Friday, March 28, 2014

The Odyssey, by Seymour Chwast

Sirens and Sea Nymphs and Cyclopes, Oh My!

Homer's The Illiad and The Odyssey are classics, but the challenging language and format (please see an excerpt from The Odyssey here) can certainly be a turn-off for readers, especially adolescent ones.

Seymour Chwast's futuristic adaptation of the epic poem The Odyssey is a fantastic alternative or supplement to the original text.  The comic format creates a smoothly flowing plot that students can easily follow. 

The Illiad is the story of the Trojan War, whereas The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ journey (a ten-year one, at that) and arrival home from the war. In the beginning of the graphic novel, Odysseus' role in the Trojan War is relayed, including his masterminding of the famous Trojan Horse deception, which allowed the Greeks to conquer the Trojans. 

Chwast’s adaptation includes all 24 books (or chapters) of the original Odyssey, breaking the plot down, slide by slide, into the most significant parts of the epic.  Early on, readers are introduced to the King of Ithaca's family - his wife, Penelope; his son, Telemachus; his father, Laertes; and his mother, Anticlea - as well as the trouble that's been brewing in his kingdom during his absence. (Learn more about our epic hero's life via his Shmoop Facebook page.)

The graphic novel takes readers on Odysseus' larger-than-life journey (cursed by Poseidon) from Troy to Ithaca. We make pit stops, some lasting longer than others (Odysseus has a weakness for the ladies, even sea nymphs), at the mysterious Land of the Lotus Eaters, who wish to hold Odysseus and his men forever; the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who dines on Odysseus' men before losing, well, the reason for his moniker; and the Land of the Dead, aka Hell, where he conferences with a spirit while warding off impeding ghosts, including a couple of whom had been close to him in life. In order to reach Ithaca, Odysseus is forced to make life-or-death decisions for himself and his men, who make the already-difficult journey home even more difficult. However, throughout his journey, he has had goddess Athena by his side; her assistance follows him home to Ithaca, where he is faced with nearly 100 despicable suitors who are vying for his wife's hand in marriage.  It will take a man of epic proportions to reclaim his wife, son, and kingdom, after a twenty-year absence. 

In many classrooms (my own included) across the country, Homer's The Odyssey is taught in a ninth grade curriculum.  We tend to read most - if not all - of the text as a class, as many students struggle with understanding the format and language without aid from their teacher or peers.  For this reason, Chwast's adaptation of the original text would be a wonderful inclusion to a unit on Greek Mythology and The Odyssey.  Chwast turns a challenging, complex read into an interesting, enticing narrative, complete with visual aids.

Below are two images of the Cyclops scene from The Odyssey.  The top is directly from Chwast's text, and the bottom is a 1555 painting by Pellegrino Tibaldi, called Ulysses Blinding Polyphemus the Cyclops.  The above image would likely appeal more to teen readers, as it lacks that "ancient" look, instead, taking on a modern illustration that is more consistent with an adolescent's view of art.

(If you'd like to watch the above-illustrated scene from the 1997 film The Odyssey, please click here.)

To learn more about the author/illustrator, please visit Seymour Chwast's official website here

To read an interview with Seymour Chwast about his choosing to compose The Odyssey, click here. 

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