Friday, October 22, 2010

Odysseus: the man and the myth

A good essay or research paper should have the thesis statement (the purpose of the paper) within the first two paragraphs; I normally encouraged my students to produce their thesis by the first paragraph so the reader (me) could see in what direction the paper would go.  I also offered an alternative:  use the 2nd paragraph, and use the 1st paragraph as an "introduction" to set the background.

I also insisted that the topic sentence (opening sentence idea) of each paragraph be relevant to the rest of the ideas presented, as well as a conclusion paragraph that summarizes the material presented.
I've put them in italics to show emphasis on how-what-why they are significant to the main idea of that paragraph.  As a topic, I chose the story of one man's fame and the price he paid for it:
the classic Greek myth of Odysseus (Ulysses):

Odysseus: The man and the myth

The men sat at their benches, stretching and straining their muscles to pull the oars.  The sail was still and no wind blowing—which was another ominous sign of potential danger.  Their captain stood at the bow of the small wooden ship, looking ahead for signs of land—and the possibilities of supplies and rest for his weary crew.  They had spent 10 years as fighting men on a distant shore, and now they were eager to return to their homes, their families, and safety.  Yet, each member of the crew knew that his life and safety was as much measured by the potential of a horrible death because of his captain and the incredible risks he took for fame and glory—and the cost of their lives.  Although future generations would consider the saga of these men as a made-up story, they did not know this—nor did the adventures and risks they would face be of any comfort in their minds.

    Greek myths celebrated the lives of heroes and their adventures.  In particular, the legacy of the man known as Odysseus (Ulysses), king of Ithaca, has become one of the most famous.  The tragedies and victories that came to him were a direct response of two factors:  his clever, cunning wit, and his proud, arrogant boasting.  Odysseus endured many hardships that brought death to his comrades, sorrow to his home, and misery to his life.  However, his life story, surviving by luck in some instances and with the help of the gods in others, has become a classic of endurance and patience.  In return for his actions, Odysseus was tormented by 10 additional years of wandering, facing death and grief from monsters, enchanting sorceresses and goddesses, and a stormy raging ocean.

    Odysseus’s crafty mind and quick thinking were both an asset and a penalty that he paid through his actions.  The theft of Menelaus’s wife, Helen, by the Trojan prince, Paris, brought together the ships and men that had pledged loyalty to each other, including Odysseus's status as King of Ithaca.  Reluctant to leave his newborn son, Telemachus, and his loving wife, Penelope, Odysseus faked madness in order to remain home, pretending to plow the seashore and sew salt as seeds for crops.  However, his trick was revealed, and he was forced to join the others.  At Troy, the two armies fought for 10 years with much bloodshed without either side showing victory.  Odysseus’s plan to leave a huge wooden horse as a token of withdrawal was the deciding factor.  The Trojans brought the gift inside their city walls, and while the inhabitants slept, Greek soldiers slipped out from a hidden compartment and opened the gates to their waiting comrades.  The destruction of Troy burned for days, and Odysseus was recognized as a victorious military planner.   However, his glory was soon to be lost on the open seas as the ships set sail for their Greek homelands.  During the destruction of the city, Odysseus had destroyed a sacred temple of Poseidon, god of the sea.  From the words of a priestess, the warning curse was issued that the crime would not be forgotten. 

    His foolish bravery nearly cost him his life at the hands (and appetite) of the Cyclops Polyphemus, who kept Odysseus and his party of men hostage in a cave.  Once again, Odysseus's need to display his wit and intelligence would be a costly gesture.  Caught in the act of stealing the giant’s flock of sheep and foods, Odysseus boldly assumed that the name of Zeus would be his protection.  Instead, he saw his men torn apart and eaten raw, and was assured that he would share their fate.  By luck, the Greeks were able to lure the Cyclops into a drunken sleep by filling him with wine—a new tasty treat.  Odysseus put his wits to work, and his men used a sharpened pole to blind the monster.  They managed to escape by hanging on beneath the bellies of the sheep flock when the Cyclops reluctantly let the animals out to graze.  However, Odysseus was not content to immediately flee: he took time from the safety of his ship to taunt the blind Cyclops by revealing his real name, only to have the giant heave huge boulders from a cliff above and barely miss crushing the surviving sailors.  Polyphemus’s agony was heard by his father, Poseidon, who would ensure that his son’s tormentor did not see home for years to come. 

    The Greeks then landed on another island, inhabited by a sorceress-goddess named Circe, famous for turning men into animals.  The crew was turned into pigs, but the messenger god, Hermes, saved Odysseus.  Bewitched by the comforts and pleasures of Circe, Odysseus and his men lost another year away from their families.  Although he was warned by her of other dangers, his men would not obey his commands and unleashed a bag containing the Four Winds, thereby blowing them off course while they were within sight of Ithaca.  Perhaps Odysseus was too well known for his tricks, or perhaps his sailors thought he was hiding another secret from them as he had the Trojans.

    Odysseus also risked his life several times by challenging and confronting supernatural beings.  First, he allowed himself to hear the song of the Sirens, who were known for calling men to their death on the rocks that framed their island.  Although he was safely tied and unable to move, the message that he heard whispered were the thoughts and messages from his wife and son, and the words nearly drove him insane with grief.  He further endangered his ship and men by being forced to chose between two hideous monsters, the six deadly heads of Scylla or the whirlpool of Charybdis.  He also traveled to the land of the Dead in the Underworld, seeing his fallen friends and mother, who told him how he had caused her death when the years had slipped by and he had not returned. 

    Temptation was always a problem for Ulysses, as well as his family.  Although he found himself in the arms of beautiful women, his wife remained loyal to him, even as suitors laid claim to his property and kingship.  His son was forced to endure the taunts of older, stronger men who insisted that the missing Odysseus was dead, and Queen Penelope herself turned to trickery to gain time in hopes that her missing, lost husband would return.  Her efforts were in vain when a servant girl revealed how Penelope unraveled a tapestry each night that she was weaving.  When Odysseus finally did reach his home, he found himself hiding as a beggar, unable to reveal himself until he could believe that his wife’s heart was still honest and true.  It was perhaps more a reflection of his character than hers. 

But the story of the unfortunate wandering Greek hero did have a happy ending:  Odysseus drove out the rival suitors, Penelope proved herself faithful, and Telemachus finally met the father he had not known.  It still should be recognized that for all his sharp ways and clever thoughts, the brave Odysseus was unable to find his way home with his sailors until they had lost their lives and he had spent 20 years of his own.  His name lives on as a symbol of arrogance, loss, and sacrifice in the face of vanity, risk, and pride.

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