This post is by one of my students, Amanda Flowers. Choosing what she learns and how she learns it, she is an auto-didact; though she allows me to give her guidance and bask in her intelligence and youthful insight occasionally.
In the used bookshop on the corner of Main street, right next to the police station and city hall, I was in the middle of a re-evaluation. It all started with the volunteer job I’d taken, the one that my mother claimed would ‘widen my horizons’ and help me become more mature. At the moment I was just sorting box after box of dusty old books, for free. Homer, The Pearl Poet and Plato, along with some other well-known authors sat in the box, just waiting for some adult to whisk them away and have long philosophical debates about the meaning of adulthood and maturity.
Looking at the cover of The Odyssey I could imagine how a philosophical debate would go. It would start simply with one of the grand philosophers asking a question, something along the lines of what is adulthood, or how one can tell if we have come of age. Then someone else would say, quite emphatically, “It seems that this question has been asked by authors throughout the ages. But I believe Homer’s protagonist in The Odyssey conveys the ideals of adulthood the best.”
“I must disagree” interjects another man, “I perceived Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as a wonderful example of the strife of adulthood, and the…”
“What is this nonsense?!” exclaims a fourth man. “The Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight surely answers the question of coming of age better than either of the two authors posed here.” Smiling I put the books on the shelf, Homer, Plato and Chaucer, all classic writers of the ages, weighing in on the matter of adulthood, as if they could give any insight on the life of a sixteen year old girl. If Homer, Plato and The Pearl Poet really did have the answer to adulthood, then by their definition, I should be off saving lives, slaying dragons or doing some other daringly heroic deed, not sorting dusty old books.
Take Odysseus, for example, who went off, fought in a war, pillaged some villages, saved a few maidens and blinded a Cyclops. This adventure makes him into a legendary adult figure, while the most exciting thing I have done is ring up an old woman who couldn’t decide whether to buy Fifty Shades of Gray or the sequel. While my odyssey consists of sorting dusty old book and helping old ladies choose which saucy book to buy next, Homer’s book gives the impression that adulthood is about the journey; the bigger our quests, the more of an adult we become.
Odysseus was the first of his kind; he made his own path, from land to sea and didn’t let anyone stop him from getting home to Ithaca. But his strong-willed and prideful nature got him into more than his fair share of trouble: “For Fate has wove the thread of life with pain!” (260). And he knew his fair share of pain–from the battle with Polyphemus the Cyclops, his feud with the sea god Poseidon, and the act that caused war–his journey was not that of a life without pain; though, some of which could have been avoided if he wasn’t quite as prideful. Not only did he tell an evil man-eating, one-eyed giant his name and address, he practically murdered his men by leading them astray. Odysseus has not always been as cunning as he is praised for, but one has to admire his resolve. He took the hard road, made the journey back home, and despite all of the trials, he thought of his family instead himself. We are called to emulate this man, described as: “ What he greatly thought, he nobly dared.” (307-12) He dared to defy a god, travel half of the known world and face hundreds of men to see his family once more. His was not a journey of the faint-hearted; this was the odyssey of a man who was stubborn enough to pay no heed to fate’s plan and make his own way.
Homer starts The Odyssey in the middle of the story with Telemachus, Odysseus’s son; later, we are told the beginning of the journey by Odysseus who expresses disdain at having to repeat his tale for all to hear, “Why cover the same ground again? … It goes against my grain to repeat a tale told once, and told so clearly” (488). Like Odysseus, I am repeating a tale once told, but there is no glory in shelving books, no hard choices, no battles to be won. There are no stories to be told of the girl who shelved books. Homer’s story suggests that to be a great adult we need to make our own way in the world, to “nobly dare.” But how?
Picking up the next book, I am yet again struck with the idea of a debate on adulthood. If Homer’s story alludes to the idea that adulthood is an odyssey–an adventure to be nobly dared and traveled off the beaten path–then what does The Pearl poet’s tale about the Green Knight, and Sir Gawain’s unchivalric behavior add to the debate? Sir Gawain is young, inexperienced, and is no where as prideful as Odysseus: “I am the weakest [of your knights], I know, and the dullest-minded/ So my death would be the least loss, if truth should be told;”(354 – 357). But despite Sir G’s compliant character, he still offers to face the ominous green stranger. The fact that the poet’s main character is younger makes it slightly more relatable, but I still don’t see how The Pearl Poet can give any insight on my uneventful life.
Unlike Homer’s Odysseus, Sir G. is not shouting his name from the rooftops and challenging every man he sees, but he still has an epic journey. Accepting the Green Knight’s challenge of a deadly game, Sir G. would cut off the Green Knight’s head and a year later, Sir G would have to journey to find the enigmatic knight who would cut then cut off Sir G.’s. And whether it was a leap of faith or just leaping without thinking, the Green Knight’s challenge stirs Sir G. to adventure. Like in Homer’s Odyssey, the Pearl Poet describes a long and perilous journey: “Half dead with the cold Gawain slept in his armour more nights than enough among the bare rocks…Thus in danger, hardship and continual pain the knight rides across the land.” But despite his hardships, and the natural obstacles, Sir G. manages to survive. Different from Homer’s story Sir G. does not fight to see his family, his journey is an attempt to maintain his five virtues which were said to be “Generosity and love of fellow-men above all; His purity and courtesy…And surpassing the other, compassion.” (651 – 655) Having Sir G. strive for this knightly ideal, the poet alludes to this notion that for any journey or quest one needs to have a moral foundation.
Unlike either of these heroes I have neither an overabundance of pride or strict moral compass. It wasn’t my high-minded idea to volunteer at a used book shop, it was a meddling mother and an abundance of free time. So maybe I just haven’t found my drive, maybe the book store is like a hero’s limbo, Ithaca before the Trojan war, or the round table before Christmas, a begging to the adventure, a break before the battle.
Unlike these two stories, Plato’s tale of adulthood is an allegorical one. With an unknown hero and a theoretical journey, this story is one of ignorance. Plato sets the tale in a cave, where our unknown hero is kept prisoner. Born in the dark and trapped in the cave our hero knows nothing of light or sunshine. Plato’s allegory uses darkness as a metaphor for ignorance. The people in the cave are like children, ignorant of the outside world and the people in it. He is forced out into the world above and, “when he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled and he will not be able to see anything at all of what we now call realities.” This abrupt change from darkness and ignorance to the light is like throwing a child into the world and expecting them to live and function like adults.
But coming out into the world, without understanding it, seems comparable to adolescence. My life as a young adult is not something I can easily comprehend. Like Plato’s hero, I am often dazzled by life; there is a kind of safety in ignorance and darkness, and the bookstore no matter how monotonous it is, is just a glimpse of sunlight, not a dazzle but a glimmer. It’s just a small spark, but it might be the spark that lights the flame. By staying in the light, Plato’s hero becomes accustomed to being dazzled; despite discomfort, he takes a journey just as difficult as the one taken by Sir G. or Odysseus: becoming an adult. Plato says ”Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not more reflections of him in the water but… his own proper place.” Even though he was temporarily blind, he stayed and fought. His journey like the others, was one of strife.
If nothing else these stories hint at the idea that adulthood is not just about saving maidens and defeating dragons but about the journey and “nobly daring to go on an adventure.” It is about finding something to journey for with the understanding that sometimes we have to be dazzled in order to see clearly. Homer, Plato and The Pearl Poet suggest that I may need to have some great aspiration to keep me warm on cold nights.
That I need write my own story is clear. What it will be about I don’t know yet, but it will be an odyssey; by its end, it will be filled with great deeds and youth and ignorance, and age and wisdom. It will start with a young girl in a bookshop on the corner of main street, right next to the police station and city hall, who was ready for an adventure.
by Amanda Flowers