#OneBookWednesday: Cold Mountain Reimagines The Odyssey

By Julie B. RSS Wed, December 9, 2015

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which was his debut novel, received critical acclaim when it was published in 1997, ultimately receiving the National Book Award and topping the New York Times bestseller list for an incredible 61 weeks. It is often characterized as an American “epic.”

Today, we think of something epic as awesome, amazing, or legendary. This connotation stems from its traditional definition—a long narrative poem recounting heroic deeds. And in the case of Cold Mountain, in fact both these definitions are fitting—it draws inspiration and many modern-day parallels from one of the earliest-known epics, Homer’s The Odyssey.

The Odyssey, Homer’s follow-up to The Illiad—also making it one of the earliest-known sequels—follows Odysseus on his 10-year journey home after the Trojan War. Throughout, he encounters adventures, challenges, and obstacles, all in an effort to return to his wife Penelope, who is waiting for him back in Ithaca (modern-day Greece).

Frazier uses this very frame to set up his novel. He follows Confederate soldier Inman on his arduous journey from the front lines of the Civil War through the South to return home to North Carolina, where his beloved Ada is waiting—and enduring her own struggles to survive. And just as Poseidon, the god of the sea, served as the “bad guy” keeping Odysseus from home, the Home Guard chasing down deserted soldiers is a hovering threat to Inman.

Along Inman’s journey, he faces many “trials,” some mirroring those Odysseus faced—like temptresses—and others more unique to Inman’s situation and the setting of the Civil War. But for both, their unceasing dream to return to life with their beloved is the driving force that helps them overcome such obstacles.

Whereas we think of The Odyssey as almost entirely Odysseus’ story, his wife Penelope deals with her own share of struggle and challenge. Cold Mountain is also jointly the story of Inman and Ada, with chapters trading perspective between them. Both women must learn to navigate their world on their own, heading up their households and fighting off forces that wish to take advantage of their position. Ada, who struggles at first to make her way in this new world, receives prodding and added support from Ruby, who has no real equivalent in The Odyssey—she is a wonderfully original fictional figure. And Ada grows into a woman of action and craft, doing her literary predecessor proud.

Literature professor James Polk, writing in the New York Times, says that the novel’s Homeric parallels “echo through the narrative.” Character-for-character, obstacle-for-obstacle, we could make an attempt to line up each element. But I don’t believe that was Charles Frazier’s goal; he took an epic—some would say timeless—tale and applied it to a new era, to see how the new setting could both illuminate and transcend its original. Recognizing this as a retelling adds a layer to this story; it should not take away, though, from its power and unique messages.

And as it reaches its conclusion, Cold Mountain significantly departs from The Odyssey—but we will refrain from analyzing such spoilers here!

In the very first chapter, Inman encounters a blind man, who some say draws upon Homer himself, a blind bard. Speaking of his blindness, he tells Inman, “It might have been worse had I ever been given a glimpse of the world and then lost it” (9) True to classic form of the blind figure “seeing” more than others, this man flips Inman’s understanding of the world. Inman has already had a glimpse of love, and the blind man’s words in some ways prompt him to set out to find it again—once having it, Inman now can’t live without it.

Our perspective is also flipped throughout this book, because although this could be seen as a love story, with the goal for Inman and Ada to be reunited, it is actually much more a story of their individual journeys. And it is through their journeys that they truly come to understand themselves and their love—and that we, the readers, truly experience something special as well.

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Very well written explanation of the parallels between the stories of Odysseus & Inman. Makes me want to read both the Odyssy & Cold Mountain again. And motivation for younger readers to read both for the 1st time.
Gale Nigrosh - Massachusetts
Thursday, December 24, 2015