Feb 082010

Last night, while you were all watching the Super Bowl (congrats to the Saints), I posted part of an essay I wrote as a college junior about the Homeric tradition in regards to baseball. This is the last part of that essay, which focuses directly on the film “The Natural”, which I’m sure you’ve all seen, and the character of Roy Hobbes.

The basic premise of this portion of the essay: Hobbes makes the transition from an Achilles-like character, one seeking fame and fourtune, to an Odysseus-like character, who is searching for his home and a place in the world. For the record, “mythos” means mythology in a much broader sense; think of it as mythology as a way of life and a way of thinking. Anyway, I hope you enjoy:

It is through his characters and story structure that Barry Levinson relays a Homeric message in his 1984 film “The Natural” which stars Robert Redford, Glenn Close, and Wilford Brimley, among others. Redford plays the main character of the film, Roy Hobbes.

Through Hobbes, the most Homeric elements show themselves. In the beginning of the film, he is an Achilles figure searching for fame, fortune, dominance, and immortality. By the end of the film, though, he has, through the events of the film, transformed, rather evolved, into an Odyssean character who is not searching for glory bur rather home, whatever that may be.

First, though, I will discuss the story structure and elements of the film before going into the characters and their Homeric tendencies. Overall as a film, it attempts to create a new American adaptation of Homer and “a vital American mythos that penetrates a people’s hearts and minds” (Curtin, 225). Curtin’s article stresses the importance of “mythos” in his paper and how it fits with “The Natural.” He quotes from Laszlo Versenyi’s essay “Man’s Measure: A study of the Greek Image of Man from Homer to Sophocles:” “Mythos, in Homer’s time, did not mean fable in our sense of the word; the tale was not something mythical, fabulous, fictional, and therefore untrue. Myth meant simply word of mouth” (Curtin, 226). This is important to “The Natural” for a variety of reasons.

Though the story is creating a type of new American myth, it much more fits into the ancient definition of the word, rather than the modern one. This is because of the visual nature of the film, and the fact that it is written and shot rather than told. Because it is on film, there is no way for anyone to dispute what happens in the story. People could speculate about off screen events, but that is useless when discussing film. “Like the Greek epics, in medias res” (Curtin 229) is how “The Natural” begins. Like The Iliad beginning with a fight between Agamemnon and Achilles, “The Natural” begins in the middle of things. All we see is a shot of Redford sitting at a desolate train station. Like the reader of The Iliad, the viewer of “The Natural” has no idea what is really going on until a little later. Because they start in the middle of things both stories must take careful time to explain things later on. Though it comes a little sooner with the film, both mediums do have a good deal of exposition.

Then, there are the similar plot points that occur in both Homer’s works and Levinson’s. First is the fact that Roy Hobbes leaves his home in the farmland to go to far off Chicago—read: Troy—to try out for the team there, read: fight in the Trojan War. At the onset, he is Achilles. Though he claims he will write Iris, the Glenn Close character and his romantic interest, so she can come out to Chicago and they can be married, his main goal is to impress the scouts and make the Majors, with the eventual goal to be a baseball immortal. He tells Harriet Bird, the woman who eventually shoots him and becomes his downfall, that when he walks down the street, he wants people to say “There goes Roy Hobbes…the best there ever was.” Though at this point, the film seems quite Illiadic, it will soon take a turn towards being Odyssean.

Bird soon shoots Hobbes and this sets him on a path that he never intended to take. Quite frankly, he embarks on an odyssey of his own to get back to the game he loves. Later on, we learn that he has been away from the game for sixteen years, close to the twenty years that Odysseus spends getting back to Ithaca. That overarching plot is very Homeric in and of itself, but there are also various episodes through the film that carry with them Homeric tinges. One such thing is during one of Hobbes’s first games with the Knights. Having been relegated to being a benchwarmer, he can only watch as the team’s star, Bump Bailey played by Michael Madsen, does not hustle for a ball, much to the chagrin of Brimley’s character, Pop Fisher, the team’s manager. When Bailey comes to the dugout after the inning is over, he and Pop have a confrontation. It is an interaction that is “comically paralleling the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles at the very start of The Iliad” (Curtin, 234). Though this scene is not intended to mock The Iliad in any way, it is a fun play on the scene from Book One. An earlier point of similarity is while Hobbes is on the train to Chicago. There he encounters “the Whammer” who is a Babe Ruth like figure (Curtin, 230)—he not only bears a striking resemblance to the Sultan of Swat but is also regarded by many to be the best in the game, as Ruth was and still is.

The two eventually confront each other, with Hobbes’s “agent” claiming that the young lefthander can strike Whammer out with three pitches. Hobbes eventually does and this episode is reminiscent of Odysseus’s homecoming when he is the only one to be able to shoot his own bow. What this means to say is that in a feat of strength, Hobbes is the rightful winner, just like Odysseus was in his story when finally shooting his bow and revealing himself as the rightful king. Curtin describes this as “a new hero” and king arriving and deposing the old one (Curtin, 230). Even though Odysseus is technically the old king, I feel the comparison works well here because of the singularity of the event. Odysseus is the only one who can use his bow and, as far as we can tell, Roy Hobbes is the only one who can get the best of the Whammer.

There are two times when we see the New York Knights (the Achaians) are struggling as a ball club. Both times occur when Roy (Achilles) is absent from the team. When Roy first gets called up from the minor leagues to play with the Knights, the team is floundering and at the bottom of the standings. The second time is when Memo Paris, played by Kim Basinger, seduces Roy and gets him to focus on her more so than baseball. Both times, “Achilles” is absent. Though they are absent for different reasons—Achilles is upset about a fight with Agamemnon, Roy is first not there to begin with and second, focusing on something rather than what he should be—what is important is that their respective sides suffer in their absences.

The character studies of “The Natural” also help move along the Homeric theme of “The Natural.” The most appropriate comparison is that of Roy Hobbes to Achilles first and eventually Odysseus. One important Achillean feature to Roy Hobbes is the fact that he, like Achilles, has a special “tool” which helps identify him. “Achilles has his wondrous armor” and “Roy has his bat” (Curtin, 230). Roy’s bat, which he calls “Wonderboy,” like Achilles’ shield is singular to him and sets him apart from his teammates—at least for a time. While each Achaian does not have a special shield or piece of armor like Achilles gets, the Knights eventually adopt the lightning bolt that is on the barrel of Roy’s bat by turning it into a shoulder patch, helping propel them towards victory. Also like the shield of Achilles, this bat is a gift to Roy: a gift, his second, his talent is the first one, (Curtin, 230) from the gods. Roy forges the bat from the tree under which his father died. The night his father died “a thunderbolt is hurled down out of the sky, splitting the…tree” (Curtin, 229). When the audience gets the first bit of exposition in the story—when Roy is on his way to Chicago, that is—we see him as a young man with the dream of becoming a baseball player. As his father has reminded him, he has all the “talent” and has worked hard. His goal is to not only become a baseball player but to be the best baseball player there ever was—an immortal in a sense. While he may one day die, if he achieves this status, his name will live on forever. This is the path Achilles also takes; he forgoes a life of literal immortality with lack of fame for a life of mortality that brings with it glory. While Roy’s objectives in the film will eventually change due to outside circumstances, he and Achilles share the common base of searching fame and glory. Roy’s “only desire,” like that of Achilles, “is to loose those extraordinary powers, expressing his talent, so that he might win fame among men, might become a baseball ‘immortal’” (Curtin, 231). However, the aforementioned events derail Roy Hobbes’s plans and he must re-think his role in the world.

No longer can he seek the fame and glory he once sought after being shot by Harriet Bird in her hotel room. It is because of this that he must make the shift from being an “Illiadic to an Odyssean character” (Curtin, 229). The most Odyssean quality to Roy is the fact that he has had to spend a great deal of time getting back to where he belongs. For Odysseus, it is twenty years sailing around the ancient Mediterranean trying to get back to Ithaca. For Roy, it is sixteen years of kicking around in either obscurity or the minor leagues to get back to “the show.” There is, however, a main difference to their stories and that is the fact that we do not see, like we do with Odysseus, the journey Roy takes to get back. We see the before “exile” as Curtin describes Hobbes’s absence on page 232 and 233 and the after—when he makes it to the Knights—but we never see what happens in between. Regardless of whether or not that journey is seen, it is paramount to the character development of Roy. Before he is lured and shot by Harriet, Roy has the “glory-and-fame-seeking consciousness of the Illiadic characters.” After his horrific ordeal and subsequent exile from and journey back to baseball, read: Ithaca and home, that consciousness “gives way to [a] long, arduous shedding of that…false consciousness” (Curtin, 232).

Like Odysseus, Roy knows that glory and fame must now come after merely finding a place to fit in and a place to coming home. But those similarities Roy shares with the King of Ithaca, while important, are not the most crucial thing when looking at Roy as a Homeric character and as comparable to Odysseus. The most important thing for both of them is that “neither becomes a comic-book hero, without flaws or weaknesses, but rather a hero of the classic-Greek mold: fully human in capacity to surrender to appetite and ego, but more than normally human in capacity to rise, in crucial moments, to heights that most men never attain” (Curtin, 232).

Both Roy and Odysseus are prideful men who fall victim to various trappings along the way. It seems that the main thing that traps Roy and Odysseus are women. Roy is lured and injured by Harriet and seduced into playing poorly by Memo while Odysseus is lured and tempted by Circe and the Sirens. The fact that Roy and Odysseus are men who can be lured by the physical, women, and the abstract, their egos, creates the most important link to Homer and the classic Greek myths from “The Natural.” Roy fits the bill of two of Ancient Greece’s most famous heroes and in him, Barry Levinson has molded Achilles and Odysseus into a single, new, American character who represents the heroic mythos that was essentially missing in American culture.

2 Responses to “Homer and Baseball, Part Two”

  1. I wrote a paper in 1985 in my college film class about the use of light and light metaphor in the film the Natural. One link I found between the Homeric hymns and the movie version of Malamud’s tale was in the name “Roy Hobbes”.

    Beside Hobbes meaning Roberts or Robert in Gaelic, it also lends itself to the profession of hobbling, or one who ties an unridable horse’s legs to break it in, often used in antiquity as opposed to bucking a horse into submission. And Roy of course means King.

    Ulysses in Greek means “wounded thigh” or a man who limps, disabled (humbled) by life’s experiences. Got that from Robert Bly.  (Quote)

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  2. I do think there are multiple mythologic sources in the film version. The teamname Knights is troubadouran, the lightning in its various forms seems to refer to Thor’s hammer. The Tristan and Isolde tale is revived as Glenn Close plays Margaret, a Isolde of the white hands melded with the Penelope archetype.

    Harriet Byrd (have you ever read Homer?) and her echo Memo are the feminine trickster witches representing an internal struggle with the feminine within Roy.

    The Judge in his dark room is the dark father, a Darth Vader in a Lucas/Campbellian sense. Pops is the nurturing father figure (“I should have been a farmer” – farmer = nurturing father) and it is up to Roy to separate the two, not just for himself, but for the young boy, but the team, for the city, the country, Margaret, and to perpetuate goodness. He starts by rejecting the ineffectual lecturer’s “two bit carny act”.

    His performance is literally about formally separating the two fathers who are bound in a devil’s bargain, in the Judeochristian mythos. Only in this way can he come home to his farm with his estranged son; it was while Ulysses was plowing his field did he receive the call to send a force to war from Ithaca to Troy.  (Quote)

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