“O, rocks!”Posted: August 15, 2012
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus is advised to avoid the Wandering Rocks and to continue his homeward journey via the passage between Scylla (with it’s six-headed monster) and Charybdis (the whirlpool). Joyce’s heroes in Ulysses are given no such choice and Episode 10 – The Wandering Rocks – follows straight on from the discussion in the National Library in Episode 9 – Scylla and Charybdis.
Episode 10 consists of 19 short scenes in which we get a snapshot of what the characters from other parts of Ulysses are up to in Dublin in the hour between five to three and four o’clock on Bloomsday afternoon. Bloom is seen choosing a racy novel for Molly, Stephen meets his singing teacher, Simon Dedalus is arguing over money with his daughter. Joyce gives the episode a cinematic feel by including glimpses of one scene inside another providing a sense of the simultaneity of the characters’ actions.
The episode is bookended by two longer scenes. In the first the Very Reverend John Conmee, SJ, journeys from his presbytery to Artane to arrange a school place for Paddy Dignam’s son. In the last scene the Vice Regal cavalcade makes its way from Phoenix Park to open the Mirus Bazaar.
If Homer is of no help in describing the nature of the wandering rocks, we have to look elsewhere to discover Joyce’s reason for so naming this episode. Wikipedia informs us that “In Greek mythology, the Planctae (Greek: Planktai, “Wanderers”) or Wandering Rocks were a group of rocks, between which the sea was mercilessly violent”. Jason and the Argonauts chose that route rather than Scylla and Charybdis. However these were not the only dangerous rocks to be encountered on epic voyages. Wikipedia also tells us about: “The Symplegades ( Greek: Sumplēgades) or Clashing Rocks, also known as the Cyanean Rocks” which were ” according to Greek mythology, a pair of rocks at the Bosphorus that clashed together randomly”.
We are told that these are often confused and perhaps Joyce uses that confusion to his own ends. If indeed there are only two rocks might they represent Stephen’s two masters, the Roman Catholic Church and the British imperial state? And if strong and conflicting currents between them hold and turn a vessel and it seems to the sailors that it is the rocks that are moving and not them, might this point to Joyce’s theme of stasis which also appears in Dubliners?