I've remarked here (and on stage in discussion and to anyone who will listen and even to a lot people who aren't listen- hey, where are you going???!) over and over that I find the Odyssey's capacity to reveal human truths almost supernatural in scope.
Like much great literature (and art in general), what a person gets out of any particular reading of the text is much more about that person than the story itself. The Odyssey is a mirror in which you see yourself for who you are in that moment, a story about identity that pulls your own identity out (sometimes kicking and screaming) from wherever you've hidden it in the recesses of your heart and mind for a forced confrontation with whatever ideas you had about it previously.
I've now been intimately familiar with The Odyssey for over half my life. My intense interest in the story was kindled when I was 19 and 20 (the same age as Telemachus, natch) and nurtured through several courses of close academic study by professors who were passionate about and intimately familiar with the material. I encountered it in three distinct ways: 1) as an original text in Ancient Greek; 2) as a piece of literature in translation and in the cultural context of its origin; and 3) as a legacy in the context of the stories and art it inspired from antiquity through the present.
I've gone on to experience the story multiple times as an audience member, a creator, and a performer entrusted with telling it in my time.
Add all this up and you get an idea as to why the question "What's your favorite part of the Odyssey" is so hard for me to answer.
But try to answer it I did following my performance at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Connecticut on an absolutely beautiful fall Wednesday.
I had driven down that morning from New Hampshire and it was my third Odyssey show in three states in three days (and sixth show in seven days overall) before a planned day off on Thursday.
I performed for the entire upper school, grades nine through twelve, about 250 students, in a beautiful small theatre, my lyrics projected on the screen on stage while I actually sat on a stool at audience level with some students barely a yard from me.
The show was a little compressed for time so the discussion following was good but brief and I was sitting on the stage as the kids filed out and a couple teachers came up to continue the conversation and it was in this setting that the question of my favorite part was posed.
I almost always qualify my answer with some usual caveats like "there are too many good parts to pick one," or "it changes," or "it depends," but this time I answered so quickly I almost surprised myself "Book 19."
A (sort of) quick summary of book 19:
Telemachus and a disguised Odysseus conspire to hide the Suitors' weapons in anticipation of an eventual confrontation. The slave girl Melantho insults Odysseus. Penelope invites the disguised Odysseus for a conversation ostensibly to ask if he has any news of her husband (that is, of himself). Odysseus invents a story of how he met Odysseus on Crete on his way to Troy. Penelope weeps and asks Odysseus to describe Odysseus as proof he's telling the truth. Odysseus describes himself in great detail and Penelope weeps further. Odysseus assures her that Odysseus is soon returning with treasure and to banish the Suitors. Penelope is still outwardly skeptical. Odysseus is bathed by the nurse Eurykleia who in the process of washing him discovers his telltale scar. We flashback to how Odysseus got the scar (as a child on a boar hunt on Mount Parnassus) and also hear about his paternal grandfather Autolycus' role in naming him. Odysseus keeps Eurykleia from revealing his identity to Penelope. Following the bath, Penelope asked Odysseus to interpret a dream she had about her geese being killed by an eagle. She then suggests the contest of the bow, which Odysseus supports eagerly. They sleep apart, Penelope crying herself to sleep.
That's just one "chapter!"
It's said about Bob Dylan that one of his songs had more great lyrics than most of us write in a lifetime, and I think the same is true about book 19 of The Odyssey. It has everything (I know, I sound like Stefon from SNL): heightened emotional moments, character development, subtlety, ambiguity and mystery, symbolism, sophisticated narrative devices, foreshadowing...
It's a tour de force and one could write (and folks have written) an entire book on just this one part of the story.
Though I've only recently fully realized the brilliance of book 19, it must have moved me when I was composing my version because I wrote essentially two songs that consider its events: So Close in which I imagined the emotional intensity of a husband so close to the wife from whom he's been absent for 20 years but unable to actually touch her, and For Pain, in which I connected Odysseus' scar to his identity and relationship with pain.
As you stand in the light
Your face is like snow
I'm standing right here
And I want you to know
My heart aches with laughter
But my smile I must hide
You can't see my eyes
But now I'm weeping inside
You're so close
You're so close I can barely breathe
I can touch you
I can see I need you now
How I missed you
How I missed you
You're so close
All of my years rest on my skin
In one straight line they begin
To tell the story of my name
And of the life I lived for pain
Pain for my enemies and pain for my friends
Suffering as means but not as an end
Don't speak my name and don't uncover me
The truth in time will set me free
I was still thinking about book 19 as I packed up and drove south to the waterfront town of Fairfield, Connecticut, where I was staying for the night at an "Inn on the Sea."
In the morning, with a day off in front of me, I awoke early and walked the beach at dawn, shivering in the crisp morning air accompanied only by the sound of seagulls picking through the shells on the shore in search of breakfast.
I watched them for a couple of minutes and went off in search of my own breakfast and happy for the day to myself to get ready for the last part of my tour.