The Odyssey is one of the most influential works of literature of all time–but what does this story, almost three thousand years old, have to say about the world we live in today? Derek Walcott’s adaptation of The Odyssey sheds new light on one of the oldest tales in Western Literature, reinterpreting this timeless story through a rich multicultural lens.
Derek Walcott was born in 1930 on the island of St. Lucia, in the West Indies. Walcott was a prolific poet and playwright, who began publishing poetry collections at the age of 14. The majority of Walcott’s work celebrates the Caribbean and its history, incorporating a host of stylistic influences that mirror the complex cultural landscape of a post-colonial Caribbean. His most famous work, Omeros, is a gorgeously detailed poem about the Caribbean experience, that evokes Homer’s classical epics. When asked about the poem’s inspiration, Walcott noted:
“In childhood, we sang a song called ‘Helen of Troy,’ and our imaginations transformed the marble Helen into a black one – the Helen that was St. Lucia.”
Walcott won the Nobel Prize in Literature for this piece in 1992—the same year his adaptation of The Odyssey premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Much like Omeros, Walcott’s adaption of The Odyssey incorporates distinctly Caribbean influences into a classical format. In many ways, his adaptation is strikingly true to Homer’s original; it even maintains the metrical structure typical of Greek epic poetry. At the same time, Walcott saturates Homer’s poem with Caribbean mythology, music, and language. This is especially evident in Blind Billy Blue, a character who invites a distinctly American musical tradition into the play. Billy Blue serves as a conduit between our world and the world of The Odyssey, seamlessly sliding in and out of the story—sometimes as an omniscient blues singer from the Mississippi Delta, and sometimes as a bard in the tradition of ancient Greece. Walcott described this rich fusion of influences in his adaptation of The Odyssey, and the connection he saw between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean:
“When you grew up on a small island you found that the sea was a constant presence – its sounds and its salty air. All our roads lead to it. And that sea, when you looked upon it, was an immensity of ocean. . . All of the elemental forces were part of the rhythm of the Caribbean archipelago. Later, much later, it seemed to me that Homer was writing about a kind of morning of the world in the Aegean.”
This unexpected link is what invites Walcott’s adaptation of The Odyssey into the modern world. The richness of the original text is reinterpreted and reimagined through a post-colonial lens, inspired by the sociopolitical dynamics of Walcott’s birthplace. The distinction between conqueror and conquered is thrown into question, the morality of war is reexamined, and the hierarchy that is implicit to Homer’s original story is seen in an entirely new light. Yoruba gods are lifted from their West African roots, and find themselves firmly seated in the pantheon of ancient Greek gods. The result is a version of The Odyssey that more closely resembles the world we currently live in, and the people in it. It’s a multicultural world, rooted in our shared history. It’s a world that is rich, colorful, vibrant, and musical. It’s a dangerous world, but it’s a world that offers an opportunity for redemption. It’s sometimes devastating, but always strikingly beautiful. Derek Walcott’s The Odyssey is the universal story of a man trying to find his way home, translated into a world we can all recognize as our own.