Friday, July 20, 2012

Cold Mountain, the Odyssey and other allusions

Top Ten Similarities Between Cold Mountain and the Odyssey: (OK, there are 11)

The comeliest order on earth is but a heap of random sweepings. – page 25

1)   The journey home from war, with various obstacles in the hero’s path:
Kleos and nostos: Odysseus: One of great warriors of Trojan War, has earned glory for himself. Proven his cunning with his Trojan horse trick. Can’t help but brag to Polyphemus when he encounters the Cyclops that it is he, Odysseus, who has defeated him.

Only nostos: W.P. Inman: Has deserted, has become deathly sick of war (page 12) and wants peace, the peace of loving Ada. Great warrior; time and again shows himself skilled, brave and capable of fighting. Says he discovered his ability to fight and says it’s a gift, like any other given to a man. Never brags of it; has no desire whatsoever for kleos. Just the opposite: thinks war has ravaged him, made him less fit for human companionship and love (except at end when Ada “saves” him). Page 397: “You could become so lost in bitterness and anger that you could not find your way back. No map nor guidebook for such journey. One part of Inman knew that.” Page 420: Ada: “I know people can be mended. Not all, and some more immediately than others. But some can be. I don’t see why not you.” “Why not me?” Inman said, as if to test the thought.

2)   Blind bard: Homer said to be blind, but even if not, strong blind bard motif in Greek literature. Also, blind man in Book 8 who sings of quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles at Troy
Page 5: Balis: his eyes are “too weak for the wannest form of light” and he had attempted to master Greek. He sits translating Greek texts in the hospital. At end of book, when Ada and Inman are happily planning their life together, Inman says he’ll take up Balis’ work and learn Greek, even though it’s a dead language.
Page 6: Blind man near the hospital. He’s been blind his whole life.
Page 30: Ada is educated, even knows a hint of Greek.

3)   Lot of omens, especially with birds or other animals:
Odyssey: Odysseus’ victory is often predicted through the symbol of an eagle or other predatory bird eating or carrying in its mouth a dove or other prey
CM: Importance of animals as carriers of messages from the spirit world (page 23); importance of omens (page 47). Inman’s death is often predicted because of the crows constantly circling basically everywhere in the book.
Crows make another interesting comparison. Ada says she’d like to be like the crows, because they are clever and make jokes of everything. Seems like a good quality to have, especially in bleak times. Odysseus, we know, is known for his cunning – “wily Odysseus” is the epic nickname he’s given. Penelope, too, is equally cunning, keeping the suitors at bay with her “trick” of chastity. So the cunning in the crows reminds us that 1) Inman is cunning, like the crows; he does know how to keep himself alive, 2) Ada admires cunning, 3) like Penelope, Ada will also become cunning and will keep herself chaste for the love of her life. So the ambiguity of the crow symbol is also established and that will lead us to the ambiguity of the book’s ending.

4)   Inner journeys:
Odyssey: Telemachus has to come of age and he does so successfully. The Odyssey begins with his asserting control over the palace and establishing himself as the man of the house.
CM: Ada must do the same and does so successfully as well. In fact, when Inman FINALLY meets up with her, she is dressed in trousers (a la Merchant of Venice: same word used “accoutered”)

5) Intervening, antagonistic gods:
Odyssey: Poseidon hates Odysseus and doesn’t want him to go home; sets obstacles in his way
CM: Obviously Home Guard is the vicious antagonist of the hero and the obstacle between him and his dreams
In fact: Odyssey: Storms sent by Poseidon constantly mess Odysseus up!
CM: One of the initial and many times Inman’s life is in danger is near a river, places that are usually plagued by monsters – like the catfish – and other obstacles in Greek mythology and that require appeasement. Inman’s river guide is a young girl, and he and the young girl are shot by the Home Guard who are on horseback and shoot at as they attempt to cross. Of course, the Home Guard keep cropping up to thwart Inman as Poseidon does to Odysseus.

6) Interludes with women:
Odyssey: Calypso and Circe, women Odysseus is tempted by and has affairs with
CM: gypsy camp: Inman sees a woman who reminds him of Ada; he is entranced; dreams a dream there and then wakes in morning to find camp gone (very mythological feel to the story); Inman could fall into Sara’s life easily, he says; he could be her “John,” a replacement for her dead husband

7) Forgetfulness and a journey to the underworld:
Odyssey: Lotus eaters: This is one of the most famous obstacles in the Odyssey and is constantly used in works of literature and film. The latest is Ice Age 4! Odysseus’ crew ends up in the land of the Lotus Eaters and they are given the intoxicating fruit of the lotus, which causes them to forget their desire to return home.  They long only to eat more fruit.
CM: The crooked house with Junior and Lulu is the place where Inman is drugged and cannot think or function properly.

Odyssey: Journey to the underworld where Odysseus is supposed to ask the blind prophet Tiresias for the way home; in the underworld, Odysseus finds his mother, who has died over grief of Odysseus’ absence. Odysseus also speaks with Achilles who expresses regret over his decision to choose kleos over nostos.
CM: Inman is depicted almost like a walking ghost the entire story (reread chapter 1), but the idyll with the goatwoman could be thought of specifically as a meeting with a mother figure. She cares for Inman as a mother would. She can also be compared to the servant Eurycleia, who recognizes Odysseus because of his scar. The goat woman comments on Inman’s scar and gives him herbs to heal it. She tells him the smaller ones will one day only be recognizable to him and his wife, establishing herself as a kind of Eurycleain character.

From the episode of the goat woman until Inman arrives at Cold Mountain,  death is a constant: Inman finds three hanging skeletons and then buries a young girl for her mother. At the burial, he notices the graves of four people, three children and their young mother who died at 20.  Thus, the idea of Inman journeying through the underworld is reinforced. Then again, the whole book could be said to be Dantean.

8) Minor characters:
Odyssey: In various places in the epic, Odysseus’ men are carried away by greed (book 9; book 10; book 12) that often leaves Odysseus’ life in danger; these episodes show the temptation to sin is real and human, but must be overcome if one wants to "get home," obtain his dreams, be successful. In the end, the men’s greed leads to their downfall and only Odysseus makes it home alive, often through sheer luck or because Athena has her eye out for him?
CM: Veasey is the character who represents Odysseus’ crew and he obviously is tempted by anything and everything. He too, like the crew members, ends up dead. Inman also has to overcome temptations and distractions such as the gypsy and Sara in order to be successful in making it home, though like Odysseus is when he plugs his ears to withstand the Sirens' song, Inman's inner strength and moral code make him more fortified than the average person to succeed in his physical and spiritual journeys. Is it fate then that forces him to kill the bear and break his own moral code? If so, that incident reinforces the idea of the bitter end moira often works out for us, but Inman and Ada's decision not to act so that they have regret -- what Inman names the eighth deadly sin -- gives man a way to rise above fate. 

9) The reunion:
Odyssey: Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar and only the servant Eurycleia recognizes her master because she notices his scar, which he has had since an infant. Odysseus passes the suitor test Penelope devised: she said she would marry the man who could shoot an arrow through holes of twelve axes set in a line. Penelope sleeps through the endeavor as well as her husband’s and son’s slaying of all the suitors.

Odysseus proves his identity when Penelope tricks him by saying she will move her marriage bed, and Odysseus announces that their bed cannot be moved, since it was made from the trunk of an olive tree around which the house was built. Obviously this is a a fact that Penelope knows. Thus, Penelope establishes herself as the right woman for Odysseus. She is just as clever as he is in devising ruses and tricks to get what she wants, in this case a confirmation that the man in front of her is the husband he claims to be. When Odysseus and Penelope embrace, she is shown "pressing her white arms around him as if forever.”

Once they’re reunited, though, Odysseus tells her he has to find his father and tell him he’s alive, as per the prophecy he received earlier in the epic; Odysseus also says he needs to lie low so the suitors’ families don’t seek revenge for killing all the young men of Ithaca. The Odyssey ends well, because while the suitors’ families do seek revenge and come looking for Odysseus when he is meeting with his father, Athena arranges things so peace prevails. She doesn’t let tensions flare.
CM: (page 404): It doesn’t get clearer than this (except in a few pages): “She [Ada] examined him [Inman] and did not know him. He appeared to be a beggar in cast-off clothes, rags thrown over a rood of sticks.” Finally Ada does recognize Inman and the reunion begins, with Ada proving she is a worthy companion to him and he is open to her and Ruby being his equals.

And sure enough, when they embrace, Frazier doesn’t hide the comparison with the epic: though Ada has said in a letter to her cousin Lucy that she has grown brown from being outdoors all the time, nevertheless, Frazier writes, “She put a hand to the back of his neck and pulled him harder, and then she pressed her white arms around him as if forever” (page 430).

These lovers, too, have to separate immediately, and here their reunion begins to unravel, because while Inman proves successful in slaying the men who outnumber him – the Home Guard – he is, as we know, killed by a young man, a complete neophyte. Moira has not been kind to Inman. His premonitions – particularly the one he felt when he is forced to kill the bear, an act which violated his own moral code and which perhaps led him to show unearned mercy to the young man he should have killed – have been accurate. Or have they? What is death? What is abundance and life? Page 445 shows us love and peach and death in intertwining ways, gives us an eternity in a single moment. Inman also lives on in the daughter and in the fruition of the plans he and Ada shared with each other, spoke to each other in the short time they were together -- a tale they wove together, so to speak, and which in this story about tales and the things people say to each other becomes significant. There are also so many 3’s in the novel, and Inman and Ada's daughter is 9 in the epilogue, the most magical of magical numbers. Finally, the last story Ada tells -- to the makeshift family she has created in her home -- is of Philomen and Baucis, an old and contented couple who are favored by the gods because of the hospitality they show when some gods come calling. The end of the book hints that though Ada and Inman had such a brief time together, they really had the lifetime they planned. In depicting their end in this ambiguous manner, Frazier asks us to reconsider traditional notions of time and eternity and what love and loss mean. 

10) The major trope of the Odyssey, as it clearly is in CM, is the longing for home, the yearning, despair and hopelessness man sometimes feels. If the Iliad is about the glory of war and man’s place in it, the Odyssey is a more interior story, as CM is. Both focus on man’s psychological pain and inner life as he yearns for the place where he is most cherished. And yet the Odyssey ends well, becoming a bitter and ironic contrast with CM, which is more like the Iliad in showing us that the gods have a plan from which man cannot escape. CM also offers a balm from this painful realization, having as it does a sometimes Native American attitude towards life and death, showing the world, nature and human inhabitants as part of one great wheel, a cycle of life that war takes us out of, to be sure, but which we can enter into again if, like Inman, we choose to walk the long road home with moral courage.

The ending of CM also seems to me more like the Iliad in a way. Achilles' shield is a famous one; it was forged by the gods. On it, scenes of civic harmony, peace and abundance proliferate, scenes that seem to contrast what Achilles is always doing: fighting. The scenes make sense, though, when we consider that warriors fought to protect the peace of civic life, and there was nothing more glorious to a Greek than that life. So Achilles is constantly reminding himself of what he is fighting for, and he knows he will die for that honorable cause. Though he expresses regret over his death in the Odyssey, a book about home and the longing for it, the Iliad reminds us of why he fought. The brave warrior Inman ends up dying, felled as Achilles is, by someone far less experienced than he -- Achilles dies by the poisoned arrow of Paris, the lover, not the fighter. But the world that springs up after is one straight off of Achilles' shield: Ada's farm becomes a place of abundance, peace and fertility, a place where the arts are embraced and flourished. It's true that fate still plays a role in making that happen, but the Greek stories understood fate's power as well. 

* 11) Extending hospitality, kindness to and feeding of strangers, seems to be the most important moral act in which one can engage in the Odyssey and plays almost as strong a role in CM, but CM explores sin and punishment in more depth than does the Greek epic. In that way, CM seems more American, concerned as we Americans are with truth, justice and Our Way.

CM and The Red Badge of Courage:

Henry Fleming, in the famous American tale, deserts the Union army during the Civil War, is ashamed of himself, and then returns to battle to become standard bearer in his unit. Henry is an obvious contrast to Inman, who feels no fear about fighting, is in fact an accomplished warrior, who chooses to desert because of the pointlessness of war. Frazier’s book is dialoguing with ancient and even nineteenth-century attitudes about war and the romanticization of it in society. Inman, in this way, is a post-modern character, the work he’s in, a post-modern one.

Other allusions to American literature:

Names of horses are Ralph and Waldo, and Ada is constantly quoting her father who quotes Emerson. But that also puts us in mind of the American Romantic hero, who, like Emerson, is someone who thinks for himself. Romantic heroes in general put away books and learn through nature and their own observations. Thus, we have Ada and Ruby, Ada being the bookworm who cannot actually make her way in the world, and Ruby, her foil, who is uneducated but who comes to Ada to represent wisdom and knowledge.

Ada never fully puts away her books; Frazier's American-ness blends strongly with an admiration for the classics and for the arts. Instead, this work becomes a post-modern collage of American Romanticism and its characteristic of pursuing one's own personal dream; of the Greek epic as told through an American lens; and of oral tales and histories our world values today.

Inman's desertion is also an American Romantic heroic one, and Inman's adherence to his own internal moral code a strongly American and Romantic ideal. Native American tales and Southern yarns also round out the American-ness of the novel. 

And finally, telling tales:
Humans love to tell stories. Homer’s are some of the world’s oldest; the American yarn is famous as well. Everyone in the book is constantly telling tales, constantly has a story to tell, and yet Ada and Inman sometimes get so tied up in themselves they cannot speak. Ada sends Inman a note with someone else’s words, and she never even mentions that letter to him when he returns. Inman reads from Bartram’s travel book (page 416) at a crucial moment in their reunion. The book, fortunately, lets her know how much he wants her. Inman’s very name suggests his inwardness, his lack of ability to sometimes speak the right thing. So again the book delivers a kind of dialectic between saying and not saying, what we know to be true and what we cannot know, and I think it offers a kind of reconciliation at the end about our roles as the frail humans we are, a condition we try to mitigate with the endless stories we tell about ourselves.

Some of the information from the above post can be found in a very interesting article about Cold Mountain and its similarities with the Odyssey:

"Frazier Polymetis: Cold Mountain and the Odyssey" by Emily McDermott
Click on the link below for access to the article:

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