When I was in college, I took a course on the Biblical Gospels as history. One of the things we learned about was the existence of dozens of “Gnostic” gospels — other accounts of Jesus’ life that wound up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. These included some pretty interesting portrayals of Christ: For example, in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a very young Jesus murders a couple of other kids for what amounts to messing with him.
Presumably, that Jesus didn’t love ALL the little children of the world.
My mind turned to those so-called “apocryphal” gospels a few times as I read The Lost Books of the Odyssey last year. Disguising itself as a compendium of 44 ancient texts discovered at an Ptolemaic Greek archeological site in Egypt (actually just the work of one software engineer from California named Zachary Mason), this book’s “books” purportedly tell tales of brave Odysseus outside of the Homeric oeuvre.
Odysseus is probably my favorite character in all of Literature (with a capital “L”). I’ve always admired — and aspired to — his resourcefulness, survivability, and wily ways. Knowing the premise of Mason’s book, I started reading with a keen eye toward how Odysseus would be depicted. (Warning: Spoilers below, sort of.)
I’m happy to say that despite the dozens of variations on the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other portions of Greek myth contained therein, Mason remains faithful to the Odysseus the character. Whether it’s the story of 1) the coward who deserts the war effort early on only to move to a nearby city, take a new name, and trick the locals into believing Odysseus is the greatest hero of the Trojan War through skillfully performed songs and poems or 2) the war-weary king who returns to Ithaca after two decades of combat and long journeys by sea and discovers his wife has remarried, yet feels reinvigorated by the sense of newfound freedom and possibility, the cunning, crafty trickster remains.
Odysseus doesn’t figure heavily in all the stories, though. There are a handful that focus on other characters. For instance, there’s a book in which Odysseus traps Achilles, sealing the Greeks’ greatest warrior in a cave to prevent him from killing men on his own side in a rage. He keeps Achilles in there for a few days. When he finally lets him go, he discovers Achilles has attained total inner peace, and instead of returning to the siege of Troy, he gives up his weapons, heads east, and essentially becomes the Buddha. A different book finds Achilles affecting another world religion when he charges the gates of Svarga and does battle with the Hindu pantheon.
In separate tale, the uncharacteristically honorable and romantic Spartan King Menelaus and his men assault a citadel of dead warriors to rescue his captured wife Helen, the casus belli of the original Trojan War. Yet another deals with King Agamemnon — Menelaus’ vain, megalomaniacal brother — futilely seeking ultimate wisdom distilled into the smallest possible amount of words.
The common thread running through all these brain-bending books is that they present a kind of philosophical exercise for the reader. Mason seems very interested in the tension between notions of free will and fate in particular (a predicament summed up brilliantly in W.H. Auden’s line, “We cannot choose what we are free to love”).
In one story, for example, Odysseus stumbles upon a copy of the Iliad prior arriving at Troy and reads about all the events of the war before they occur. He later learns the Trojan War keeps happening on an infinite loop, and that others have “accidentally” discovered the text in previous iterations. But their reactions to it vary: Achilles just shrugs and moves unquestioningly to his glory and his doom. Agamemnon brashly believes he can change the outcome. King Priam of Troy disregards it entirely, choosing not to believe in this “prophecy.” But regardless of their response, the events play out the same way, every time.
I should mention here that my favorite “Lost Book” touches on that theme of destiny vs. control. In this story, Odysseus is the guest of another island king. As they walk together through an orchard, the other man declares that the people of his island believe the events of their lives are written in advance within the mind of a remote, unknown author. But the king didn’t bring Odysseus on that stroll to talk about predestination; he has an assassin stealthily following behind in order to kill his shrewd, silver-tongued interlocutor.
Through his characteristic cleverness, Odysseus manages to trick the assassin into murdering his own king. What’s most interesting about this narrative, however, is it’s implied that in this case, Odysseus is actually that very unknown author and, at the same time, a participant in his own story. But how could he be both? Where does one start and the other stop? Are Odysseus the storyteller and Odysseus the character two separate players in a tale outside that tale? (Meta!) Or had he obtained the “godlike gift of infinite regression”?
Mind = blown. Well done, Mason.