I’ve been enjoying my buddy Rod’s posts on the Odyssey, especially this one with its note on the importance of Odysseus’s encounter in the underworld with Achilles. It’s worth taking a moment to note how shocking this interview is: we have to remember that Achilles is the proudest of all the Greek warriors, the one most concerned with his own honor and glory — and perhaps rightly so, given the short life he is doomed to. The personal crisis he is thrown into when Agamemnon “does no honor to the best of the Achaeans,” at the outset of the Iliad, is the mainspring of the whole poem. And now his shade tells Odysseus that in effect, it is better to be alive in any circumstances, even as the slave of a poor farmer, than to “rule down here over all the breathless dead,” or as Robert Fitzgerald translates it, “lord it over all the exhausted dead.”
Odysseus learns this lesson, and from this point on his determination to return to his home never wavers. He sees with perfect clarity that, as he tells King Alcinous when the king offers him his own daughter’s hand in marriage and the future rule of his beautiful and peaceful kingdom,
Where shall a man find sweetness to surpass
his own home and his parents? In far lands
he shall not, though he find a house of gold.
(Menelaus would agree: he found that house of gold, he is the richest of mortals, and yet, as he tells Odysseus’s son Telemachus, he takes no joy in any of his wealth.) So when Calypso tells Odysseus that he would stay with her if he could see the miseries that he will have to confront as he tries to return home, he replies,
If any god has marked me out again
for shipwreck, my tough heart can undergo it.
What hardship have I not long since endured
at sea, in battle! Let the trial come.
Let the trial come. He has learned from Achilles that glory means nothing once you’re among the “exhausted dead”; so you must survive. You must undergo any hardship, suffer any humiliation — even at the hands of those despicable suitors of Penelope — in order to make it back home, to live among your own family, in the house you built with your own hands, to eat roasted meat and drink sweet red wine as the bard sings tales of those long-ago adventures in Troy.