Odysseus’s (Ulysses’s) Odyssey through Western Literature, and Virgil’s and Dante’s Quests for the Questor
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The mythological hero Odysseus, better known as Ulysses, remains as engaging to modern audiences as he was to the ancient Greeks. His early travails in the Trojan War, as described in the Iliad, led to worse travails as the veteran struggled for ten years to reach home, pursued by the vengeful god Poseidon, only to find his house overrun with ignominious suitors pursuing his wife. Although his Greek epic the Odyssey reestablishes Odysseus in the Ithaca which he stabilizes at the epic’s conclusion, the Odysseus theme gained strong momentum in ancient Greece. Developments in the Greek epic cycle pursued this multifaceted hero to the variously-imagined end of his days, and Western literature continues this tradition. Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” and James Joyce’s novel Ulysses are two of the Western canon’s more famous variations on the Odysseus theme, but these build upon two more significant developments: Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno. Both of these artists treat Odysseus in intriguingly complex ways, making him simultaneously the heart of their works and the target of their attacks. Their ambivalence towards Odysseus speaks volumes about his influence upon their epic poems. My essay first explores Odysseus’s character as Homer’s epics depict him, and glances into the ancient Greek culture that conceived him as their representative hero. Then, my essay analyzes key selections from the Aeneid and the Inferno to demonstrate how strongly Odysseus inspired at the same time that he antagonized these poets who so strongly influence our Western literary canon.