Telemakhos development into manhood with the maturing of a young male character portrayed in a film
The Odyssey is recognized as the epitome of epics in literature and mythology by which all other epics are judged. Odysseus' journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan war takes many twists and turns and has all of the elements of an action-packed and epic adventure. However, there is another story developing parallel to that of Odysseus and his crew. Back home in Ithaca, Odysseus has left behind a wife, son, and kingdom that suffer in his absence. Telemakhos has a journey of his own while his father travels the world. "The first four books of the Odyssey are often referred to as the 'Telemachiad, or the song of Telemechus as they focus on the difficulties of a young hero coming of age in a hostile environment." (Lucas) In much the same way that The Odyssey is among the most prime examples of an epic, the "Telemachiad" (or "Telemachy" which means the "song of Telemakhos") is perhaps the ideal Bildungsroman, or coming of age story. This genre of literature is one of the most important ways of looking into a culture to understand what qualities are considered ideal among mature citizens and leaders of the society, because it traces the development of a child or immature character into a real adult or mature character, showing positive growth and expanding of the character. Telemakhos is the personified archetype of the boy that comes of age in such a story, and the influence of the classic Telemachiad is present throughout all periods of literature. Today, the metaphorical archetype of Telemakhos is the focus of many films as well. One such movie is "Willard," a 1993 production based on the 1969 "Ratman's Notebooks" novel by Stephen Gilbert. The similarities between the growth of Telemakhos and Willard are many, however Willard deviates from the traditional bildungsroman in a number of ways which gives the movie modern relevance.
According to Kevin Pikiewicz of Harvard University, the Bildungsroman stories "tell of the passage from boyhood to manhood and thus define those qualities that are prerequisite to being dubbed a man.... permitting the keen observer to look into the moral culture of epochs past. By comparing the Bildungsroman of the past with those of our day, one may perceive the moral bankruptcy of our culture ever more distinctly." This is a perfect articulation of the reason why it is important to compare Telemakhos and Willard in a literary analysis. The similarities between these characters as they come of age reveals intrinsic truths about human nature that withstand the test of time. The differences, however, reveal a great deal about the values that are held in our culture, and how society today differs from those of ancient times. In many ways, Willard exemplifies the self-destructive nature of society today.
Every boy begins his journey into adulthood and maturity from a place where he is connected to and sheltered by his mother. Whether the boy is severed from maternal connections at birth, upon reaching adulthood, or many years into the adult life, this separation will be made at some point. Many coming-of-age stories take place around the onset of puberty. In the case of Telemakhos, this process begins long after Odysseus has been absent from the home. He is now physically a young adult, though he has been up until this point been acting as a child within his home. Some sources say that Telemakhos is 18 years old, while others claim he is 21 years old at this point in the story. "Mothers tend to be unwilling to let their children go, and indeed, Telemachus only escapes by stealth, sneaking away at night." (Pikiewicz) Penelope's reluctance to let go of her son may be heightened by the absence of his father, and in a reminiscently Jocastain gesture is holding onto Telemakhos in the place of his father. For Willard, this process of leaving his mother also takes place into adulthood, but later than it did for Telemakhos. Willard may be considered middle-aged by the time he begins to sever himself from his mother, though his age is never specified. Willard's mother is holding onto her son in an even more unnatural way. While Telemakhos' father is lost at sea and the family still prays for his safe return, Willard's father killed himself eight years before, and his mother is holding onto Willard ever more tightly because of that loss. Telemakhos' mother is in a way crippled by the suitors which are infesting their home, while Willard's mother is elderly and sickly, which in both cases also make it more difficult for the mother and son relationship to mature and for the son to gain independence.
In this first stage of coming-of-age, the first very significant difference can be seen in the values represented by these stories. In The Odyssey, Telemakhos "must depart if he wishes ever to be a man, but he also recognizes his duty to his mother and so assents to leave on her terms and not his own. Telemachus too has concern for his mother, telling his nurse Eurykleia not to tell her he has gone until she notices his departure (something not expected to be immediate in a house full of suitors), as he wishes to spare her pain." (Pikiewicz) In Willard, however, he remains very dedicated to his mother, but she is an abusive and controlling woman that does not in turn respect her son as a whole person. Willard's mother has prevented her son from becoming a socialized person, and this results in serious mental problems for the boy. When Willard turns from her, it is not in a respectful and dutiful manner, but in a sheer rebellion. When she orders him to annihilate the rats in the basement, Willard instead befriends them and rescues Socrates, a white lab rat, from a glue trap. Befriending Socrates is Willard's first act of rebellion and proclamation of his independence from his mother.
As an important part of the coming-of-age process, both Telemakhos and Willard are adopted by a mentor. In The Odyssey, this mentor is the Goddess Athena, who is said to be the first "mentor" in history. Athena appears before Telemakhos as a mortal named Mentor (the origin of this word). "Telemakhos is at home, 'sad at heart,' pining for his father to return, worrying about the abuse of the suitors...while his mother...is falling to pieces. After a few words with Mentor, Telemakhos leaps into action, setting sail for news of his father and putting into motion the events that lead to the demise of the suitors." (Fainelli) Finding a mentor is an important step for a developing young man, whether that mentor be one in person like this, or a role model from far away. This is particularly important in the development of a young man who has no father to be that mentor figure, such as is the case for both of these characters. Willard's mentor is less conventional than this, for it appears in the form of the rat, Socrates. There is actually a strong connection, however, between Athena as a mentor, and the rat Socrates as a mentor. In the Hindu religion (and some Buddhist schools), the god Ganesh has a rat companion, and many temples have been dedicated to the worship of rats, as there have been to the worship of Athena. The Lord Ganesh is considered to be a remover of obstacles, which is highly symbolic in a Bildungsroman story. (Ganapati) Perhaps a more intentional nod to The Telemachiad by Gilbert, when penning his novel on which the movie Willard is based, was the name Socrates given to this rat. Socrates, the philosopher, focused on the pursuit of wisdom, about which he spoke a great deal in his writings. Athena is the Goddess of Wisdom. The significance of the wisdom of the mentor is therefore consistent in both coming-of-age stories.
Finally, both Telemakhos and Willard turn to violence to complete their coming-of-age and development and free themselves completely from their oppressors. Telemakhos is being oppressed and kept in an immature state by the suitors which have overrun the house. As he reaches maturity, Telemakhos asserts his manhood by slaughtering them and freeing his family of their presence, with the help of his mentor as well as his father who finally returns. Willard, in turn, also slaughters those who oppress him with the help of his mentor rat. Willard and his rats kill his mother and abusive boss. In many ways, Willard's boss is a personification of the mass of suitors that plague Odysseus' home, for the boss stole Willard's father's company and led him to suicide. However, in Greek culture, this kind of violence did not have the destructive implications that it does today. In Greece, Telemakhos was on his way to becoming a grand warrior like his father. However, cultural values have changed. Vengeance is no longer acceptable,…