Who Moved My Bed?
Here's the first in what will hopefully be a series of blog posts on the subject of "the home in literature". As a reformed bookseller I'm quite happy banging on about books, and the subject seems baggy enough for me to fit in all sorts of nonsense. And a photo of bookends - available in the shop. There, I advertised, now let's begin somewhere near the beginning.
The Ancient Greeks had a fascination with how people lived, not least their domestic arrangements. This is apparent in one of the foundations of Western culture, Homer’s Odyssey, the story of how Odysseus returns home from the Trojan war. We’re told of great hospitality after he’s washed up on the shores of Scheria and a slightly less comfortable stay with the cyclops, Polyphemus. Later we encounter that most dangerous of creatures, a woman with a room (and a loom) of her own – the enchantress Circe.
After many trials our hero finally makes it back to Ithaca, where he disguises himself as a beggar in order to see how his household has fared in his absence. If you’re expecting a sweet reunion with hugs and kisses, look away now. His wife Penelope has remained chaste and his dog recognises him, but that’s not sufficient for Odysseus so he carries out a massacre. I suppose a modern defence lawyer might argue that he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even so, Odysseus having his slave girls hanged for fraternising with guests (uninvited or not) is a pretty grim view into the Ancient world.
Finally, the wily Penelope tricks Odysseus into revealing himself by pretending she’s shifted the furniture, eliciting this response (which might well contain the first woodwork tutorial in literature) -
“Woman! Your words have cut my heart! Who moved
my bed? It would be difficult for even
a master craftsman – though a god could do it
with ease. No man, however young and strong,
could pry it out. There is a trick to how
this bed was made. I made it, no one else.
Inside the court there grew an olive tree
with delicate long leaves, full-grown and green,
as sturdy as a pillar, and I built
the room around it. I packed stones together,
and fixed the roof and fitted doors. At last
I trimmed the olive tree and used my bronze
to cut the branches off from root to tip
and planed it down and skilfully transformed
the trunk into a bedpost. With a drill,
I bored right through it. This was my first bedpost,
and then I made the other three, inlaid
with gold and silver and with ivory.
I stretched ox-leather straps across, dyed purple.
Now I have told the secret trick, the token.
But woman, wife, I do not know if someone -
a man - has cut the olive trunk and moved
my bed, or if it is still safe.”
Hardly a subtle metaphor at the end, but then (as a woodworker) I’m more interested in a literal take. Let’s face it, nobody appreciates some other chap pissing about with their handiwork and if that’s what was keeping Odysseus up at night on his long voyage home, fair play to him.
I have zero Greek, but that hasn’t stopped me enjoying modern translations of Homer’s work. If that passage has whetted your appetite, go for it. They also open the door to a vast and growing number of sequels, prequels, riffs and explorations, some of which I’ve listed below.
Quote taken from –
The Odyssey – Translated By Emily Wilson (WW Norton and Company 2018)
Further Reading –
The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters – Adam Nicholson (William Collins 2014)
Circe – Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury 2018)
The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood (Canongate 2005)