Polyphemus does not help understanding; we recognize their motives from Jungian archetypes, not from the Odyssey.
Odysseus is courageous, but arrogant, selfish, and devious: perfect antiheroic qualities. Heroes remain heroes to all people for their honesty and self-sacrifice: for example, both sides respected Erwin Rommel’s chivalry and deeds despite his political affiliations. However, only Greeks respected Odysseus, merely for his victorious wiles—the Trojans had few kind words for Odysseus’s trickery.
Ulysses is distrustful, vain, and crafty. Unlike Campbellian heroes, who have “given [their] life to something bigger than [their]self”, Ulysses only selfishly yearns to return home (Notes from The Hero’s Adventure from The Power of Myth). He disregards fellow prisoner Pete’s well-being, extending his two-weeks-left sentence by 50 years after persuading him of a fake treasure—all for the sake of his marriage. Nevertheless, he is morally upstanding, risking his life to save musician Tommy Johnson.
Meanwhile, Odysseus indirectly kills two generations of Ithacan men and mercilessly massacres his own serving-women. The citizens rightfully revolt and delegitimize his governance—if not for Athena, Odysseus would die from his selfishness. Like Odysseus’s, Ulysses’s ‘ultimate boon’ only benefits himself—they think nothing of greater humanity. Their deeds are driven not by duty (something Odysseus shirks in the Iliad), but by egocentric nostalgic desire.
Finally, Odysseus overcomes his hamartia of hubris; once fatally vain, he then withstands the suitors’ trenchant abuses through mental endurance. Yet, he merely suppresses his (still present) vanity, and remains selfish and deceitful.
Ulysses never had hamartia; his most dangerous flaw was poor planning—a lesson he never learns, owing to constant deus ex machina. By the end of the movie, his only growth is spiritual—once atheist, he eventually prays to God when confronting Sheriff Cooley. A Hero’s Journey is as much mental as it is physical; all heroes overcome their inner dragons during the adventure, as there is no story for an already perfect hero.
In a modern context, heroes are selfless and honest. Both Odysseus and Ulysses fail to overcome their greatest vices—egocentrism and guile, which drive their ‘heroic’ deeds. The Hero’s Journey concerns both the Initiation and the Return. Both works only describe their protagonists’ returns. Although both works are Journeys with intriguing antiheros, a Hero’s Journey requires a hero.
Thus, neither the Odyssey nor O Brother, Where Art Thou? represent the Hero’s Journey.