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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 13 -- Thoughts, Questions, and Ideas on Book IV

Sorry about the delay in this post, but I was busy, and then I was sick...but here it is, finally--my random assortment of musings, questions, and riffs on Book IV of The Odyssey. As is my custom at this point, I'm not going to try to tidy these up, because I intend them more as a spur to your thinking than as a definitive "This is what this book is about."

We've had stories nesting within stories before in this poem, and indeed, the center of the book is Odysseus telling of his own exploits, and that theme is definitely repeated here. Menelaus' long recounting of his encounter with Proteus (not the son of Moira McTaggert in the X-man comics, but rather his mythological antecedent) takes up almost a full half of the book. We also, briefly, have Helen recounting her own tales of her time in Troy. Now, I see no reason to doubt Menelaus necessarily, but Helen is more a complicated question, as I discuss below. What does happen in this book, however, is that we essentially complete the transition from "story about young man looking for his father" to "story of man encountering hardships returning from Troy."

Indeed, Telemachus, who had truly come into his own in the two preceding books (I feel) here fades into the background. Maybe he feels less certain of himself without his goddess guide, or maybe he's simply overawed by the figures of Menelaus and Helen and their INSANE wealth. In any event, he does very little but cry, prompt Menelaus' story and allow Pisistratus to announce his identity, until the time comes for him to tell Menelaus that he must be allowed to return home without delay. Then he is firm and speaks with great wisdom. Interesting, that.

Speaking of the crazy wealth, Meneluas admits to being, probably, the richest man in the known world, and Homer adds lovely touches to show how this wealth is demonstrated. The best and most telling example is when Helen enters attended by a flock of named servants--named, I think, at least partially, so that we really understand how many women it takes to serve this Queen. Low maintenance, she is not.

Oh, Helen. It's interesting reading Helen speak here--did anyone else not quite believe her when she spoke about recognizing the disguised Odysseus in Troy and how much she hated trying to rouse the men inside the Trojan Horse? I don't know why, but her honeyed phrases left me suspicious. Maybe it's a general bias, or maybe it's because I know from The Iliad and other depictions of her in antiquity that she's generally not to be trusted, or maybe it's the fact that she DRUGS EVERYONE. Yeah...that's probably it. Helen is arguably the first femme fatale in the Western Canon, using her beauty and her wiles to make sure that, no matter what's going on around her, she comes out on top. She also provides yet another contrast to the faithful Penelope. Penelope so loves Odysseus that, even when all believe him to be dead, she holds out hope and refuses to marry again. Helen, on the other hand, ran away with Paris (almost all stories agree that she loved him), even though she already had a husband who was very much alive. Even when she calls herself a "whore," it feels as if she's saying what she knows she should. In that sense, Helen is something of a political genius. Machiavellian to her core, Helen herself is a sort of female Odysseus, a woman of many ways who will use her brains in addition to her beauty. Her possible dishonesty may even be a foreshadowing of any future unreliable narrators we encounter along the way...

(Aside: for those curious about later Greek depictions of Helen, I highly recommend Euripides' The Trojan Women. Like much of Greek tragedy, it's so depressing and dark as to be almost unbearable, but it features a wonderful scene between Menelaus and Helen. Helen, for her role in starting the war and for leaving her husband and child, has been sentenced to die. Using her considerable charms and intelligence, however, Helen attempts to convince Menelaus to take her back. He does not yield on stage, but a messenger later announces that Helen's death sentence has indeed been revoked. Perhaps her final form of persuasion wasn't fit to be seen on stage. In any case, the irony of the exchange largely rests on the fact that Helen, the woman most responsible for the fall of Troy, and for the deaths on both sides, is the one woman who will escape it almost completely unscathed. Like most Greek tragedies it can be read in about an hour--better still, there's a film version from 1971 that's completely available on YouTube. Huzzah! Here's the Helen scene.)

Menelaus' long tale of his delay off the coast of Egypt and his encounter with Proteus is worth considering in context. In Book III, we have Nestor detailing his long voyage home, which, while long, is relatively uneventful. Here, Menelaus tells a much more epic story of struggle with an ancient divinity. It's almost as if Homer is slowly getting the reader ready for the truly astounding stories that Odysseus will shortly begin telling of his own voyage home. Coming as they do after Nestor's and Menelaus' stories, they'll feel more natural and contextualized. They also provide a nice reminder not only of Agamemnon and his fate, the ghost in the story, as it were, but they also give Telemachus his first proof that, at least as of Menelaus' stay in Egypt, his father was still alive, though living on a hidden island. He cannot be found by man, because he has literally vanished off the face of the Earth.

Instead of immediately picking up Odysseus' story, however, Homer shifts the focus back to Ithaca. Here is where the suitors go from pretty awful to absolutely terrible. Even Antinous is appalled at the behavior of the one suitor who mocks the wailing Penelope, and that's saying something. As with Nestor, Menelaus, and Odysseus himself, Telemachus' journey home will be a much more fraught experience than his journey out.

And doesn't Penelope show some resolve when she challenges the phantom produced by Athena? She clearly knows this is the work of the goddess, but instead of being grateful or prostrating herself, she demands answers! Odysseus and his family do, indeed, seem to have a special relationship with Athena.

Next book, Odysseus!


Pretty lines!

"What fool is here, what drooping dunce of dreams? / Or can it be, friend, that you love to suffer?" lines 398-9, Fitzgerald translation.

A lovely reminder to us all, that unless we love our pain, we should be striving to overcome it. Wallowing never got anyone anything.

"When the sun hangs at high noon in heaven, / the Ancient glides ashore under the Westwind, / hidden by the shivering glooms on the clear water, / and rests in the caverns hollowed by the sea." lines 429-432, Fitzgerald.

No special reason--I just think that's a lovely passage.

"Not Odysseus. Never an outrage done to any man alive." lines 780, Fagles translation.

Here's a case where I really wish I had the Greek at hand, as Fagles and Fitzgerald both use "alive," whereas Lattimore doesn't. In any case, it seems hard to believe that no man, either living or dead, doesn't bear a grudge against Odysseus.


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