Hail to Thee, Second Banana!

29 Jul 2010

Full Disclosure: I never liked Frodo.

Where’s that other guy? You know, the one who’s carrying the pots ‘n pans, talking about The Shire, wearing the Ring when he has to (and giving it up when he has to), and who will eventually carry it and Frodo on his own back.

I’ve always liked those other guys: the back-up ring bearers, the squires, the servants, the fools, the sidekicks and buffoons, the whole minor pantheon of our stories. While the Big Players move through a mist of sacrificial purity, in an abstract Dance of Doom, with one foot on the earth and the other forever pointing to some paradisus incognita, the others share the pain but not the glory, and get left by the wayside as the kingly procession moves on. Or they die, just die, without much of a soundtrack, to remind the Hero of what it is to be human.

They’re like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, but without the bitterness:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Take Elpenor, for instance, one of the mariners in The Odyssey, whom Odysseus calls, “the youngest in our ranks, none too brave in battle, none too sound in mind.” Somehow managing to survive the entire Trojan War, Elpenor spends a year with his shipmates on Circe’s island, drinking and feasting, and then, just as the ships are getting ready to leave, he falls off a roof. And (no surprise here) Odysseus doesn’t even know what happened, until he visits the Kingdom of the Dead, and speaks with the ghost. Then, says Odysseus, “I wept to see him now, pity touched my heart.”

Death seems to have sharpened Elpenor’s mind, or at least taught him the distinction between fate and free will, for his ghost tells Odysseus,

the doom of an angry god, and god knows how much wine—
they were my ruin, captain…I’d bedded down
on the roof of Circe’s house but never thought
to climb back down by the long ladder—
headfirst from the roof I plunged, my neck snapped
from the backbone, my soul flew down to Death.

And Elpenor’s claims on Odysseus are great:

He’d not been buried under the wide ways of the earth,
not yet, we’d left his body in Circe’s house,
unwept, unburied—this other labor pressed us.

So later, before sailing on to his destiny, Odysseus must return to the island, to perform the common rites of humanity. Of all the mariners in The Odyssey who get speared, drowned, gutted, roasted and eaten (i.e. all of them), this poor, hapless Everyman actually gets a name. As Flaubert said of Madame Bovary: Elpenor, c’est moi!

And the one with the pots ‘n pans? Well, Sam, not for thee the Grey Havens, or Elysium, or even a constellation. Just Rosie Cotton dancin’ in a Field of Asphodel.



One Response to “Hail to Thee, Second Banana!”

  1. spinoza1111 Says:

    You got that right. To survive here in Asia, I work as a film extra. I talk up the importance of the role without shame: in one job I was paired by the extras wrangler with the stunning daughter of Hollywood royalty, a lovely lady and we walked behind Lee Hom Wang wow…big deal…

    I refer you to another part of TS Eliot’s sacred wood, the Four Quartets, in which he writes, perhaps thinking of Spinoza, that fool’s approval stings…their honour stains.

    Generally speaking, and with the major exception of Barack Obama, you don’t get the Nobel prize, as did Eliot in 1954, until you don’t care anymore. My colleague Nash (whom I assisted blah blah) had to traverse Hell.

    Marvelous reading of the Odyssey. Thanks for the link. I shall read your blog and reciprocate.

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