What does it mean to embark on an odyssey?

The word “odyssey” hearkens to the Greek epic poem of the same name which is believed to have been written by Homer in the 8th century BCE. The story tells the tale of Odysseus, who must endure the long and arduous journey back to Ithaca following the end of the Trojan War. Over the course of ten years, Odysseus makes his way home, but his path is fraught with obstacles. Cyclopes, Sirens, and a witch who turns his friends into pigs are just a few of the challenges he faces. But, on top of the physical dangers, terrifying thoughts must also lurk. Would Odysseus’ home be as he imagined it when he got there? Would he be greeted by those familiar to him? Or, perhaps most importantly, would the endless stream of trials and tribulations he fought through culminate in some sort of meaning?

While The Odyssey is one of the oldest tales in the literary canon, the themes it captures are strikingly familiar. Indeed, many of today’s most recognizable narratives feature characters that have been thrown into epic journeys that (one would hope) offer some kind of resolution despite the inevitable hardships. Even at the Norton Center, there has been a long tradition of presenting programs that capture Odyssey-like narratives.

The Moscow Festival Ballet adaptation of Don Quixote (Jan. 2001) serves as one example, as does the musical Big River (Nov. 1987), which chronicles the tales of Huckleberry Finn. Even the great STYX ballad “Come Sail Away,” (which was performed on the Newlin Stage last fall) recounts a fantastical journey complete with “angels” and starships.

And, here’s a special bonus: Have you seen the Cohen Brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? This movie is a classic, comedic re-telling of the original Odyssey story. Alison Krauss, who will be joining us at the Norton Center later this year, is featured prominently on the soundtrack.

However, of all the Norton Center programs that have explored this theme, one that stands out in particular is the Wizard of Oz (Oct. 2018).

It’s a story that many of us know by heart. In the classic 1939 film version, a wistful Dorothy is thrown into a world she didn’t choose to be in. And, while she meets extraordinary friends along the way, she wants more than anything to simply go back home. After overcoming the repeated hurdles thrown her way by the Wicked Witch, she finally makes it with a magical click of her ruby-red slippers. However, when she does wake up in her own bed, it’s clear that she isn’t the same Dorothy she was when she left Kansas. Through a layering of joys and struggles, we finally see that she has carried with her an invaluable lesson that was shaped by her experience in Oz.

I think it’s fair to say that in the wake of COVID-19, we’ve all been thrown into Odyssey-like journeys (though, for many of us, it may feel like we’ve not gone anywhere at all). Whether we’re sheltering at home or making sacrifices at the front lines, we’re all navigating uncertain paths, each of which is fraught with its own unique difficulties. These obstacles don’t take the form of Sirens (or Wicked Witches), but they are frightening nonetheless. And, beneath all of these trials, we’re left to wonder whether or not this road will lead to something we recognize. Or, if by the end, we will have obtained some special knowledge or power that lends significance to the strife.

Of course, no one can purport to have these answers ready for us. But, like Odysseus and Dorothy and Don Quixote, we can (and will) forge ahead. By reflecting on the stories that have already been told, we can move forward knowing that we have the power to extrapolate meaning from our own experiences. In the interim, we can only do our best to continue down our paths toward our next triumphs.

For now, join us in revisiting this fabulous playlist we shared back when the Wizard of Oz took the Newlin Stage at the Norton Center. There, you’ll find the classic tune “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” brought to life through a variety of familiar voices.

Molly Baker is a graduate of Berea College, where she studied Art History and Asian Studies. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Art History from the University of Kentucky. Before joining the Norton Center for the Arts, Molly held the position of Gallery Manager at TAMARACK: The Best of West Virginia. Later, she served as Assistant Curator/Gallery Manager at the Doris Ulmann Galleries (Berea College) as a sabbatical replacement. Molly is especially dedicated to the study and promotion of the arts and arts-based experiences using creative methods. Specifically, her goal is to bridge arts presentations with inclusive opportunities to learn about context, creators, and cultural significance, pointing to our combined human experiences in order to encourage critical thinking and understanding.