In his debut book, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, computer scientist and author Zachary Mason doesn’t really present a novel in any form we’re used to. What he does, though, is produce a mythos.
Folklorists and historians say that if you go beyond what’s fairly recently been codified in North American culture as “the” Cinderella story, you will find at least 365 distinct versions throughout history. We’re familiar with the more “Disneyfied,” sweeter version, but other equally valid versions have much darker overtones and episodes. (You can see some of them in Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into the Woods, for example.)
What does this have to do with Mason’s book? Everything! Because all myths, folk tales, fairy tales, and legends have a history, most of them coming to us from a long time ago. And the more ancient they are, the more it’s guaranteed that they will have countless other versions than those we think are the “final” story.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey is based on that premise. We already know that even if The Odyssey was primarily composed by the blind Greek poet, Homer, almost three thousand years ago, it was added to and embellished with every telling. The epic tale was transmitted orally, probably for centuries, before it was ever written down, and even the written versions would have had vast differences between them. (We see this with other “national” epics through history. The Indian Ramayana, for example, of which I’m extremely fond, has several versions.)
In his preface, Mason talks about alternate versions of episodes from The Odyssey being found on papyrus scraps, in sculpture and frieze, and in other sources too. So every episode in his own book purports to express one of these variations.
We see different interpretations of who Odysseus himself was, what actually happened at Troy and during Odysseus’s voyage home to Ithaca, and even variations on the real identities of primary characters. (In one episode, for example, Paris, who stole the beautiful Helen from her husband and triggered the Trojan War, was actually Death in disguise, with Troy being his underworld kingdom.) In some episodes, minor characters become very important, while in others, Odysseus’s own deeds are given several different motivations and meanings.
During the reading of the first few episodes, you feel like, “Ah, here’s another variation,” and it feels interesting but not monumental. But that changes very quickly, or at least it did in my case. I began to feel a weight on my shoulders that I thought of as the “weight of history.” It was as though, metaphorically, I could feel the entire Odysseus mythos being built up, piece by piece, over years and centuries. “This,” I thought, “is exactly how it would have happened.” This book – far from a “first novel” as it is – felt old, venerated. It felt like a treasured collection of manuscripts and papyri you might have discovered in an old chest that had long been buried in an ancient tomb.
With The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Mason creates in one place the sort of collective Odyssey that could have been (and maybe was!) dispersed throughout the ancient world. I felt, reading this book, as though I had gained a new understanding of the very nature, growth, and vital significance of mythology.
If you have any interest in the Troy and Odyssey stories, or an interest in the history of myth and storytelling, I think you will love this book, as I do.