The culture of Homecoming, from a student’s eyes

Depictions of homecoming remind us of what makes returning home such a confusing experience

The ancient mariner heads home with an albatross on his neck

The return home is an essential element of any adventure story. After all the action has been played out, the protagonist must return to where they came from. Homecoming is a common experience for all people this time of year. For many students it is the first time one returns from the eight weeks of crushing neurosis that is Michaelmas, as lifeless and bedraggled as Coleridge’s homebound Ancient Mariner. For some, returning home may be a comforting experience but for others it is all parts as confusing and horrifying as the adventure itself.

The journey home in some stories goes unexamined, pushed to epilogues and closing scenes, but some of the most riveting culture focuses on the journey home alone. One of the earliest cultural works ever, Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, is at its heart about homecoming, this year’s groundbreaking ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ likewise.

The journey home can be as treacherous as the adventure itself, not through logistical challenges but haunted by psychological trauma of what one returns from. Mistakes and missed opportunities, lost friends and new enemies replay in our minds as we think about the term that was. Odysseus confronted his demons in the underworld, coming face to face with those he left behind at Troy, the Ancient Mariner is haunted by the ghosts of his crewmembers, an albatross upon his neck weighs the fatal mistake he made.

Returning home may be like waking from a dream, as one awakens our brains must adjust to the reality we are confronted with. No longer are meals prepared for us, all destinations a brisk stroll away and, like Dale Cooper, we must learn to act human again after living in a fantasy land for so long. We must wrap our term into a narrative bow, with a defined ending and beginning, just like Odysseus on Scheria, when the truth may not be so neat.

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However, home itself can often present the greatest challenge of all. The returned student is a stranger in a familiar land, both the student and their home forever changed. No one leaves an Oxford term unchanged, the onslaught of deadlines and rough nights leaving a new scar every time. Having caught up to the speed of light pace of life crammed into eight weeks, a returned student finds the comfort of home, agrarian or urban, to be viscous and dull.

The homebound student fears that home has changed against their wishes too. Betrayal hides around every corner, where friends forget and family patronise. Just as Bilbo Baggins returns to find his home auctioned off, one fears returning home to find all they cherished — friendships, stomping grounds, and heirlooms — thrown away. One may turn to paranoia, attacking friends and family, as Odysseus attacks his unwanted guests, in an act of unreasonable cruelty.

More realistically however, home will most likely become a nameless place. As the years go by and people move on, architecture and landscape may remain but its soul will slip away. Dale Cooper returns to Twin Peaks after 25 years only to find that everyone he was searching for has disappeared, how long until you will find the same?

Returning home is a minefield, full of trauma both at what you return from and what you return to. Talk to your diaspora of Oxford friends, find culture that depicts the experience of homecoming and take comfort that you are not alone: homecoming is a nightmare.