Odysseus Ithaca

The Odyssey: Reflections on Books 1 – 4

The first part of The Iliad foretold much of what transpired throughout the epic. In similar form, the first two sections of The Odyssey (lines 1-25) set the stage for the ensuing return of Odysseus. A few themes become immediately apparent. Odysseus is no ordinary man. Emily Wilson calls him a “complicated man” while Robert Fagles describes him as a man of “twists and turns.” Wrath was The Iliad’s first word. Man is The Odyssey’s first word.

Yet, both of these terms are present in both epics. The “man” in The Iliad is Achilles; Odysseus in The Odyssey. The wrath that sets much of The Iliad’s narrative originates in Achilles while Poseidon’s wrath against Odysseus sets the stage for the difficult 10-year journey home in The Odyssey. While nearly all of the gods are on Odysseus’ side, Poseidon is upset with Odysseus because of what he did to his cyclops son Polyphemus:

And now for his blinded son the earthquake god—
though he won’t quite kill Odysseus—
drives him far off course from native land.

After this brief overview of what will transpire with Odysseus, Homer immediately shifts the focus away from Odysseus onto his son Telemachus, who will consume books 1-4.

Homer then introduces a major theme for the epic – the idea of hospitality. Athena shows up at the estate of Odysseus, currently occupied by Penelope, Telemachus, a gaggle of suitors, and a variety of slaves. Athena takes the form of Mentes, whom Fagles calls a “stranger” and Wilson translates as a “guest-friend.” The guest-friend was an important idea in The Iliad, forming bonds that could even surpass the passion of war. The way in which Telemachus treats this god in disguise will be one of his first big tests.

Telemachus passes this hospitality test and Athena encourages Telemachus to take a trip to learn about the fate of his father. This also gives Telemachus the chance to venture out on his own and to begin to assert his independence. If Telemachus learns that his father is still alive, he is to wait for his return to enact vengeance against the suitors. If his father is dead, he is to consider immediate vengeance before the suitors consume all of the household wealth.

Homer also introduces Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. While Odysseus is full of “twists and turns,” his faithful wife is also a shrewd woman, tricking the suitors and keeping them guessing.

In book 3, the story of Agamemnon’s return from Troy is told. This will set up one of the many character comparisons that will enhance the epic. In Agamemnon, there is a ready comparison to Odysseus, one between Clymenstra (Agamemnon’s wife) and Penelope, Orestes (his son) and Telemachus, and Aegisthus (Clymenstra’s lover) and the suitors.

Telemachus’ journey concludes with a mixed bag of results. He learns little new about the fate of his father, hears the stories of others, and is now in a position of great danger with the suitors planning an ambush upon his return. It’s a brilliant bit of storytelling to introduce Odysseus at the beginning and leave the audience in suspense for the first four books while focusing on the action taking place at the destination of Odysseus’ journey.

Note: The Adjectives of Odysseus

One idea I plan to focus on during this reading is in the adjectives used to describe the “man” Odysseus. I don’t like Emily Wilson’s “complicated man.” Complicated has a negative connotation for me when attached to a person. A complicated person is one who is hard to get along with, or one who has so many problems that drama will consume his or her life. I don’t get that sense with Odysseus. Shrewd, complex, cunning perhaps, but not complicated. Or at least not complicated as the main adjective. Odysseus encompasses so much more. Perhaps Emily Wilson is sharing a moral observation in describing him in a negative light while the epic presents these cunning ways in a more nuanced light.

Fagles’ “man of twists and turns” also doesn’t capture Odysseus for me. That wording describes more of the action around Odysseus, the challenges he faces, instead of being a description about the man himself.

I plan to write down adjectives I think best describe Odysseus as I read through the epic.

2 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi Erik, so glad to read this! I’m in the last weeks of a CP tutorial on The Odyssey and Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus (no Iliad this time around) so I’ve just done this myself. A couple of notes from my Reflections:
    “Book 1 – In general, I’m struck by parallels: between Odysseus and Telemachus,
    both on their own odysseys; between Agamemnon/Clytemnestra and
    Odysseus/Penelope, a kind of opposition; and all the pairings of gods
    and people, most dramatically here in these opening books,
    Odysseus/Poseidon, and Telemachus/Athena, again a kind of opposition.
    The Prologue is incredibly fun to compare between translations….
    I love how Wilson ends with “Find the beginning.” That’s a big deal,
    isn’t it, in most literary stories – where did it all begin? Did it
    begin with the Trojan war? With the journey home? Earlier than that?
    Certainly, Helen’s kidnapping was a beginning, but where did that
    start – with the gods? With men? Where does any story start; is it
    possible to find a beginning the doesn’t go back to Chaos? (Addendum:
    I just started reading Fagel’s intro and note that he addresses this
    as a departure from tradition)

    I also like the use of “sing for our time, too” [Fagles] or “tell the
    old story for our modern times [Wilson] – which was, of course, a few
    thousand years ago compared to our modern times. Now, part of that
    might be about “tell us that good ol’ whoppin’ tale from back yonder”
    but it also sounds like they – and we – should expect lessons that
    still apply today.

    And, sure enough, two lessons show up –
    – We tend to blame the gods (fate, circumstance, other people,
    institutions) for our troubles, and yes, sometimes that’s the case,
    but we often make things worse by our foolish actions. Specifically,
    eating the cattle of the sun god made things a lot worse for the
    sailors, and Odysseus made things worse when he messed with
    Polyphemous (though he may have had little choice at some point).
    – Stop sitting around feeling sorry for yourself and do something to
    improve the situation! This is what Telemachus needs to learn….
    Reading this now, in the Age of Irony (which I despise and devoutly
    wish would end – I’m always taking things straight when they’re not
    meant to be, end up looking like a fool), I feel some sense of irony
    in the prologue – here Odysseus is so clever, so capable, but the long
    and short of it is, he can’t get his people home safe. Of course, it
    was their own foolishness that did them in, but still, it seems a
    little like a dig on the abilities so praised.
    Considering Odysseus is sort of the title character, it’s interesting
    that it starts with Telemachus. He has an odyssey as well, both
    physical and mental. …
    It’s hard to understand the suitors from 21st century US society. It
    hinges on ξενία, Xenia, hospitality, which is also hard to grasp since
    we’re all about private property and, maybe more in some times and
    places than others, wary of strangers.
    ng when Telemachus, having been bolstered by
    Mentor, tells his mother to chill when she asks Phemius to stop
    singing about the warriors who have returned. Hey, kid, you just woke
    up, and now you want to be in charge? “Odysseus wasn’t the only one
    lost” – really, I want to smack him. And then of course, “men will
    make the decisions, go away” when she’s devised this clever way of
    keeping the suitors at least somewhat at bay for years, and he hasn’t
    done a thing….
    Book 2
    Forgive me for returning so often to the present day, but the fight
    between Telemachus and the town sounds like a schoolboard fight, or
    even a Twitter fight about some political issue.
    Antinuous seems to resent Telemachus as a spoiled rich kid, I wonder
    how much that plays into this….
    Book 3 – The importance of reputation – both Athena and Nestor mention that
    Telemachus will build his now, Orestes is praised for his revenge
    against Aegisthus….
    Book 4
    Noemon spills the beans about Telemachus’ departure – looks like it was unintentional?

    • Yeah, the character comparisons throughout The Odyssey are just incredible. It opens up the story in so many ways. I was also struck in this second reading of how in Book 2 it mentions Telemachus used to dine with the suitors. There’s a separation occurring. He used to be “one of the boys” and now he’s exerting his independence. That adds a whole other level to this newfound voice.

      Thanks for your thoughts. Would love to keep seeing them as replies here as I share my other reflections.


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