Ithaca Lost: James Frazier’s Cold Mountain
and Homer’s

Mary Beth Hannah-Hansen

     The many parallels between Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Homer’s Odyssey invite the reader to reconsider the characters of Odysseus and Penelope against the background of a modern war, the Civil War. Frazier carefully crafts his novel so that the Homeric reader readily notes the parallels – and differences. The Homer figure himself speaks to the hero, Inman, in the opening chapter. The blind man does not long for a glimpse of the world, believing that blindness from birth is better than blindness from lost sight. Inman recounts the battle of Fredericksburg, a battle so horrid that a wish for his own blindness surfaces in the retelling. Frazier draws a further parallel with the Greek epic through a character who slept in the bed next to Inman’s in their makeshift hospital. When this man, who is a translator of Greek, dies, Inman sorts through his belongings to find the line “The comeliest order on earth is but a heap of random sweepings.” Shortly thereafter, Inman, whose name suggests the desire of home in every man, steps through the window and begins his odyssey.

     Odysseus will return home to Ithaca. We never doubt that this man, beloved of Zeus and protected by Athena, will be reunited with his Penelope. Likewise, when Frazier’s hero, Inman, wounded in battle and sick of war, begins his odyssey home, the reader is confident that he, too, will be united with his Penelope, Ada.  Like Odysseus, Inman must conquer the obstacles in his way. The Home Guard, the Poseidon figure, pursues him as he makes his journey northward. Befriended by a Circe and a Calypso, he eventually does reach his own territory, only to be brought down in the end by the Home Guard.

     It is not so much the parallels between the Odyssey and Cold Mountain but rather the differences that intrigue the reader. Whereas Odysseus regains his homeland and position of power, Inman reaches his Ithaca only long enough to father a child before he dies. Ada, unlike her Homeric counterpart, weaves the fabric of her life each day, which she does not unravel at night. From the death of her father, to the return of Inman, she gradually learns the rough customs of subsistence farming as she gains her soul and self- sufficiency. This heroine remains strong, unsought by suitors, ruling over her own and her extended family at the novel’s close. Ada, through her own journey of discovery, becomes master – or mistress – of her own land. Frazier’s Cold Mountain is the story a man and a woman on two journeys, literal and figurative, toward one another. But in this retelling, the female character survives because of her wiles while the male character falls prey to his own weaknesses.

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