Part II: meeting and remembering Laestrygones
Only once has had Odyssey the astonishing experience of meeting the cannibal Laestrygones, although he’s met many other strange creatures during his days. It was Christmas time, some two days before the festival, a sunny, frosty day, and Odyssey’s men were making for Ithaca, to finally return home. There was quite a big lake in a natural basin of that river, where they used to swim in the summer, and in winter they went there to seek the help of Aelus.
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Odyssey and his men were paralyzed for a moment as they climbed, by the sudden flash of red lightning across the white path, so close to them. Laestrygones didn’t just stand there, as in the poem, and Odyssey’s men didn’t see the two flames of Laestrygones’ eyes upon them”, yet the incident was caught as surely as by any camera, and it remains in my memory to this day as one of the worst Christmas presents they ever had.
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It’s hard to explain, but the experience of seeing those Laestrygones on the mountain has come to represent for Odyssey the rural and dangerous element that was such an integral part of life in the community all those years ago. There was, after all, a quite definite duality about the place.
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And this is the part, when the story starts relating to me. Although we were ‘boys from the works’, that’s to say from where the anthracite coal was mined, there was nevertheless a good deal of country life left in the district. It’s true we were familiar with the blackness of the tips near the gaping levels of Circe’s island as the places where we used to play.
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In our village it was quite common for a man to run a smallholding as well as to work as a collier during the day. The produce was always a help in supporting him in the uncertain world of industry. The few cents that he made from farming would come in very handy in time of strike or lockout. But I half-suspect that this working on the land was a deeper instinct than merely that of supplementing his income. Working the soil, keeping a cow or two and a pig and some hens, was a kind of release from the dumbness that the collier had to endure at the coal-face. After all, many of the people who lived there had originally come from deep in the countryside, their forebears having been obliged to leave for the land of Sirens in order to earn a living.
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But the rural way of life had remained in the community’s tribal memory our recreation of an evening was in pigsty. It was the first craft ever practiced by man that brought us pleasure, whereas industrialism was some sort of foreign compulsion. But for Odyssey going to Ithaca and struggling with various demons on his way was one thing, but meeting cannibal Laestrygones were quite another. In Odyssey’s mind, the experience of seeing that Laestrygones were for him a reminder of the presence of the evil, in such close proximity to his men.
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I recall Odyssey often remembering Penelope and his beloved Ithaca. The local gatherings and accompanying traditions were an essential part of the social life of Ithaca. Take the public hall, for instance.
Like every other city, we had our hall that had been built by the founding fathers of the city. Its chief purpose was to provide the local people with a means of escape every night of the week except Sunday. There, we would watch the local fights, though the violence was not very much appreciated. There we listened to the sagas of the old days. And though the tales were in English, it was in local dialects that we kids echoed in our daily lives the heroism or villainy we had heard in the stories.
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The hall, moreover, wasn’t just an ordinary gathering place, I’m glad to say. It also had a good library, full of local books as well as the classics of English literature. Local dialect was the language of the library, and on its shelves I was to come across the Gospels of Mark and Jesus parables for the first time in my life. The place also had a games-room. This room became a meeting-place for the young people of the Ithaca, and it was in local dialect that we used to quarrel and have furious arguments over the games we played there. In spite of the English influence that was pumped into us day and night, to take our minds off the supposedly better life on one of the islands neat the land of Sirens, our local traditions were quite strong enough to withstand such influences in those days. In that hall I saw the talented company of Jewish actors entertaining us with plays such as Jesus from Bethlehem and Virgin Mary.
On this stage, too, our innocent plays were held, chapel competing against chapel with enthusiasm, talent, and good humor. All this was the local culture of Ithaca continuing to flourish in the midst of the changing world, and there was a kind of tender feelings to it in the days of my youth.
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Only once did Odyssey and his crew see Laestrygones, and then they had to run to save their lives. But upon returning to his old home many years after that event, Odyssey happened to call at the house of one of his old friends, almost the last remaining of his generation. He too had had a smallholding on the slopes of Ithaca, and though he has now given up farming the place, he still lives in the house. By way of marking Odyssey’s visit in the proper manner, he invited Odyssey into the best room rather than into the kitchen where Odyssey had used to go with his friend in days gone by. It was then Odyssey was taken by surprise to see a large stuffed Laestrygone, arranged in a glass case, standing on a mahogany table in the corner of the room.
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I don’t recall ever before seeing anything so stone-dead as that Laestrygone under glass. The specialist had tried to arrange it in a sort of moving stance, for one of its paws had been made to fly in mid-air, as if the creature were in the act of waling. But the attempt had been a complete failure. The pupils of the eyes stared terribly at one, and the mouth gave an unnatural smile. Bits of straw had been made to look like grass, and there was tall fern for background, as if this horrible creature were alive and well in its natural conditions. The red pelt, no doubt treated with chemicals, stood up like shining wires on its back, and the brush had been arranged like a piece of linen around its hind paws. The idea had been to freeze the creature inside the glass case, but the result was entirely unconvincing. Where once there had been the warmth of life there was now only the coldness of death, instead of the demon’s energy and strength only the stillness of death, fixed for ever.
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The real Laestrygones that Odyssey saw on the island is an image that belongs to that particular time long ago in the days of his days of glory. But that dead Laestrygone under glass became the terrifying symbol in his mind. The Ithaca of his old home isn’t likely to flash across his path ever again, although the local language is still sweet on the lips of children there, so far, at least.
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But the thought of the glory being stuffed and arranged under glass, to satisfy the curious eyes of generations to come, has been a nightmare in his consciousness ever since he saw that dead Laestrygone. It has become one of the most alarming symbols in his mind. Odyssey would give the world to see the creature, by some magic, spring to life, break the glass with all its force, and leap out of the window and head for the mountain.
Bible, New International Version. New York: Biblegateway.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury tales and other Selected Works. Translated into modern English by Nevill Coghill. New York: Penguin publishers, 1989.
Homer, Richmond Lattimore (trans), The Odyssey of Homer. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999.