Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” (published in 1842) portrays Ulysses (Odysseus to the Romans) as an old man who is back home after his years fighting in the Trojan War, recounted in The Iliad, and his wanderings at sea, detailed in The Odyssey.
The familiar tales in those books include the Trojan Horse, The Cyclops (shown above), the twin dangers of Scylla, the six-headed monster, and Charybdis, the violent whirlpool, as well as the alluring Circe who turns men into pigs, and the Sirens who comb back their long hair as they sing men to their doom (pictured).
Through bravery, deceit, and considerable help from the gods, especially Athena, Ulysses survives all his adventures. As the poem begins, he’s been reunited with his wife, Penelope, and once again sits on the throne of Ithaca.
Yet he’s restless, unsatisfied. He misses the camaraderie of battle, the thrill of life at sea. It’s more than nostalgia that he feels, it’s hunger for the life he used to know. So he decides to leave the kingdom in his son’s hands and set off with his trusted companions once again.
His complaint is universal in its appeal:
“… How dull it is to pause, to make an end
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life…
Death closes all, but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods…
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world…
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die…
Though much is taken, much abides, and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
It’s a rallying cry to those who don’t want to slow down, to become less with age. It’s been read at dozens of retirement parties, the battle hymn of the old adventurer. It’s always been one of my favorites, even though, on re-reading The Odyssey, I find Ulysses considerably less heroic than I remembered. If it weren’t for the intervention of Athena and other gods, he would have failed in his quest – early on. Still, the poem speaks to the old hero’s undiminished search for adventure, for noble battle, perhaps for redemption.
Ulysses is the archetype of the adventurer/hero. His stories combine wild battles with superhuman enemies, beautiful/deadly women, natural hazards, magical tokens, and intervention by the gods. It’s a winning combination, even today. The powerful defender/avenger (!) figure appears in almost all Marvel super-heroes, Star Wars heroes, and most of the fantasy warriors in on-line games. Like Captain America (shown), the warrior hero lives for the noble fight. He (or she) has little or no life outside of battle. Super-heroes don’t usually chaperone class trips or take the kids to soccer practice.
But we forgive all that because, after all, they’re heroes. Ulysses deserves to do great things, even in his old age, and we cheer for him even as he leaves poor, long-suffering Penelope at home once again and heads off into the great unknown with his band of old buddies.
A Different Story
In 2018, a Polish retiree named Aleksander Doba, at 71, completed his third trans-Atlantic solo crossing, in a 21′ kayak he designed.
His first crossing was in 2011, from Senegal, West Africa, to Brazil, a 99-day journey. (See map on left). When he arrived at his destination, he was greeted by one journalist.
Days after returning home, he started planning the second trip, which he completed in 2013, going from Portugal to Florida, a 6,000-mile journey. (See map on right). He had saltwater blisters and eye infections. His toe nails fell off.
When he tried to exercise by swimming in the ocean, he found he attracted sharks. When his clothes became unwearable, he went naked. On the trip, he suffered multiple equipment failures, including his satellite radio, GPS unit, and electric desalinator. Most he fixed by himself or managed without. But when his rudder broke during a storm near Bermuda, he was forced to head in to land for repairs. As soon as it was fixed, he returned to his route. (Notice the circular blip on the map of his journey.) It’s believed to be the longest open-water kayak crossing in history.
Then he wanted to go again, this time from west to east, from New York to France. Despite everyone’s attempts to dissuade him, he went. His wife of 45 years, Gabriela, said when she couldn’t dissuade him, she gave up and accepted his decision. But the third passage proved to be the hardest.
Shortly after he got into open water off the New York coast, he ran into terrible storms with 65 mph winds and huge seas that required him to tie himself down in the narrow sleeping area he had inside the kayak. (See photo.) But in the middle of the storm, he realized the waves were so high, the kayak would be buried in the troughs and destroyed unless he slowed it down by deploying a sea anchor, essentially a parachute opened in the water behind the kayak to slow its descent down the backs of the waves into the troughs. It worked for a while, but then one of the ropes failed and the kayak began to roll in the waves so violently he thought it would break apart. He had to rope himself to the kayak, go out in the sea into the teeth of the storm, and deploy the spare sea anchor. He admitted later that when he returned to his tiny cabin on the kayak, he was surprised he was still alive.
On each trip Aleksander Doba paddled and drifted over 6,000 miles, all alone in a kayak he designed, with a sleeping area about the size of a coffin set sideways. He described the tedium of paddling as a form of dementia. Though he’s partly deaf, he left his hearing aids behind so he wouldn’t lose them in the sea. But he grew so disoriented, he started shouting at himself. He spoke to sea turtles he passed and yelled at flying fish that struck him.
Late on the third trip, he lost all contact with family and friends. “I came very close to the line of my possibility and human possibility,” he admitted later. But he saw the crisis as an opportunity for triumph. He wanted to move toward the suffering, not avoid it, so he would be a hero, not a victim.
“If you aren’t willing to suffer,” Doba told a reporter from The New York Times, “you can do nothing. You can sit and die.” In the pictures of Doba on his arrival, he radiates a kind of fierce strength. Ulysses would understand.
And yet, few people know of him and even fewer would call him a hero. Why is Ulysses considered a classic hero and Doba is not?
Maybe we’re just used to the image of Ulysses as the hero and cling to the idea even after realizing he only survived his adventures with extensive help from Athena and Hermes. Or that he had sex with (or killed) almost every female he met on the journey then declared he would kill his wife, Penelope, if he found out she’d been unfaithful in the twenty years he’d been gone. Or that he couldn’t shut down his killing instinct even when he got home. He killed all one hundred of Penelope’s suitors, leaving the great hall awash in blood. When the families of the slain men showed up, looking for revenge, it was Athena who stepped in and shut down the cycle of killing. Still, Ulysses had really good marketing. Homer told his story so well that people have been reading it for 1200 years.
Doba, on the other hand, is a hero with almost no fanfare. Many, including his own family, dismiss him as a crackpot. But he has, perhaps, a far more important lesson to teach us than Ulysses does.
We need Doba. We need all the adventurers. They feed us, even if we’re not out on a kayak with them or climbing mountains or heading into space. Doba said, “You can be made small by life or you can rage against it.” When asked what he meant, he added, “I do not want to be a little gray man.”
That’s his gift to us. We don’t have to be Ulysses/Odysseus, legendary king of Ithaca and beloved of the goddess Athena. We can be regular folks, even old ones, and still strive for something extraordinary.
Sources and interesting reading:
Doba photo by Iwona Photography, Iwona.com
Gordon, James. “Kayaker paddles Atlantic,” The Daily Mail.com 23 April 2014, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2611294/Polish-kayaker-paddles-Atlantic.html
Homer. The Iliad, translated by W. H. D. Rouse. New York: New American Library, 1938.
Homer. The Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler, Digireads.com Publishing, 2016
“Odysseus,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia, https://www.britannica.com/print/article/425301
“Odysseus: Myth, Significance, Trojan War, and Odyssey,” Britannica.com, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Odysseus
“Odysseus,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odysseus
Squires, Nick. “Greeks discover Odysseus’ palace in Ithaca, proving Homer’s hero was real,” The Telegraph, 24 August 2010, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/eruope/greece/7962445/Greeks-discover-Odysseus-palace-in-Ithaca-provng-Homers-hero-was-real.html
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, “Ulysses,” from Beginning with Poems: An Anthology, edited by Reuben A. Brower, Anne D. Ferry, and David Kalstone. New York: Norton, 1966.
Ulysses and Cyclops painting by Arnold Böcklin – Sotheby’s London, 11 June 2012, lot 8 Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19582047
“Ulysses and Sirens” painted by H. J. Draper, 1909, Wikipedia Commons,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9684835
Ulysses, sculpted head, by Jastrow, from the Iliade exhibition at the Colosseum, September 2006–February 2007, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1288487
Well, Elizabeth (author) and Joakim Eskildsen (photographer), “Alone at Sea: Why he kayaked across the Atlantic at 70 (for the third time),” The New York Times magazine, 22 March 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/22/magazine/voyages-kayaking-across-ocean-at-70.html