Friday, 11 January 2013

Mysterious Knowledge

There was a quiz show on the other night, and it was revealed that when they had asked a hundred people in which modern country the ruins of Troy were located, that only five of them had known it was Turkey. Sadly, they did not tell us where the other ninety-five had mistakenly located "the topless towers of Ilium". Perhaps at the South Pole, where the Nazis sought Atlantis!* Perhaps at Rennes-le-Château, where the Templars hid their gold!* Perhaps in the Money-Pit where lies hidden pirate booty!* I am sorry. I am currently reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, which is all about secret societies, and very funny. Back in '04 I was working as a temp in an office, and one of my fellow temps was talking to me about Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, and said there must be something to it, as the Catholic Church was so vehemently against it. I stared at him for a moment, realised he was serious, so I nodded and mumbled something non-committal along the lines of "Mm" before changing the subject.

It is a grand theme, the Trojan War, which everyone should learn of. The two foundation stones of Western Literature are about it and its aftermath. Homer's Iliad tells of the wrath of Achilles, and The Odyssey tells of the roundabout journey home undertaken by Odysseus (known also as Ulysses, thanks to those confusing Romans, who spoke Latin, not Roman, because they lived in Latium. I said they were confusing). It always strikes me as funny when people refuse to look at these things, as they often think they will be too fancy or high-falutin'. Maybe it's because they're poems, and nobody reads poems these days. But people do listen to poetry all the time, never noticing it because it is being sung to them by people on MTV. These ancient works are longer than the things we hear these days, and you have to come up with the tune yourself, but the stories are as enthralling as ever.

Odysseus angers the god of the sea, which proves a bit of a mis-step. He has managed to end the Trojan War by sneaking a crack commando unit into the enemy city. The main Greek army and fleet retire out of sight, leaving behind a spy to deceive the Trojans. The crack commando unit is hidden within a great wooden horse, supposedly a Greek offering to the gods, but in fact nothing of the sort. The Trojans drag the horse into the city, unwittingly ensuring their own destruction. They think that after ten hard years of unremitting warfare, they have peace at last. They feast and drink, and then, as they lie about, useless for battle, the commandos clamber out of the horse and open the gates. The Greeks have sailed back, and their army rushes in, sacking the city, killing the men and enslaving the women.

So everything is done, and Odysseus can at last go home. He sets out, and his fleet is smashed by storms, his ship driven wildly off course. He and his crew have adventure after adventure, but the sort of adventure that gets you killed and, quite often, eaten. A murderous one-eyed giant tries to farm them like sheep. Their ship is nearly dragged into a giant whirlpool. Beautiful yet deadly women try to lure them onto rocks which would smash their ship and kill them all. They come to rest on a wonderfully hospitable island, teeming with life, with abundant food, and then suddenly it all comes crashing down. Their hostess is a malevolent witch, who turns the visitors to animals, and so the next ship that lands there eats the men who came before. She seduces Odysseus, and he remains there for years.

Meanwhile, Odysseus' kingdom, the island of Ithaca, is overrun by dishonourable men. They are trying to make his faithful wife, Penelope, marry again. She has her husband's cunning, and promises to choose a husband from among them when she has completed a tapestry. Every day she works on it, and every night she secretly unpicks every stitch she made in the day. Eventually, though, the suitors notice, and she is forced to pick a husband. Odysseus' son, Telemachus, has grown to manhood in his father's absence, but cannot fight off all these men who want to steal his kingdom. At the critical moment, Odysseus returns to Ithaca, disguising himself as a beggar, he sneaks back to his home, experiences the ignoble behaviour of the suitors, and engineers a contest. Whichever of the suitors can draw the great bow left behind by Odysseus, and fire an arrow through holes in a dozen axes in a row will be chosen to marry Penelope. None of them can manage it, and then the beggar achieves the feat, throws off his disguise, and with his son slays the men who would have stolen his kingdom. Of course, Odysseus' life does not end here . . .

* Neah, that's just silly.

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