This essay was for Omnibus. "Compare Huckleberry Finn with The Odyssey", it said... An unusual topic, and I was intrigued. ;)
“Here is the beautiful place - who could mistake it?
Here is Odysseus’ hall: no hall like this!”
(-Homer, The Odyssey, book 17, line 340-1)
Home. We all want to go back. We want to go back whether we think so, or not. Even if our own house was full of strife and hatred and things we try to forget. We want home, because we know.
somewhere in the deepest part of us that home is something entirely different from house. And we know that that difference makes all the world. Odysseus wanted his home. He longed for Ithaka. And in this he was, as Chesterton said, a true soldier: He fought, not because he hated what was in front of him, but because he loved what was behind him. Love is strongest; stronger than hate. “Beside love, even wrath whispers.” (N.D. Wilson.) That love was what gave him the dedication to go on fighting his way back for over twenty years. That beautiful love is what makes us more sympathetic to Odysseus’s story, than to, say, Huckleberry Finn’s story. Both are adventures. But only one tugs at our heart. Only one rouses that familiar longing for home.
Obviously, Odysseus had his share of shortcomings. In fact, he and Huck shared a good many weaknesses in common. Both struggled with - or maybe delighted in - trickery. Neither saw a problem with warping the truth a bit when it benefited them in a notable way. “Please take it,” [said Huck] (Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 11), “and don’t ask me nothing - then I won’t have to tell no lies.” That is to say, if you do ask me questions that I don’t see fit to answer, then I’ll tell you a lie straight off. Huck also dressed himself up on several occasions; once as a girl. And Odysseus disguised himself as a beggar. “Come, weave us a scheme so I can pay them back!” says Odysseus, ready for some sort of sly revenge. (Homer, The Odyssey, book 13.43). This theme of deceit is rather pervasive in both stories. Both heroes are also deceived by somebody else, at least once in the course of the tales. And they were both avid adventurers. Neither paid any heed to caution. Neither knew what it meant to be ‘timid’. They each threw themselves whole-heartedly into the life they were living at the moment. That involved dead men, and deranged witches, and runaway slaves, and long, dark nights alone.
The key difference we have here is purpose. Huck is running away from home. Odysseus is running toward home. That’s why we can sympathize more with the burly soldier, than with the pitiful orphan child. We know what it feels like to want to be back where we belong. Oh, we can laugh at Huck’s antics, we may even cry at bits, but all the while, we have this odd sort of unsettlement about the whole thing. Huck is trying to get away from where he’s supposed to be. That’s the point of the story and we can’t feel quite right about that. Odysseus on the other hand has a purer longing. He wants back. He wants back to where his wife and son are waiting - faithfully, he hopes. Early on in the story, he is warned and tempted by the alluring Calypso: “I wish you well, however you do it, but if you only knew in your own heart how many hardships you were fated to undergo before getting back to your country, you would stay here with me and be lord of this household and be an immortal...” (Book 5, lines 205-210) But Odysseus resists, he flees from temptation, and he keeps on his steady way home. He’d rather see his home again and die, than to live forever in a strange land. We see this unbelievable loyalty and our hearts ache for Odysseus. We know that his longing is good, and true, and noble.
“My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.” (Isaiah 32:18) Wanting to be at home, and at peace, is a holy desire. And it doesn’t matter how long you travel, or how much you suffer, if you’re headed in the wrong direction. Journey’s end makes all the difference. If you struggle all your life, but headed down instead of up, what good will that do you? If you wrestle against the way things ought to be, then your wrestling is all in vain. That is Huck. He is living, fighting, lying, in vain. He doesn’t know that the unrest he feels inside comes from the desire tohave home, not to escape home. We want him to come back, to come and be at peace, but he never does. He can only keep on and keep on and keep on, with no fulfillment. But that’s not Odysseus. In the end, his struggles are all made beautiful. The moment he steps ashore Ithaka, the wretchedness all goes away. Because, well, he’s back. He’s back to “live in felicity/ and make this palace lovely for [his] children.” (Book 13, lines 75-76). This is home. There’s nowhere like this.