Tuesday 18 March 2014

The Odyssey Read-Along Book XV & XVI

The Odyssey Read-Along @ Plethora of Books

Book XV

Athene finds Telemachos with “the glorious son of Nestor” and urges him to make his way back to Ithaka with haste and without delay.  She spins an elaborate story about Penelope being ready to marry Eurymachos and tells him of the ambush that awaits.  Leaving, she returns to Olympus and Telemachos awakes Peisistratos to inform him of the urgently needed departure.  Peisistratos counsels that they wait until morning and when dawn comes, Telemachos informs Menelaos of their return to Ithaka.  While Menelaos claims that he would never detain a guest if he wishes to go, he then proceeds to give gifts and prepare a dinner for Telemachos.  Patiently Telemachos bears the good will of his host, and before their parting a portent is spied, an eagle with a great white goose in his talons that shoots by the right of their chariot.  Menelaos begins to read the omen but Helen interrupts, claiming that Odysseus will return and take revenge on the suitors.  On their journey, they sleep overnight at the house of Diokles in Pherai but when Telemachos and Peisistratos reach Pylos, Telemachos begs Peisistratos to make excuses to his father for him not coming to take his leave so he can leave immediately.  He claims brotherhood with the son of Nestor, stemming from the love of their fathers and the common experience shared on their recent journey.  Peisistratos agrees to attempt to placate his father and Telemachos makes ready to leave, quite obviously a different, more assured Telemachos than the one who first landed in Pylos.  He is approached by a stranger, Theoklymenos, who asks for passage on his ship as he is being hunted, and Telemachos agrees to take him.  Meanwhile, Odysseus is “making trial of the swineherd, to see if he was truly his friend and would invite him to stay on in his steading as he was, or would urge him to go to the city.”  Odysseus asks for information about his mother and father and then Eumaios relates the story of his life, how he was stolen by Phoenician sailors and sold to Odysseus’ father Laertes.  And as they converse, Telemachos lands his ship on Ithaka and soon after, reaches the swineherd’s hut.


The story of Eumaios is rather touching.  He grew up the son of a king, yet he was stolen and then sold as a slave into the family of Odysseus.  In spite of his superior status, he worked faithfully all his life for the family, so much so that he claims Odysseus’ mother treated him nearly as a son.  In addition, Odysseus has been gone for 20 years and the island has been leaderless.  Eumaios could have attempted to return to his homeland, yet instead he faithfully discharged his duties to Odysseus and his family without complaint and with tireless industry.  He displays truly amazing constancy and loyalty.

Xenia and the Guest-Host Relationship

Too funny!  Menelaos, when hearing of Telemachos' urgent need to depart, says he would not dream of delaying him, but then does precisely that.  And poor Telemachos must endure the feasting and gifts even though he is desperate to leave.  When he begs Peisistratos to make excuses for his not stopping to thank Nestor, one can tell this is something of a conundrum.  Peisistratos “pondered the thought within him, how he could fairly undertake this and see it accomplished” and admits to Telemachos about his father, “how overbearing his anger will be, and he will not let you go, but will come him himself to summon you.”  Telemachos wishes to tactfully avoid part of the guest-host relationship and the responsibility and respect he owes an elder but, as we can see, this is not an easy task to accomplish. 


We can see from Telemachos’ assured and confident behaviour, that he has found his identity while visiting Pylos and Laikdaemon and no longer needs constant support from Athene.  His men follow his orders unquestioningly, and he has obviously grown into a respected leader.

Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus
Lucien Doucet (1880)

Book XVI

Odysseus hears footsteps and in walks Telemachos.  Eumaios is thrilled to see his master, kissing him and weeping.  Telemachos asks for news of his mother, as Odysseus rises to give him his place, yet Telemachos bids him stay.  After eating, Telemachos asks Eumaois for information about the stranger (Odysseus), whereas Eumaios reveals that he will tell the “whole true story.”  Telemachos is sorry that he cannot treat the stranger as he deserves because of the situation in his home, but instructs Eumaios to give him a mantel, tunic, sandals and a sword.  Odysseus probes as to his inaction with the suitors and Telemachos explains more of their troubles.  Eumaios sets off to give a message to Penelope that her son has arrived home and soon afterwards, Athene arrives with her golden wand, transforming Odysseus back to himself, and Odysseus reveals himself to his son.  At first Telemachos does not believe him but soon he is embracing his father.  Odysseus relates the story of his homecoming, then Telemachos gives his father information about the suitors as they devise their fate.  Odysseus instructs Telemachos to return home and promises to show up there as an old man, yet he entreats Telemachos not to do or say anything if he is abused by the suitors.  He instructs him to hide all the weapons in the house in a inner chamber, except for the ones they will need and to say nothing to anyone.  Meanwhile, both the herald from the ship and Eumaios arrive to tell Penelope of her son’s presence on the island.  The suitors are disturbed by the news and plot Telemachos’ demise, only a few refusing to take part.  Penelope, hearing of their plans, alternately scolds and pleads with them to prevent their murder and Eurymachos assures her that nothing will happen to her son, even though his heart is plotting otherwise.  Athene turns Odysseus back into an old man as Eumaios arrive back at the swineherd’s hut and Eumaios tells of seeing a fast vessel approaching the harbour, so they now know that the suitors who had lain in ambush have returned.


Deception, deception and more deception.  Oh, and a little less too!  What irony when Eumaios initially tells of Odysseus’ “whole true story”, which really is not true at all.  Odysseus first of all deceives his son with his identity but when Eumaios leaves, he reveals himself.  Penelope is still deceiving the suitors and Eurymachos deceives her when he promises that he will not harm Telemachos, nor let anyone else do so.


Telemachos is further establishing his identity as his character strengthens.  It is obvious he is not the same hesitant boy who started out on the voyage at the beginning of the poem.  His step is assured, his actions measured, and he even instructs his father on how they should test the men and women of their household. 


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