If I had to come up with a new title for the first four books of The Odyssey, I would go with this:
Eat, Bathe, Cry:
One Young Man's Search For News About His Missing Father
It's been twenty years since Odysseus left for Troy, and no one knows if he is alive or dead. Several suitors, banking on the "dead" option, want to marry Penelope, and will wait for her to choose a candidate, shamelessly mooching off of the estate. With a little push from Athena, son Telemachus decides he is done playing the victim at the hands of the obnoxious suitors. He calls an assembly that turns out to be contentious and somewhat unproductive, despite Athena's instant image-enhancing powers. He nevertheless continues with the next part of the plan--a secret trip to find out if anyone has information concerning the fate of Odysseus.
First, Telemachus visits King Nestor. There he listens to Nestor's war stories, sheds some tears, feasts, sleeps, gets bathed and oiled, and feasts again. Then he takes off with his new buddy Pisistratus to King Menelaus where likewise they feast, bathe, share stories, bawl some more, feast, get drugged by Helen, sleep, shares stories, and feast again. Where can I sign up for this life?
Meanwhile, "back at the ranch," the suitors and Penelope finally realize that Telemachus is gone. The suitors sail out to ambush Telemachus, and we are left at that scene, wondering what will become of Telemachus.
As for Odysseus, he is indeed alive, and has been shacking up with the goddess Calypso, who has offered him immortality if he will be her husband. Every man's dream, right? But Odysseus spends his days on the headland crying, "wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish/ gazing out over the barren seas through blinding tears" because he yearns to return to his wife and home. What a good, good man! No wonder all the women seem to fall all over themselves to help him: Calypso, who, when forced to let him go by Zeus, gives him help and advice; Leucothea, who gives him a magic scarf of immortality when Poseidon sends his storms; Athena, helping him out once again; and last of all in this section, Nausicaa, who feeds and helps Odysseus get all gussied up for his introduction to the king and queen of Phaeacia.
For the most part, Telemachus is the star of the show in this first section. Thanks to Athena, he has realized that it's time to grow up and be a man. It's hard not to judge him and wonder why he hasn't come of age sooner in life, but I need to remember that he has been raised without a father, babied by his mother, and teased by the suitors.
I tried not to cringe when his first assertive act was to reprimand his mother, but that's my own modern sensibilities coming into play, I guess. He does seem to waver a bit throughout these first chapters, which I think is pretty realistic--one minute he's taking control, and the next he's falling apart again. He seemed to be doing so well with his speech at the assembly, and then all of a sudden, he's bursting into tears, putting himself in the position of one to be pitied, not respected. But he's trying, and growth is, after all, a process.
Then I wonder, how much of his growth is really him? His courage never quite seems to come from within--it's mostly imbued by Athena. Will he get to a point where he has some self-esteem? Does he even have it in him? One of the things I liked about Odysseus in The Iliad was that he was a man of action. A lying, scheming man of action, but at least he was doing something. I'm not sure yet if Telemachus inherited this quality from his father. And maybe I'm delving into his character much more than Homer even intended.
I always seem to have a few thoughts that I don't want to put into full-on paragraphs in a post that is getting quite lengthy already. Here are a few of those, and maybe they will come up in later weeks:
- I'm interested in the idea of identity, which I know comes up more later. Athena has appeared as many different people already. Telemachus is trying to figure out who he is. Others can see Odysseus' features in his face and body.
- Women play quite a prominent part in the poem so far. So far they seem to act as protectors in many cases. When they're not weaving, that is. Or braiding their hair.
- As with anything with the Greek gods--must they meddle so much? Zeus says they do mess things up a bit sometimes, but people do things that mess things up even more. A shared responsibility for hardship?
- Penelope--does she lead them on, as the suitors claim? How does she "exploit" the gifts given her? Does she tease them to exercise power, or are their accusations false? She does seem to be quite faithful to Odysseus, which is more than can be said for Agamemnon's wife.
*For more thoughts on The Odyssey, Books 1-6, visit this post at Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity.
*I am reading the Robert Fagles translation for the readalong.
*If you actually read this entire post, I think you deserve some sort of an award ;-).