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Guest Post: The Youth of Odysseus

by Stuart Hill

OK, I suspect a lot of you may think I’m just the loudmouthed, opinionated contrarian who only sticks his pennyworth into Myth & Moor discussions when he has something to condemn or attack. And I think it’s fair to say that, to a certain extent, that’s true.... But I’m not only that. I’m also an enthusiast, an artist, a writer, a drinker of beer and eater of chocolate; and when Terri was kind enough to ask me to be a guest contributor, I leapt at the chance. Now’s your opportunity to have a go back at me, because not only do I want to talk about one of the earliest, and some say greatest, literary heroes of all, namely Odysseus, but I’m also going to link it to the making of one of my paintings, depicting the hero as a young man.

Pencil drawing by Stuart HuillAs you can see, I’ve decided to show the process of the picture’s creation from the earliest faint pencil drawing to the finished image. I’m afraid I’m responsible for the photos, so as a result they’re not very good. But apart from that caveat, please feel free to say what you think: good, bad or indifferent. Believe it or not, even as a loudmouthed, opinionated contrarian I lack confidence in my work (though quite a lot of people have been kind enough to pay actual real money for my pictures), and I always like to get a consensus of views before I determine how good or bad they actually are.

The idea for the picture came about when I heard of a painting competition in which artists were invited to submit a piece inspired by poetry. The poem could be published or unpublished, and could even be written by the artists themselves. Well, one of my favourite pieces of all time is ‘Ulysses’ (unfortunately the Romanized version of the Greek name) by Tennyson, telling of the old age of the hero. But after making a few sketches I decided that it’d be interesting to travel to the other end of the chronological spectrum and consider the youth of Odysseus.

Painting in progress by Stuart Hill

Of course, the root of my interest in this mythical hero is ‘The Odyssey’, the epic poem composed by Homer, though the story and the character is probably much older than the poem and the ‘Epic Cycle’ it comes from. The Homeric form of the tale, some believe, is the genesis of the modern novel, which eventually evolved into the narrative works we read today. In the ancient poem, not only do we have the great themes of love, death, loyalty and tragedy to consider, but the entire package is encapsulated within a metaphorical journey where all these themes are subjected to the forensic scrutiny of the poet; and this is perfectly mirrored by the physical journey through the Painting in progress by Stuart HillMediterranean made by Odysseus and his crew. The characters are fully rounded, and display the fragilities and strengths of humanity. I’ve tried to capture something of this in my picture, in my rather ham-fisted way.

But here we’re discussing the power of the image, rather than the word, to tell a story. I love the concept of ‘narrative art’, from the caves of Lascaux telling the tale of the hunt (perhaps) to the modern graphic novel. But in this picture my aim was to tell a simple, single-imaged tale of the strength, and also the vulnerability, of Odysseus as a young man. He stands almost framed by a new moon that symbolises his youth, and stares ahead to the horizon that, for him, is physically defined by the meeting of sky and sea beyond the scope of the picture. The flying seagull suggests journeys beyond the horizon and the limits of his sight -- and this can also be applied to the span of his life. Odysseus has no idea what lays ahead, but he is destined to live a life of warfare, loss and tragedy. He will fight the Trojans in a siege that will last for a decade, and then he will have to endure a journey home that will take just as long.

Painting in progress by Stuart HillThe themes and action in 'The Odyssey' could be seen as the products of an oppressively militaristic patriarchal society where women were woefully undervalued and suppressed, and yet the power of the female is demonstrated again and again throughout the story. At first glance the tale really does seem to be a male-dominated narrative, but Odysseus has a powerful female patron in the form of the mighty Goddess Athena. Even so, he will have to fight monsters who kill and literally eat his crew, outwit Calypso (the powerful sorceress who turns his men into swine), and be rescued from shipwreck by the young Princess Nausicaa, before he can reach his home shores of Ithaca and his wife Penelope, who has remained steadfastly loyal to him. If 'The Odyssey' is the tale of a man’s heroic struggle to return home, it is also most definitely the story of female power: both negative, in the form of sorceresses, harpies, and sirens, and positive, in the depiction of patron goddesses, unfailingly honourable wives, and empathetic, nurturing young women. In fact, in the nineteenth century, some scholars believed that the composer of the poem was a woman, and Samuel Butler the essayist and novelist, wrote a book in 1897 called The Authoress of the Odyssey in which this theory is discussed at some length.

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In my picture, the young Odysseus is still something of an unwritten page. He wears the panoply of the hoplite soldier of Classical Greece, yet he represents the Heroic past of Mycenae as it was perceived by Homer, a poet from the later Archaic period. The real Odysseus, if he existed at all, might have been something of a murderous thug who would have been rightly condemned by the tenets of our society. But he would also have had a time of youthful uncertainties in which he would have looked ahead with the sight of both eye and mind as he tried to see what his journey, and also his life, had in store for him.

Greek vessel depicting Odysseus and the swineherdOdysseus has long been a favourite subject for visual artists, and I hope that my picture has the right to stand amongst the many fine depictions that have come down through the centuries.The genius of Homer has made for us an entire dramatis personae of characters, and long may they be reinterpreted by each and every society that encounters them anew.

The Youth of Odysseus

I hear whispers…

I hear whispers
mixed in a muffle of hush,
steeped in the song
The OdysseyOf this sea’s driving wind.

I grasp at words
But not meaning;
I’ve yet to live the language
That translates mere noise
To understanding.

I guess at journeys
In the cadence of the sound;
I guess at battles in the rhythms
Of the speech.
But I ears see losses
And long absence
From those who give colour
To a tapestry The Fates
Have yet to weave.

I hear whispers
But I cannot grasp the words

I hear whispers…

Odysseus in Yoouth by Stuart Hill                                                                                                                                                  'The Youth of Odysseus' by Stuart Hill

About the author of this Guest Post:

Stuart Hill is the author of the Icemark Chronicles series and other works of historical fantasy, translated into 18 languages. His first novel, The Cry of the Icemark, won the inaugural Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and his most recent novel, Prince of the Icemark, was shortlisted for the prestigious Red House Children's Book Award. Born in Leicester in the English Midlands (where he still lives), Stuart left school early but eventually went back to study English, Classics, and Ancient History at Newcastle University. He's worked as a teacher and archaeologist, and now divides his time between writing, painting, and bookselling. His influences include H. Rider Haggard, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Margaret Abbey -- his former grade school teacher who is also a writer of historical novels.

''The true artist plays mad with his soul, labors at the very lip of the volcano, but remembers and clings to his purpose, which is as strong as the dream. He is not someone possessed, like Cassandra, but a passionate, easily tempted explorer who fully intends to get home again, like Odysseus.'' - John Gardner

ToolsThe text, poem, and artwork above is by Stuart Hill; all rights reserved. The poem in the picture captions is from C.P. Cavafy's Collected Poems, translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard (Princeton University Press, 1992).