Monday, June 08, 2009

The Odyssey discussion: Books XXI - XXIV

Odysseus' Palace
According to Johann Heinrich Voss (1820)
Picture source (scroll to bottom)

Let Death come down to slavish souls and craven heads
with his sharp scythe and barren bones, but let him come
to this lone man like a great lord to knock with shame
on his five famous castle doors, and with great awe
plunder whatever dregs that in his sturdy body still
have not found time, in its great fight, to turn from flesh
and bone into pure spirit, lightning, joy, and deeds.
The archer has fooled you, Death, he’s squandered all your goods,
melted down all the rusts and rots of his foul flesh
till they escaped you in pure spirit, and when you come,
you’ll find but trampled fires, embers, ash, and fleshly dross.

from The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis (translated by Kimon Friar), Book XXIII, lines 27 - 37

The final four books of The Odyssey see the killing of the suitors as well as Odysseus’ reunions with Penelope and Laertes. Even with what will (I'm sure) turn into an extra-long post, I’ll still only scratch the surface of these four books, choosing a few topics to highlight.

Telemachus establishes himself in these books. He is forward in addressing the suitors and his mother, astonishing and impressing everyone with his change in behavior. It appears he could have strung his father’s bow, but with a quick glance from his father he realizes the role he must play. He demonstrates how resourceful he can by playing up his youth and inexperience at his "failed" attempt. In addition to the trip he made at Athena’s prompting, he now has Odysseus as an example and role model, something he hasn’t had (other than through hearsay) for twenty years. His maturation seems complete during the slaughter of the suitors, both in his fighting ability and his shouldering of responsibility. When Melanthius finds the storeroom and supplies the suitors with armor, Odysseus suspects one of his servants. Yet Telemachus mans up for his mistake about not locking the storeroom door.

Ambiguity and Irony
In Penelope’s guarded reactions to the apparent return of Odysseus, I think we see that she does not hold the thought that the beggar is Odysseus. She may suspect it, but her comment that she is suspicious of trickery seems to ring true throughout the work. Up to that point, however, we have several ambiguous actions on her part which questions what she really believes. One example is when Penelope weeps as she holds Odysseus’ bow. Is she crying because of grief for Odysseus' loss or at his upcoming danger? Her double-edged reply to the suitors’ complaints about the beggar trying to win the contest adds to the ambiguity: “And if, trusting in his strength and power, / the stranger strings Odysseus’ great bow, / do you think he’ll take me to his home / and make me his wife?” (Book XXI, lines 396 – 399: all quotes are from Ian Johnston’s translation) This rings true whether it is a beggar or if it is Odysseus. If Odysseus, he is already home and Penelope already is his wife.

Irony continues to run throughout the work as well. The scene of the contest shows the suitors handling the bow that will kill many of them, treating it and preparing it for Odysseus and their own slaughter. Antinous adds to the irony in chastising another suitor, saying he acts “as if this bow would, / in fact, take away the lives and spirits / of the very finest men, just because / you couldn’t string it.” (Book XXI, lines 209 – 212) The action plays out just as his mocking statement inadvertently foretells. We saw Telemachus return to Ithaca and the hero’s welcome he receives from Penelope and the servants, even though he was just going in search of information. At the end of Book XXII, Odysseus is poised to receive his well-deserved welcome but only the servants (at least the ones not castrated or hanged) provide such a welcome. He still has to go through an additional test from Penelope before he receives a subdued (but tender) welcome from her.

Continuation of the tests
Odysseus asks two of the herders that have prayed for his return (Eumaeus and Philoetius) whose side they would fight on if Odysseus returned. The testing of loyalty is much more forward in this section. There are subtle moments, such as Penelope’s testing of Odysseus through the bed trick. Even Athena tests Odysseus and Telemachus, helping in the slaughter of the suitors but only to a certain extent in order to see what the men are capable of doing. Odysseus’ lies to his father, however, seem simply cruel. Yet how do you announce yourself to your family after an absence of twenty years and especially to someone who lost his wife to the related grief?

An underrated aspect of The Odyssey is the comedic touches, especially when they appear unexpectedly in a section where the body count is higher than most action movies. After Odysseus lists the charges against the suitors, Eurymachus replies: “But the man responsible for all this / now lies dead”. It takes effort to stifle a laugh as Eurymachus attempts to place the blame for the crimes at Antinous’ (dead) feet, trying to bribe Odysseus into letting the other suitors live.

A lot of humor flashes past in a line or two, such as the comment that the slaughtered suitors’ bodies are piled up by the courtyard gates. There has been mention of one other pile outside the palace doors (the manure pile where Argus died), and I think the comparison has to be intended.

D’oh, Brother Where Art Thou?
from The Simpson's episode Tales from the Public Domain
Picture source

The source of Odysseus’ name was revealed in Book XX: some translations have it as “rage”, others say “pain”. Both work very well in differing contexts. The rage Odysseus exhibits toward the suitors after he reveals himself sounds almost identical as that of Achilles in The Iliad. Listen to Odysseus’ response to the bribe (to let the suitors live) and judge if “rage” captures his name correctly:

"Eurymachus, if you gave me
all the goods you got from your own fathers,
everything which you now own, and added
other assets you could obtain elsewhere,
not even then would I hold back my hands
from slaughter, not until the suitors pay
for all their arrogance.

(Book XX, lines 78 – 84)

His rage only stops when Telemachus asks him to spare the lives of the minstrel and herald, which he grants. “Pain” can work well too, Odysseus' ‘toxicity’ factor I mentioned in a previous post dovetails nicely with this interpretation. He causes pain everywhere he goes, intentionally or not. Ithaca and his family are in disarray because of his journey to Troy and delayed return. Pain also ties in with his identity—the scar on his thigh, where he simultaneously caused pain (killing the boar) and received pain (from the boar’s tusks) provides the proof needed for him to be recognized by his servants.

Regarding recognition, I found it interesting that Odysseus had to provide additional information to his family beyond just the scar. Telemachus would not know anything about the scar (or at least would have never seen it), but having seen the beggar transformed in the courtyard provides verification (along with faith) for accepting his father. Penelope tests Odysseus, just as he tests others, with information that only the two of them would know. While Odysseus shows the scar to his father, he also talks about the trees Laertes promised him. The scar by itself was supplemented with additional proofs or divine help to establish his identity to his family.

After Odysseus shoots the suitor Antinous, he reveals himself to the remaining suitors. Interestingly enough, he does not say his name—in this case, he does not have to. He lists the crimes the suitors have committed against him, which more than implies who he is. Their recognition strikes fear in their hearts as they comprehend their fate.

In this section we see mortals changing their fate, but usually not for the better. Penelope reacts to the news of the suitors’ deaths saying “There was no man on this earth they honoured, / bad or good, when he came into their group. / They’ve met disaster through their foolishness.” (Book XXIII, lines 82 – 84) This theme echoes throughout The Odyssey, said by mortals and gods alike. As a reminder, Zeus’ first words (which come in the first few lines of the work) pin the blame on humans for many of their own hardships, causing tribulations that were not fated.

The ending
The ending of The Odyssey receives its fair share of criticism but I think it does a good job of tying the two halves of the book together and provides a decent attempt at resolving the loose ends. Part of the problem is the brevity—attempting to tackle these tasks in just over a book when we have spent four books on Telemachus’ journey, eight books on Odysseus’ wanderings, and eleven books on Odysseus’ return and revenge. To tie all of this together to end it properly would take far more than 700 lines. Penelope’s recognition and acceptance that the stranger in front of her is Odysseus turns his previous struggles, from the first half of the book, into her joy with a wonderful simile:

Just as it's a welcome sight for swimmers
when land appears, men whose well-constructed ship
Poseidon has demolished on the sea, as winds
and surging waves were driving it, and a few men
have swum to shore, escaping the grey sea,
their bodies thickly caked with brine, and they climb
gladly up on land, evading that disaster,
that how Penelope rejoiced to see her husband.

(Book XXIII, lines 302-309)

I think it is a great way to highlight the multiple levels involved in his journey's struggles. Also recalling the first half of the work, the audience has its second view of Hades where we see the shades of the heroes of the Trojan War conversing with the recently arrived suitors. The recap of the suitors’ and Odysseus’ actions feels unnecessary (not to mention the suitor telling the story couldn’t possibly know some of the details he relays), but Agamemnon’s reply focuses on a key message--the comparison of Penelope and Clytemnestra. The steadfastness of Penelope runs as a constant theme throughout the work, and while one more mention and comparison can seem like overkill, hearing it again from Agamemnon powerfully drives home the point. While the ending resolution between Odysseus and the suitors’ relatives feels contrived, at this point there is no rule of law other than a divine one. Any outcome will necessarily rely on the gods.

The bard
Homer adds a wonderful simile as Odysseus strings the bow:

But shrewd Odysseus,
once he'd raised the bow and looked it over
on all sides, then—just as someone really skilled
at playing the lyre and singing has no trouble
when he loops a string around a brand-new peg,
tying the twisted sheep's gut down at either end—
that's how easily Odysseus strung that great bow.
Holding it in his right hand, he tried the string.
It sang out, resonating like a swallow's song,
beneath his touch. Grief overwhelmed the suitors.
The skin on all of them changed colour.

(Book XXI, lines 312 – 322)

There have been several references to poets and performers throughout the work. Likening the minstrel to a warrior, both plying their trades skillfully, highlights the change that both performances bring forth, effectively striking the heart. There are other parts of the narrative that look directly at the audience as well as forward over the ages with a nod and a wink. The suitors and their surviving relatives mention they are concerned about being shamed, especially to generations not yet born. Homer's act of creating this epic insures their shame, but could he have suspected that it would cause enjoyment across almost three millennia?

And with that, I’ll draw the discussion on the books of The Odyssey to a close. I’m toying around with one more post on The Iliad and The Odyssey along with one theme I’d like to explore some more, but I don’t have anything beyond a vague sense of what I’m trying to say. But that's all I usually have, even as I’m hitting “publish post”, so I’ll see if I can actually put fingers to keyboard regarding those topics.

READ magazine cover for "Return of the Hero"
May 16, 1937 issue
Picture source


William Michaelian said...

The music of Kazantzakis is so powerful, I find it impossible not to read his great poem aloud.

Chrees said...

I was hoping to find that there was a recorded version of it somewhere. Alas, I don't believe so.

So it looks like I'll have to endure funny looks from the kids to do so myself.