In a literature course I took during college, the instructor once drew a parallel between The Odyssey of Homer and The Wizard of Oz. Each tale, he explained, centers on a protagonist (Odysseus/Dorothy) who takes a magical journey, relying on the assistance of one supernatural figure (Athena/Glinda) and plagued by the opposition of another (Poseidon/the Wicked Witch of the West), while striving mightily to return to a homeland (Ithaca/Kansas) that’s far less wondrous than anything the traveler encounters while away.
Okay, well, “some of it wasn’t very nice,” as Judy Garland’s Dorothy Gale says in the immortal MGM adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s first Oz book. “But most of it was beautiful. But just the same, all I kept saying to everybody was, I want to go home.”
Or as Odysseus puts it (in Robert Fagles’s translation): “And I myself, I know no sweeter sight on earth than a man’s own native country.”
Be it ever so humble and so on.
Odysseus even has a loyal dog like Dorothy’s Toto, the difference being that Homer’s hero doesn’t take his pooch, Argos, on the road. But that means we get a beautiful tearjerker of a recognition scene when Odysseus finally makes it back to Ithaca.
He’s disguised as a beggar because 1.) he wants to spy on his wife, Penelope, to make sure she’s not banging any of the many dudes hanging around and 2.) if there’s an opportunity to be sneaky, you can bet your magic moly herb that Odysseus will seize it.
Of course, the disguise fools everybody: Odysseus’s wife, his son, his friends, his servants—everybody, that is, except for one character: Argos, who is about a million in dog years by this point and has been all but forgotten by the household and left to lie outside the gates on a pile of dung.
Ancient, ever-faithful Argos instantly recognizes Odysseus despite all the intervening years of war and wandering—for Argos is a dog, dammit, and you can depend on a dog. From Richmond Lattimore’s translation:
There the dog Argos lay in the dung, all covered with dog ticks. Now, as he perceived that Odysseus had come close to him, he wagged his tail, and laid both his ears back; only he now no longer had the strength to move any closer to his master, who, watching him from a distance, . . . secretly wiped a tear away . . .
Then, as if the dog has been holding onto life so long after the natural date of expiration just to experience this very reunion, Argos dies right then and there—“when, after nineteen years had gone by, he had seen Odysseus.”
As far as I’m concerned, Argos is literature’s all-time very good boy.
Since I’m an editor in the travel media biz, I suppose I’m expected to identify with Odysseus the voyager. After all, I’ve endured a challenging cruise or two and met my share of bizarre and bewitching locals.
But instead it’s the poem’s longing-for-home stuff that I’m drawn to. Maybe that’s because I’m a Southerner gone off up North. Or maybe it’s because as much as I value exploring the world, I recognize that what really matters is having a place to return where, like Odysseus, I can savor anew the love of my spouse and my dog. Or maybe it’s because I never have satisfactory bowel movements while I’m traveling.
I guess what I’m trying to say was best expressed by Frank Sinatra on his 1958 album Come Fly with Me: “It’s very nice to go trav’lin’, but it’s oh so nice to come home.”