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The Odyssey: Through a Modern Lens

The Odyssey: Through a Modern Lens

Putting a new spin on an ancient text

Sara Rodriguez is a MFA Directing Candidate and Darby Vickers is a Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy here at UCI. Together, they are two nerds who have created the podcast, Odyssey & Chill, to bring you the highlights and insights into Homer's epic adventure. Read on to learn why they took on this endeavor to share with the public.

Graphic by Nick Adams of a paper sailboat with the phrase 'Odyssey & Chill' drawn above

Artwork credit: Nick Adams

Why The Odyssey?

Sara - I’m directing a production of The Penelopiad coming out in February, which is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective. I was doing work and research on The Odyssey to understand what Margaret Atwood did with Penelopiad in terms of deconstructing what happened, who the characters are, and where she followed the text from The Odyssey closely or took her own liberties with her imagination to retell the story. 

I realized that if I wanted to deconstruct and understand more of The Odyssey, I’m sure others, especially students who are learning about The Odyssey for the first time and having a hard time finding their way through the text, would want to deconstruct it as well. 

What types of misconceptions do you think people have about The Odyssey that you want to debunk in your podcast?

Darby - I don’t think people realize the story is told out of order. Often when you talk to people about The Odyssey, they think about the cyclops and the adventures Odysseus goes on, but there are four books before Odysseus even shows up. 

Sara - I also don’t think people realize Odysseus is a flawed hero. 

Darby - Right, normally people think of him as this perfect hero who went on this 10 year epic journey - but really he just hung out with two women, Circe and Calypso, for 1 to 7 years. Yes, 7 years out of the 10! 

Sara - Although there are a lot of magical moments in this text, I think people forget that it’s a very human story. It’s a story about humanity, adventure, tragedy, and a lot of flaws and stupid decisions are made too. Because as humans, that’s what we do! 

Something that is often missed is that the text is quite funny. There are a lot of moments that are really humorous that may be missed if you have a different cultural background or if the narrative feels very dense and complicated. If you’re having to spend most of your time focusing on the plot and what has happened, then you may lose the humor, the exciting bits within the battles, or the moments where characters trick each other and play games on one another. It’s a fun epic, but it’s easy to get lost in it if it’s the first time you’re encountering it or having a hard time following a translation.

However, that’s what this podcast is geared for - not just for academics doing profound work on The Odyssey (although they may find this project fun as well), but to get you beyond whatever barrier is blocking you from understanding the text. If that barrier is “what happened”, then we’re hoping to help get beyond what happened and get a sense of why this text is exciting. We don’t cover everything within the story, but in every conversation, we hone in on little moments so people can get an idea about how to think about the work and what questions to ask. 

How did the two of you connect?

Sara - Before I started my Master’s degree, I was moving from Canada and Darby was my international Graduate InterConnect Peer Mentor. One day in the summer before school started, I got a random email from someone saying, “Hi, my name is Darby and I’m here to welcome you!” 

So we chatted, she answered a lot of my questions, and gave me tips on how to get here. Once I got to UCI, she was the first person I actually met in person. We got wine, chatted more, and one of the first conversations we had was about The Odyssey, and I remember we talked for a very long time and had a fun conversation about it. This was about 2.5 years ago - long before even knowing I would work on The Penelopiad, let alone it be on the radar. Fast forward to now when I’m directing this piece and I get this idea of somehow packaging together all the information I found and work I’ve done. I started asking people, “how do I do this? Who do I ask?” One of the people I casually mentioned this idea to was Darby - and she instantly lit up. I don’t think the international center had this in mind when they matched us together. And neither did we!

What do you expect people to take away from your research and this podcast?

Sara - From a pop culture perspective, if you’re opening the book up for the first time, you’re probably expecting something very complicated and very inaccessible…when it’s really not. 

Depending on who you are and your knowledge of the book, the podcast can make it exciting for people - and it doesn’t stop there! This isn’t the most comprehensible tool for this epic. This is supposed to be just a taste through a modern lens and appeal to the millennial crowd.

Mainly, we want it to be fun! We want people to know about the story and for it to be accessible and in the spirit of Homer, no matter what translation you read. There are several translations, and people can get different information out of each translation. In our podcast, we ask our interviewees what their favorite translation is and why to make it more understandable and accessible for you.

With a lot of heightened language or ancient text, there’s always a barrier unless you’re an English major or scholar, so we want to show the poem is exciting and accessible for everybody.

Darby - In most classes where The Odyssey is taught (especially in high school), the text is segmented into different topics and ideas to focus on rather than focus on the plot as a whole. It wasn’t until graduate school when I finally thought about the plot as a whole when I wrote my Master’s thesis on it. I was walking around ring road one night listening to one of the translations and thought, “Wow. This guy is a genius. This poem is amazing. There are so many cool things in the way this narrative is structured.” It’s really hard to see that, so we give you that in our podcast in a short enough form to understand how the narrative structure is formed as a whole and how the different pieces fit together. We give a big picture approach to the plot rather than focus on fine details. 

With so many other stories and works that reference The Odyssey (such as The Penelopiad that Sara is directing in February), the podcast is a great way for someone who’s focusing on that and may not be familiar with The Odyssey to easily gain understanding of the backstory rather than try to understand this other epic in parallel to the one you are actively reading. Especially if you need a quick review for understanding before your class or final, it’s accessible from your phone so you can listen to the short episodes for a quick review or study break. It’s truly a form of public pedagogy for any audience that is interested in knowing more about The Odyssey

What does UCI mean do you?

Sara - A lot of opportunity. To me, UCI is a giant playground where I get to grow and explore. A few years ago, it never would have occurred to me to have created a podcast about The Odyssey. Being here with someone else who is as equally excited by it and comes from a different background, meant that we were in a place to make the project a reality. Darby knew where to go for funding, and I knew where to find the right team to make this project possible. At UCI, we had access to a sound studio and team available to us, and I don’t know if I would have taken that on anywhere else. 

Darby - This school has given me so many opportunities. It’s a magical place for me. I’ve gotten to do things here that I had never dreamed about before. Yes, I’ve gotten to teach, yes, I get to do my own research which is exactly what I’ve wanted to do, but I also get to run events that raise money for causes that I think are interesting. I get to work on and be included on grants with the School of Humanities, talk with the Dean about topics that need to be addressed, and the coolest thing is that people listen. UCI has made the world my oyster and it’s incredible that I get to figure out what it is that I want to do.

What made you pursue a graduate degree?

Sara - My undergraduate was in theater and I had been freelancing since. As I got more into directing and seeing that as more of my future direction, I realized I had never taken formal classes in directing. One of the reasons for pursuing a graduate degree was to have someone point out my bad habits, get a bigger toolbox, get constructive feedback, and have an opportunity to play. 

Darby - I always wanted to be an intellectual. My parents were in entertainment, and my dad finished high school but never went to college. My mom went to college and completed part of a master’s degree, and got a job in theater. I was always interested in science, and so they always encouraged me to get a Ph.D. I chose my undergraduate school, Reed College, in part because they had the most undergraduate students successfully pursuing graduate school per capita, which was extremely important to me. I actually started as a Physics major, where I liked the math classes, didn’t like the actual physics classes, but really enjoyed the classics classes. Instead of double majoring, I switched, took a Classics degree, and knew I wanted to teach and continue to have fun conversations with interesting people.

Two girls sitting across from each other at a table with computers, and they are talking into the microphones.

Photo Credit: Amy E. Shine

To learn more and listen to the podcast, please check out the link here.

To get tickets to The Penelopiad, directed by Sara, please check out the link here.

If you are interested in featuring your research, follow the link here to fill out a questionaire.