Ironically, although we’ve turned our backs on The Odyssey and started a new literary voyage in The Travels, I can’t help but make constant comparisons between these two works as I read The Travels. They are both books about traveling, and visiting strange, unfamiliar areas; however they do that in completely different styles.
I was struck mostly by the lack of a strong plot in The Travels. Most of the story is related in the prologue, and even that sounds more like a summary by a narrator than an actual tale: “In the year of Our Lord 1260…Messer Niccolo Polo, who was Marco’s father, and Messer Maffeo…were in that city, having come there from Venice with their merchandise.” Then the whole first chapter is basically a geography book. It focuses on descriptions rather than action, which makes sense; this story’s MO of entertaining is showing people places they’ve never seen, not giving pulse-pounding adventures. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting read; I particularly enjoyed the last bit about the “Sheikh of the Mountains and his Assassins.” Especially how the narrator tops it off with “Let us now change the subject.” Just when it was getting interesting.
That does, though, bring up another stylistic difference from The Odyssey; and that is the narrative tone. While The Odyssey was told mainly through distant, passive narration, this story has a narrator that’s outside the story, but is actively participating in the telling (On that note, who the narrator is could be a topic for discussion, because in the prologue the narrator says “You may take for a fact that Messer Marco stayed with the Great Khan fully seventeen years; and in all that time he never ceased to travel on special missions.” Then, in chapter one, this line pops up: “I will tell you his story just as I, Messer Marco, have heard it told by many people.” Perhaps the prologue was someone else’s introduction to the story that Marco Polo himself told…I’m not sure). But in any event, whoever is telling the story is really getting into it. He keeps saying things like “Let me tell you about this” (which is funny, because we’re going to have to hear it whether we let him or not), “You should also know that…” and of course, he’s not afraid to change the subject once a story’s run its course. What I wonder is, is this technique a result of the oral tradition of the tales collected here, or is it a deliberate attempt to give the story the feel of a real person actually telling it to you?
One more interesting thing I thought I’d bring up is the sense of wonder that this story is rife with. You don’t really find that in The Odyssey. Women who can turn people into pigs? One-eyed monsters? Totally normal; or at least no one freaks out because they’ve never seen anything like it before. In The Travels, things are constantly being highlighted as unusual. The Town of Fire-Worshippers or the miracle of Baghdad and Mosul are good examples. Again, it just contrasts The Odyssey as a work of fiction that takes suspension of disbelief as the status quo, and The Travels, where the entertainment comes through surprise.