While the story Odysseus tells in Books 9–12 of The Odyssey constitutes only a sixth of the poem, it has been the most influential and memorable portion of the poem. Odysseus’s encounters with otherworldly lands and mythic creatures represent one of our earliest examples of the “fantastic journey,” a type of story that began as folktale and later expanded into travel literature, science fiction, and political satire. Odysseus’s travels represent a type of fantastic journey known as a heroic journey, an epic device that follows a hero from a place of safety and knowledge to a place of danger and uncertainty and back again. The most relevant example of the heroic journey is the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Babylonian poem composed around 2100 BCE. In this poem, the king, Gilgamesh, embarks on a journey to learn the secret of eternal life. On his journey he meets strange creatures, such as scorpion men and stone giants, and encounters strange places such as the jewel-encrusted Garden of the Gods. Tales like Gilgamesh gave audiences a new perspective on the “real” world by presenting examples of other ways the world could be.
Aside from The Odyssey, the most enduring ancient example of the fantastic journey is perhaps Lucian’s A True Story, a second-century text that adapts conventions of Homer’s epic in what is often called the first surviving work of science fiction. In this short story, a narrator tells of his experience on an Odysseus-like journey in the Mediterranean and the strange beings he and his men encounter. The story takes the reader to several fantastical islands, including islands of grape vine/human hybrids and islands of cheese (recalling Cyclops’s cave of cheese in The Odyssey), as well as to such far-off places as the moon, the inside of a whale, and the Island of the Blessed—the ancient Greek version of heaven. By calling his fantastic tale “A True Story” Lucian pokes fun at people’s willingness to believe impossible stories of foreign lands. This example of the fantastic journey was enormously influential for social satirist Jonathan Swift, whose 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, also describes an Odyssey-like fantastic journey, in this case to satirize of European government and political strife.
In the nineteenth century, the fantastic journey motif was taken up by science fiction writers including H.G. Wells, whose fantastic journeys served as political allegory about class and economics. Just as in The Odyssey Homer suggests that noble breeding does not automatically guarantee that a person exemplifies Greek values, Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine depicts a society where social standing does not correspond to morality or virtue. In his novel the protagonist travels to the far future to meet a fiercely divided society whose upper classes live in luxury while the lower classes live in servitude. Similar to Odysseus, his quest to return home takes him to several fantastical locations where he meets creatures both friendly and antagonistic toward him. After visiting an underworld, he returns home, but with a bleak vision of man’s destiny in the far future. Here, the protagonist’s journey serves as a cautionary tale for contemporary readers. In this story, the element of fantasy quickly disappears as the reader realizes that such a society could actually exist in the future.