August 19, 2010

"O Brother" and the Homeric Hero

On Friday, August 27, I will be leading a discussion on "O Brother Where Art Thou?", the second installment in a series I'm calling Holding Out For A Hero, looking at different types of heroes in modern thought and how they point to our need for true heroes. (To come to the discussion, get the info here.)

"O Brother" is adapted from the epic poem "The Odyssey", portraying the homeward journey of one of the greatest heroes in all of literature, Odysseus (or Ulysses). George Clooney's character, Ulysses Everett McGill, presents the viewer with an interesting image of the modern (or post-modern) hero, even as he is based on Homer's original.

I thought a helpful way to start our discussion would be to consider the heroic qualities of Homer's two great heroes, Achilles and Odysseus. I have asked Rachel Knudsen, friend and Classics Scholar, to write the following character sketch of each hero:
The Greek epic hero is most famously embodied by not one character but two, Achilles and Odysseus. These two men are the respective protagonists of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and represent two sides of the coin of Greek epic heroism.

Achilles is the individualist: the greatest warrior of all the Greeks, he fights almost exclusively to pile up personal glory. He is obsessed with making his name and fame immortal through his superhuman feats on the battlefield. As such, he cares less about the actual cause for fighting (re-capturing Helen from the Trojans and thus avenging the honor of the Greek king Agamemnon), and more about the war as a vehicle for his own exploits. He also cares little about his fellow Greek warriors: he's willing to let them die to make the point that he is indispensable to the Greek cause after Agamemnon disrespects him. Individual glory and honor are everything to Achilles, and this ruthless mindset, along with his utter dominance at fighting, is the essence of his brand of heroism. It also leads him to the appropriate heroic destiny: an early death on the battlefield, having achieved the glory he desired more than anything else.

Odysseus demonstrates his heroism not through fighting prowess (he's an average warrior), but through cunning, understanding of people and situations, and skillful leadership. It is Odysseus' ingenuity in coming up with the Trojan Horse tactic that allows the Greeks to win the Trojan war after 10 years of fighting. Throughout the Odyssey, Odysseus uses clever speeches and sometimes even deception to get what he wants (and sometimes to escape from danger) during his long journey home from Troy. He comes up with an elaborate strategy to reinstate himself as ruler of his homeland, to reintegrate himself with his family, and to defeat the rivals to his throne who greatly outnumber him; as usual, Odysseus bases this strategy on cleverness and knowledge of human nature, rather than on brute force. He also shows great care and concern for the men he is in charge of during the voyage home: he protects them, takes responsibility for them, and sometimes even suffers because of their foolishness. As a result, he is a beloved and trusted leader of men. Ultimately, these qualities of leadership and community-mindedness allow Odysseus to achieve his heroic destiny: a long and peaceful life as ruler over his homeland, with his family at his side.
How do these heroes strike you? Are we looking for heroes in the 21st century who embody these qualities?

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