There is an old story about a guy on his way home from war, lost sailing with all his buddies. You see, back then sailing was rather difficult: rough seas, poor technology, a million tiny islands with their various sandbars, no google maps, and the meddling of the gods. These have a way of shipwrecking one more often than not. Well this story tackles a number of bizarre themes, but at the heart it is about a very serious and simple idea: hospitality. The collection of songs that preceded it in the other major saga were about honour, rights, and that special kind of props (fame) to be gotten from being the absolute best. They didn’t have video games so this was a little more intense than a Call of Duty leaderboard. Of course, the fame of war takes the cake in these songs, as it does in a digital way for millions of young eyes today.
But here in this tale, a thousand miles from those sandy beaches, the song turns to a minor key, and the singing takes on a strange twist. How do we treat strangers? How do we treat interlopers, wining and dining us with our own food: not merely for a couple of nights, but years and years on end, running up a tab larger than the groom’s family at an open bar reception. This is the story about many many strangers. Everyone is a stranger. The hero and his buddies keep stumbling into awkward moments where complete strangers take them in. At home his wife fights a war of attrition, and probably wears her fingers to the bone deploying her best weapon (knitting, it turns out). In both cases the central problem for those listening to the song – the moral that beat on their minds like the drummer keeping rhythm for the chanter in those cloistered pavilions – was how they would treat each moment of hospitality?
There is this Ogre (a softy according to some, but I have to interject that there can be nothing sane about a wild shepherd singing at the sea, likely scaring away all the fish, as soothing as it was for his own heart; I’m sure he would have appreciated Aristotle dropping by to give him the basics on purifying those emotions, but I suppose he did the best with what he had…) who is a touch backwards, but essentially minding his own business when our Hero lands on his little island, invades his cave, and stabs him in the eye. That’s one reading. Of course we have spent a great number of years telling it the other way around – that this one-eyed idiot was a really really bad host. And indeed, perhaps those first listeners settling in on a cool night by the olive orchards also came away laughing at the stupidity of this poor creature, reminding themselves “that “’tis always best to offer food and rest rather than to eat one’s guest.”
He loses all his war pals slowly – a subtle stripping away of all those elements from the older story, reminding us that there are other borders than the walls of cities: there are borders of the heart and mind, just as receptive or unyielding. Some get eaten, some get polymorphed, some drown in a nasty whirlpool, some get hit by rocks: it’s a mess. But the audience nods along: they know those idiots deserved it, because they were disobeying the sacred laws of hospitality just as much as the hosts. He is, at one point, utterly alone. That is the key. How does one become a good guest when one has nothing? Literally naked at one point, our Hero turns to his wits – which are sharper than the average bear – and in this new mode we find something interesting. Manipulation, yes – the story is straight with us – but also compromise, friendship, love, purpose.
“Wait a minute” (I can hear you dear reader), you might interject. The goons at the house are clearly not applying for citizenship through the right channels. They just invaded and took all the jobs, kicked out the son, slept with all the women. It’s a disaster! Yes, true in part. But notice, they are actually following the customs. This is where it gets rather bizarre. It’s the faithful wife clinging to hope (remember, buddy has been gone some 10 years) that becomes this shining example and shocking profligation. But she is not really whoring herself, but hospitality. She lets on that things will, “any moment boys”, finally go back to normal in the sleepy town, and the government will be sorted out and a new leader will be selected. She is about to rubber stamp the winner of the election, but for some reason the ink is too dry, or the stamp is missing, or (O look!) it’s breakfast again, or the cows need to be milked.
I think she is rather heroic, but let’s not pretend that (as nasty as they are) the guys hanging out trying to steal the show have skipped a rule, or forgot to dot the “i” in their forms. They are all following the last administration’s prescription. And that is the trouble. As the singer starts to hit high-C (when Dopey gets home and starts chewing through the loafers like a runaway meat-grinder), we are left with a sense of awkward justice. ICE has finally arrived, but it is as a tornado out of a clear sky. We have gone from 0 to 100 faster than the Rolls-Royce in Indiana Jones. And the awkward justice is quickly subsumed by the awkward ending (maybe the first singer who started this tale was extra tired or had too many marshmallows around the campfire and wanted to go to bed), where our Hero, finally resolving the years-long absence and restoring hospitality to its rightful balance (through copious amounts of bloodshed btw), has to go plant a plank in some foreign country (hmm, wait a minute, his punishment is to seek out the hospitality of those who know nothing about him or his culture…)
The story shows us one other thing: the younger generation gets it. You see, it is the son who gets to hang out with the good god and show proper hospitality along the way (though he doesn’t quite realize it). Entertaining angels and all that. This young chap sees the situation for what it is: his mom and dad are like two sides of a politically-defunct nation. Half the time they are fine, and they love each other deep down; they even use similar wily tactics, which is probably why they got together in the first place. Indeed they broke off from the larger pack across the pond to establish themselves and make dreams of free air and quiet piety a reality. But things are jaded now: war, an absentee dad, and the economy is crashing (even though everyone says the island’s stock market is soaring). The kid gets it – you see, he comes from good stock, but he doesn’t want to do things the way mom and dad did it (I mean clearly dad is nutty, grabbing mom’s iphone to see who she has been texting the moment he walks through the door). Dad barely sticks around after solving the problem on the home front, but rushes off to Russia or some other place with only one oar. Idiot.
There is a cost for sustaining this fabric of society – which these ancient folk seemed to prize highly enough to sing about for generations – and that is exposure. It is not quite like the exposure to shame which the first song warns of: the fabric of personal honour woven into every bedtime story on every island to ever girl and boy is worth telling even if many are in danger of tearing the fabric and shaming the family. It is worth holding onto the idea of shame; and it is equally worth holding onto the idea of strangers. But not so that we can avoid them like the plague, but so we know that we cannot know when we might be inviting the gods, or angels, to dinner.