14 May 2011
The immediate thought of what a journey represents is the progress of a story or even of the metaphorical progress of a character’s development. In Homer’s Odyssey, we are told the story of Odysseus’ journey home from the fall of Troy; it is a long, dangerous journey which is plagued by various mythical creatures. In Canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno, the reader bears witness to the journey of Dante who is travelling from the seventh to the eighth circles of hell. In Canto 26, the reader is presented with Ulysses who along with Diomedes, convinced the Greeks to carry out the Trojan horse plan. Finally, in Christopher Columbus’ The Four Voyages, we are privy to the four journeys of Columbus in visiting the New World.
Canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s Odyssey, present the reader with two journeys which are accursed with mythical beasts which cause difficulty for their heroes in their journeys. Dante’s character of Ulysses is introduced in Canto 26 as being a man who has chosen to indulge the “zeal I had To explore the world, and search the ways of life, Man’s evil and his virtue.” (Dante 26:96-98) This presents the reader with a view of a man who, in his lifetime, had preferred to indulge his selfish desires rather than to provide for his wife and child: his journey represents the requirements of an Ancient Greek man, much like in Homer’s Odyssey, although the characters of Odysseus and Ulysses stand starkly opposed to one another: one is fighting to get home and the other is seemingly desperate to avoid it. Dante wrote his work during the medieval period: a time of much civil unrest and a devout Christian following. Ulysses will have represented the fate of a person who made poor Christian choices and western, medieval audiences would have found him to be both deliciously bad and intriguing whilst also presenting a bold warning of what fate could be awaiting them.
Equally, western audiences will have been enraptured by Homer’s Odyssey because of its mythology and its strange creatures: “Look here, Cyclops, said I, you have been eating a great deal of man’s flesh, so take this and drink some wine” (Homer 76). In turn, the character of Odysseus and Ulysses would have aided the public view of Christopher Columbus who, as a real man, went off to explore the New World which was unknown and potentially full of mythical creatures such as the Cyclops. Although, as a modern audience, we know that this was not the case, a medieval audience would have read these great travel narratives as being real and therefore, Columbus’ tales of his Four Voyages will have been viewed as being equally as exciting, and his seafaring technique as being a ‘gift from God.’
The Ambiguous Legacy of Christopher Columbus.
In 1492, Columbus set sail for Japan but actually landed in what we now know as being the Bahamas. Hailed as one of the greatest explorers of all-time, and definitely as one of the most infamous, Columbus undertook four voyages to the New World in an attempt to broaden the European view of the then-unknown world. Although he may not have always met his target, he did enhance the European knowledge of the world to such an extent that he is still remembered in history lessons today. However, his legacy is not quite as perhaps he had hoped: despite being one of the first men to declare the world to be round, in the travel narrative of his third voyage, he says this: “I have come to the following conclusions concerning the world: that it is not round as they describe it, but the shape of a pear, which is round everywhere except at the stalk, where it juts out a long way; or that it is like a round ball, on part of which is something like a woman's nipple.” (Columbus 130). As a modern audience, we know this to not be true and so it throws into question how legitimate Columbus’ legacy really is.
Whilst Columbus clearly hoped to explore the New World, one must question his motives. In the introduction to The Four Voyages, it states that Columbus was “a man of destiny who had vastly extended the dominions of his sovereigns and the bounds for Christendom.” (Columbus 3). At the time of writing, a person who considered himself greater than the sum of God and his sovereign would have been classed as a heretic and so Columbus had to come up with something that would sway Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to draw a different conclusion: he writes, “I believed that this voyage to Paris would in some degree pacify them, because of the pearls, and the discovery of gold in the island of Española.” (Columbus 150). Columbus would have also benefitted massively from such discoveries and undoubtedly, this would have fuelled his desire to keep returning to the New World over and over again. In this sense, Columbus’ magnificent legacy becomes somewhat muddied by the idea that he may have simply been raping the New World of its precious resources.
If we view Columbus in such a light then he is presented more like Ulysses than Odysseus, in the sense that Ulysses was preoccupied with discovering the best and worst of humanity for his own ends, rather than travelling throughout the land in an attempt to return home to his family like Odysseus did. Columbus becomes a real-life version of Ulysses when the reader discovers more and more about his motives of discovering gold, finding favour with the Spanish royal court, and developing a name for himself. Whilst it is undoubted that Columbus helped Europeans to develop their understanding of the rest of the world, he also led the way for Europeans to colonialize other, non-Christian countries and for the theft of these countries’ natural resources and beauties. Therefore, his legacy, whilst infamous, is also an ambiguous one because of the double-edged sword that was his discovery.
Homer. The Odyssey. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2007. Print.
Columbus, Christopher. The Four Voyages. Texas: Corinth Books, 1961. Print.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970. Print.
Hall, Edith. The Return of Ulysses. Maryland, John Hopkins University Press, 2008. Print.