Thursday, September 4, 2008

O Brother, Where art thou?

If you study mythology at all, you have to deal with Odyssey at some point. Odysseus' story is one of central texts, perhaps THE central text, in the mythological canon. It's the prototype--nay, the archetype--for every other important story. The tropes are central and enduring.

Hero is at home-- all is well. Something causes the hero to leave home. Hero has an extended journey--out in the world. Hero deals with monsters, seductresses, magical talismans, important and meddling supernatural forces, heaven, hell, etc. Hero makes her way back home, but with a significant difference. S/he is changed and brings salvation or rescue or enlightenment to those who are at home. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, (wo)man gets self into a hole, (wo)man gets self out. (Which version do you like here?)

So... we're reading Odyssey in the survey of mythology course. Students are having fun with it, exploring what makes Odysseus tick, why Penelope would wait for him, what Athena gets out of helping him, why Telemachus is so uptight about his dad, why Poseidon can't leave Odysseus alone, etc. I asked them a few days ago to think about where Odyssey's influence is seen in other stories, etc. They came up with a few, like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Wishbone, and so on.

The one I like most, however, they didn't get right off-- O Brother, Where Art Thou? by the Coen brothers. So, I popped it in the DVD player and we watched about the first half of it. They loved it. Of course, many of my readers (both of you) will say, "Yes, O Brother... is an obvious choice for having some fun with Odyssey." I still get a kick out of watching my students watch that movie. It is a fun discovery for most of them.

I think, however, that the Coens should have left out the "credit" to Homer at the beginning of the movie. What purpose does that serve besides pointing out how clever Ethan and Joel are? Anyone who knows very much about Odyssey will get the references anyway, and Homer doesn't get a single penny from the Coens for using his story.

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