Post #18: Homer Simpson’s ‘Odyssey’
By Vincent Tomasso and William Duffy
Originally posted Sunday February 15 2015
“Is this about that mini-van I rented once?!”
--Homer Simpson in “Tales from the Public Domain” (The Simpsons 13.14)
This week’s post is a collaboration between myself and my good friend Dr. Will Duffy of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Department of Philosophy and Classics on the subject of The Simpsons’ take on the ancient Greek epic poem the Odyssey. Given that The Simpsons stars a character named Homer whose low-culture obsessions with beer and food are the exact opposite of the contemporary world’s high-culture pedestal for the ancient Greek Homer, it’s surprising that the series didn’t get to its adaptation of the Odyssey until the 2002 episode “Tales From the Public Domain” (13.14).
The conceit of the episode is that Homer is reading three stories from Classics for Children to Bart and Lisa: the Odyssey, Joan of Arc, and Hamlet. The Odyssey, as so many undergraduates know, is a long epic poem (the 1995 Robert Fagles translation, for example, runs 408 pages!), and so modern creators inevitably have to make cuts in the interests of time and audience engagement. “Tales from the Public Domain” takes this impulse to extremes, because its adaptation of the Odyssey has to fit Homer’s poem into about seven minutes.
But The Simpsons’ compression of the Odyssey is not unique to the demands of the contemporary commercial world. In antiquity performance contexts varied considerably, from several successive evenings to a one-day contest at a festival, and everything in-between. Take the various versions of the capture of the city of Troy, the goal of the ten-year war between Greeks and Trojans. In the eighth book of the Odyssey the court bard Demodocus produces a version that’s only 20 lines long. Triphiodorus’ third-century A.D. mini-epic The Sack of Troy is more than 34 times as long at 691 lines. At two books (roughly 1,300 lines[?]) Arctinus’ epic Sack of Troy was longest version of the three. These compositions describe essentially the same events, but the poets were free to expand or contract material based on the nature of their audiences, the places they were performing, their own stamina, and so on.
Modern treatments of the Odyssey must also contract the events of the epic for the needs of their performance. Their limitations include the composition of their audiences, budgetary constraints, and the screen-time alloted to their programs. Elements of Homer’s story that are potentially troubling to modern audiences, such as the brutal execution of Odysseus’ maids, or scenes perceived to be narrative tangents, such as Telemachus’ journey to Pylos and Sparta in the Odyssey, are altered or omitted entirely. Odysseus’ adventures with cannibals, ghosts, and sorceresses in Books 9 through 12 are often the focal point of most modern adaptations (who doesn’t love a good fairytale?), and this is certainly true of “Tales from the Public Domain”.
When the iconic characters of Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus are portrayed by the almost equally-iconic Homer, Marge, and Bart, the show’s interpretation of the Homeric epic is certainly affected and restricted by the circumstances of its portrayal. However, these same restrictions simultaneously allow “Tales from the Public Domain” to strike at deep interpretive issues that can be hard to bring up even in detailed readings of the source text.
Let us first speak to the limitations that The Simpsons encounters in its presentation of the Odyssey. The first is technological: even with computer animation, it’s simply not feasible to represent all of the Greeks who emerge from the Trojan Horse and destroy Troy, all 136 of Penelope’s suitors, or the dozen fully-outfitted ships that Odysseus possesses at the start of his journey. As a result, the Odyssean episodes presented in “Tales from the Public Domain” are usually restricted in scale, with five or six characters standing in for dozens. The second, and arguably more important, is character-driven. The famously wily and enduring Odysseusis portrayed in the episode by Homer Simpson, a character equally known for his low intelligence and willpower. Therefore, the episode must focus on stories of Odysseus that reflect Homer’s character as much as the (poet) Homer’s character. It is therefore little surprise that “Tales from the Public Domain” focuses on the encounters with the Sirens and Circe, two events from the Odyssey that connect more to
Odysseus’ desires (for fame and sex, respectively) than to his intellectual abilities. Tellingly, a famous monster episode that “Tales from the Public Domain” omits is the cyclops Polyphemus, who’s such a glutton that he eats several of Odysseus’ men and gets drunk as a skunk. There is a deleted scene of this episode with Comic Book Guy as the cyclops (figure 1). But it makes sense that the producers axed this scene, since it works against the joke that Homer Simpson-Odysseus is the most gluttonous of all.
Furthermore, the stories are adapted in order to allow Homer’s character to meld with, and sometimes overwhelm, Odysseus’. The Sirens are avoided not because, as in the Odyssey, Odysseus makes it possible for his crewmates to ignore their temptation with the wax-in-the-ears ploy, but because their vocal invitations are muted by the apparently horrific sight of the creatures, presented in “Tales from the Public Domain” as scantily clad and unshaven versions of Marge’s sisters Patty and Selma (figure 2). Circe varies even more noticeably from her Homeric antecedent, with Homer-Odysseus actually devouring his crewmen rather than saving them (figure 3). However, this isn’t as great a departure from Homer as it seems at first. all of Odysseus’ crewmen still die in the Odyssey--and on the very next island they come to. The real difference is that in The Simpsons episode they’re undone by Odysseus’ appetite rather than by Odysseus’ sleepiness. That said, it’s quite clear that in “Tales from the Public Domain” it’s the character of Homer Simpson that drives the portrayal of Odysseus, not the other way around.
Because of the above-described circumstances, and the exigencies of a seven-minute vignette, the take of “Tales from the Public Domain” on the Odyssey is necessarily limited. However, it still manages to use its form, and the unique advantages offered by using the familiar characters of The Simpsons universe, to ask some remarkably deep questions about the Homeric epics, in particular about the issues of morality and aging. In the Odyssey Odysseus is a morally-complicated hero, but he is still a hero, and his actions are almost always at least somewhat justified within the rules of the text. Homer Simpson, on the other hand, while a beloved figure, is more than capable of doing something that is clearly wrong, even if he is a nicer man than the King of Ithaca. As a result, “Tales from the Public Domain” is able to reframe two of Odysseus’ most famous accomplishments, the Trojan Horse and the killing of the suitors. In the episode, the Greeks, led by an Agamemnon character grafted onto Springfield’s Moe the bartender, are depicted as indiscriminate marauders rather than heroes. While negative interpretations of the sack of Troy have existed for generations, the one found here is unique in its criticism of thoughtless violence (possibly a more modern concern) rather than of morally-troubling but clearly intentional punishments.
More interestingly, “Tales from the Public Domain” also calls into question the morality of the slaying of the suitors, presenting Homer-Odysseus killing them the second he arrives and making no mention of any bad behavior on their part. Indeed, the only thing that the suitors do is cheer Odysseus’ homecoming before expiring. While a silly and brief scene, it provides an important reminder of a key piece of information obfuscated in the Odyssey: in any legal system, including the ones depicted in the Homeric epics, there was no justification for the murder of the suitors, repugnant as they were. While the divine intervention at the end of the Odyssey may possibly imply that Odysseus’ actions, while heroic, need supernatural justification, “Tales from the Public Domain”, freed from the need to lionize its Odysseus, is able to bring the question of the excess of his response to light openly, humorously, and in a matter of seconds. Had the producers kept the deleted scene of Homer-Odysseus and Marge-Penelope jumping up and down on their bed (figure 4), the point would’ve been made even more forcefully.
“Tales from the Public Domain” also addresses issues related to aging that are hard to tackle fully in ancient myth and epic, particularly in relation to the Odyssey. Odysseus, for instance, is depicted in Greek art almost identically no matter when in his over twenty-year heroic career. Both he and Penelope receive an equal amount attention from would-be love interests at the end of their tale as they do at the beginning, despite both of their claims to have been degraded by time. Ironically, “Tales from the Public Domain,” despite the laughable incongruity of being portrayed by The Simpsons characters who haven’t aged during the 12 years of the series’ run, is actually successful at demonstrating the potential impact of time. Homer’s Odysseus is seen through an anachronistic photo held by Marge-Penelope to have been a fit, fully haired young man (figure 5), establishing that twenty years of war and travel did indeed have a major impact on him. The choice to have Seymour Skinner’s elderly mother portray Helen of Troy (figure 6), who now has the “face that launched a thousand ships…in the other direction!” further illustrates, humorously, the discrepancy between the Odyssey’s approach to the age of its characters and the likely reality of how twenty years of hard living would affect the characters of myth. Of course, some characters, notably Marge-Penelope and Bart-Telemachus, do not reflect these temporal issues, but it is still noteworthy that a brief Simpsons vignette can focus our attention on a key element of life in the world of the Odyssey better than the Odyssey itself.
“Tales from the Public Domain” shows that a more condensed, satirical take on the Odyssey can yield insights just as deep as movie-length treatments of Homer’s epic. Even though this portion of the episode is intended primarily to make us laugh, it also engages with the Odyssey in important ways. Compression can in fact be more revealing of the mechanics of an ancient text than a supposedly fulsome, more “authentic” version can.
Header image credit: screen capture (Gracie Films/20th Century Fox Company).