Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Odyssey discussion: Books XVII - XX

Odysseus recognized by Euryclea
by Gustave Boulanger (1849)
Picture source

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But do not in the least hurry the journey.
Better that it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you the splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka has not deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you will have understood what these Ithakas mean.

- from “Ithaka” by C. P. Cavafy

These four books follow Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, to his own palace where we see him interact with the suitors, his servants, and Penelope. A few areas that stand out, at least to me:

Telemachus’ return to the palace and the greeting he gets from the female servants and his mother serves as a stark reminder that this is the type of greeting Odysseus will not receive, at least for now. In response to their greeting, Telemachus tells his mother to pray to Zeus for retribution. Notable for its absence, he does not ask her to pray for Odysseus’ safe return since he knows it has already happened. There are several minor clues similar to this (in addition to prophecies) which lend to a wonderful ambiguity of this section, which I’ll discuss as this post moves along. In giving details of his trip, Telemachus relays Menelaus’ encounter with the Old Man of the Sea, who knew Odysseus was alive on Calypso’s island. Theoclymenus, the suppliant that Telemachus brought home from Pylos, prophesies that Odysseus is already in Ithaca, “sowing trouble for every suitor.”

A recurring theme in this section involves Odysseus continuing to determine which of his servants are loyal to him. While walking to his palace (still disguised as a beggar) with Eumaeus, Odysseus encounters the goatherder Melanthius. On top of insulting and kicking Odysseus, Melanthius curses Telemachus and wishes for him to either die or be overwhelmed by the suitors. The control Odysseus must show in order to maintain his disguise is constantly being tested by such encounters. Another test involves seeing his favorite hunting dog, Argus, on a pile of manure outside the palace. While the symbolism perfectly captures the state of the palace, the sentimentalism tugs a little too hard at the heartstrings. Odysseus has to display monumental self-control to stay in character when the suitors hurl insults and even a stool at him. Realizing the danger he is in, he is not afraid to be firm with those he can be certain are on his side. He almost strangles his nurse, Eurycleia, in order to keep her from announcing her recognition of him. A second herdsman, Philoetius, proves his kindness and loyalty and increasing the number of loyal servants.

Telemachus is being tested as well, both in the role of head of the household and in assisting Odysseus in setting the stage for revenge. In encouraging him to beg among the guests, he gives his father an opportunity to size up the suitors. Telemachus acts more and more like an adult, deliberately confronting the suitors and guiding the servants in proper behavior. He manages to have the two main suitors back him in order to manage a fair fight between his father and the beggar Irus. The authority he shows in commanding the suitors to leave for the evening astonishes them, but they do as he requests. Near the end of Book XX he forcefully reprimands the suitors again, much to their astonishment. Certain phrases he uses echo some of his father’s words.

My favorite theme in this section involves Athena egging the suitors on to their destruction. Even when a suitor may say or do something marginally humane, she continues to tempt and prod them to make sure no man would “escape destruction.” For example, some suitors reproach Antinous for throwing a stool at Odysseus, but they do nothing to end any of the abuses. Amphinomus seems to be one of the few suitors with a conscience, but even though Odysseus (as the beggar) encourages him to leave he will stay for his destruction as well. Athena really revs things up in beautifying Penelope and giving her the idea to appear before the suitors. Even though the suitors agree they should bring gifts to her, they send their heralds to do this task. Their desire is so aroused that they insist they will not leave the palace until she makes up her mind on which suitor to marry. One section near the end of this section sums up very well the game Athena has been playing with the suitors:

Once Telemachus had spoken, Pallas Athena
roused them all to laugh with no sense of control.
She unhinged their minds, so laughter from the mouths
Came from an alien source, and the meat they ate
became blood-spattered. Their eyes filled up with tears.

Book XX, lines 434 – 438
(All quotes are from Ian Johnston’s translation)

After this foreshadowing of the blood-spattered hall, Theoclymenus divines the hell the hall will become for the suitors. He, unlike the suitors, leaves the hall.

Athena may have disguised Odysseus as a beggar but the camouflage does not appear to cover everything. When Odysseus is hit by the stool thrown by Antinous or kicked by Melanthius, he does not flinch, providing hints that the “beggar” is really a sturdy, well-built fellow. This is explicitly shown in preparing for the fight with Irus (even before Athena “enlarged his limbs”). Penelope comments on the beggar’s intelligence, as well as comparing his hands and feet to those of her husband. Does she suspect the beggar is Odysseus? Eurycleia, also comments on how much the beggar looks like Odysseus (before she sees the scar).

The unresolved question of the book, as Howard Baker would say, is what does Penelope know and when did she know it? There have been hints as to the beggar being something more than he appears. And Penelope has been told several times, in prophecies and in dreams, Odysseus is in Ithaca plotting revenge against the suitors. Yet her manner swings between actions that make the most sense if she knows the beggar is Odysseus and others that make no sense in that context. Part of the tension comes from at least one servant in the room Melantho, being hostile to the beggar and sleeping with a leading suitor. The stakes of the couple’s meeting are raised because of her presence. Odysseus is skilled at telling lies that seem truthful, even to Penelope. The testing of Odysseus’ will continues as Penelope “sheds tears for her husband, / who was sitting there beside her.” As the beggar is telling Penelope that Odysseus will be home this month, he mentions that he has been detained because “to his heart it seemed a better thing / to visit many lands collecting wealth.” Not completely the truth, but neither is it a lie. This dance around the truth sums up much of the interaction between Odysseus and Penelope. For a story with the ending already foretold, the ambiguity helps build the tension nicely. The dream she asks him to interpret is one of the most straight-forward dreams ever recounted by Homer…it needs no interpretation. But she stresses the ambiguity of dreams, reinforcing the uncertainty the reader/listener is left with on the couple’s meeting. Even her test for the suitors could easily be interpreted several ways: either she doesn’t think anyone will win the contest and her hand in marriage, one of the suitors may actually win and so she’ll marry the equal of Odysseus, or if she suspects the beggar is Odysseus she can have it confirmed with the competition.

Earlier I mentioned some tests Odysseus has to endure in this section in order not to reveal himself, but the biggest test may be suppressing the urge to reveal himself. He reveled in declaring his identity to Polyphemus even though he provided the essential information for the Cyclops to curse him. He wants his identity known—after all his fame “extends all the way to heaven.” Knowing that he has to wait to make his identity known would be torture. In addition, the ironies pile up in this section, many times providing grim comedy. Several times the suitors tell the “beggar” Odysseus they wish the gods would grant “the thing you most desire” or happiness in future days. Little do they know that revenge is what he wants the most. And we will see that revenge in the next (and last) section.

Vase showing Penelope at her loom with Telemachus in attendance
Picture source

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