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A case for literary studies for military students: Homer's Odysseus

Editor's note: Contributor Alexander Ames is a faculty member at Grantham University who teaches English courses in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Reflecting on last week's Thanksgiving holiday has led me to give some thought to everything for which I am thankful. It goes without saying that I am thankful for my family and friends and for the opportunity I have to work with my faculty and staff colleagues here at Grantham University, whose dedication to supporting each other is surpassed only by their dedication to our students. This thought led me to think about our students and their dedication to their studies, which they must typically balance with careers and families of their own and, very often, the rigors of their military service (for which I’m also quite thankful). 

When thinking about our students, I find myself wondering what role I and my colleagues in the College of Arts & Sciences, in particular those of us teaching courses in English, play in the success of students who are, typically, professionally oriented in their studies. Every or nearly every student enrolled at Grantham is required to successfully complete English 101 or its equivalent because of the obvious importance of writing to effective academic and, ultimately, professional communication.

But what about English 102? Most academic programs require students to engage in some sort of research in order to demonstrate their understanding of their chosen field (of study and, perhaps, work) as well as their ability to make extended arguments and support them with relevant evidence. That’s all well and good, but what about our literature courses? You’re unlikely to find any of our English faculty who would be at a loss for good reasons for studying literature, but where do such courses fit into professionally relevant programs of study when we offer no major in English? It occurs to me that the phrase “professionally relevant” has a special meaning for our students because of their military service and/or connections and that much of the literature we cover in our courses is not only relevant but potentially significant to scholarly soldiers because it is preoccupied with the issue of warfare and the closely related themes courage and heroism, of violence and loss.

When thinking about the literature courses we offer, all of which are historically based surveys of Western and American literature, what is most striking is how they represent the history of literature in the near east, Europe, Britain and America. This literary history, including the small but representative sample of it we examine in our literature courses, is often preoccupied with great conflicts of history and/or mythology and with the heroes and/or heroines and villains they feature. Any number of these characters and their deeds might serve our students as touchstones, by which they could contextualize their own military service. But where can we begin in this forum with just an example or two of literature that holds especial significance for our military students? When in doubt, begin at the beginning or close to it, I say, and in that case I can think of no better example than the character of Odysseus, who is so prominent in Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey (both of which we read, in part, in EN405: Survey of Western Literature I).  

Homer’s Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War, in which an allied force of diverse Greek city-states laid siege to the city of Troy (in modern day Asia Minor) ostensibly because Paris, one of the sons of the Trojan king, Priam, seduced and abducted Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon, king of Argos, though the fact that Troy was reputed to be fabulously wealthy did not, I’m sure, dissuade any of the Greeks from joining Agamemnon’s cause. One of the city-state leaders or kings whom Agamemnon enlists in his brother’s cause is Odysseus of Ithaca, whom Homer often describes as “resourceful Odysseus” (as translated from Homer’s ancient Greek). The most famous instance, in the Iliad, of Odysseus’s resourcefulness is his suggestion that the Greeks build the so-called Trojan horse, which they present as a gift and in which they hide in order to gain entrance to the city of Troy in order to sack it (a pretty clever plan giving rise to the saying ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts). Yet, it is in Homer’s sequel to The Iliad, The Odyssey, that Odysseus’s resourcefulness is really put to the test.  

Homer’s Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’s return from Troy to Ithaca over the course of 10 years (after another decade spent besieging Troy), and by way of a meandering route including being riven off course by storms, being captured by a cyclops and later the sorceress, Circe, seeing all of his men drowned in another shipwreck, and being kept on Calypso’s island, where he’d washed up, as her lover, for seven years. All the while, back home in Ithaca, Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, is being pressed by suitors who, presuming Odysseus’s death during his long absence, seek to take Odysseus’s place as her husband (i.e. King of Ithaca). When, after a great deal of pressure from her suitors, Penelope offers her hand to whomever can successfully string and shoot Odysseus’s bow, which, of course, only he can and does while disguised as a beggar after returning to his home in secret (another example of his guile or resourcefulness). After using his old bow to kill Penelope’s suitors, he, with the help of the goddess Athena, makes peace with their families.  

Presumably, no modern military student will ever have to deal with a cyclops or a sorceress while on active duty and I certainly hope that none is ever faced with the sort of threats to his or her home and family that Odysseus faces in Homer's epic poems. However, many of our students pursue their online degree programs while deployed thousands of miles from their homes and families, so maybe they have more in common with the resourceful King of Ithaca than we might think at first glance. Our students certainly are resourceful in the ways they find time for their studies and in the way they bring their diverse experiences to bear upon their coursework, especially when they find themselves dealing with ideas and skills that may be wholly unfamiliar or at least long forgotten (e.g. writing, reading literature). So, perhaps, there is something ‘professionally relevant’ for them in reading and thinking about epic poetry written nearly 3,000 years ago about a warrior tyring to win a campaign and make his long, difficult, way home.

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