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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 19 -- Thoughts, Questions, and Ideas on Book VI

With the completion of Book VI, we reach the quarter-way mark in our odyssey through The Odyssey. As is usual with these posts, I'm not going to take too much time trying to organize or completely spell out my thoughts here, as I'd prefer to spur your own thoughts rather than simply blather on about my own.

Oh, Nausicaa and Odysseus: the oldest and still one of the most humorous and awkward "meet cutes" in the Western canon. In a real sense, Odysseus has now reached the end of his travels. We've already been told that he'll go straight from Scheria to Ithaca, but Odysseus still has work to do. First and foremost, he has to present himself, his nakedness hidden only by an olive branch, to a young girl, and a beautiful one at that, who's frolicking with her friends, tossing around a ball. Imagine the scene--a naked stranger, barely concealing himself, stumbles out of the undergrowth and presents himself to a group of unchaperoned young girls. No wonder all of her friends run away!

But Nausicaa is someone special--great not only in beauty, but in heart and mind, so she stands her ground and quickly realizes that this pathetic looking creature is not to be feared, but to be pitied and cared for. Of course, this is all Athena's doing. The goddess could have chosen the King, or the Queen, or any number of other Phaeacians to encounter Odysseus, but she chose Nausicaa, perhaps counting on the girl's beauty and charm to bring Odysseus back to life after 20 days of being tossed upon the wine-dark see.

Still, Athena's not done yet--after Odysseus bathes, she changes his appearance. As Hephaestus inlays gold on silver in order to create ever greater brilliance, so Athena embellishes Odysseus' weary and beaten-down personage with greater height and fullness and beauty, the better to create within Nausicaa and her maids a feeling not of pity, but of awe and perhaps even desire. Indeed, Nausicaa imagines what it would be like the marry the (importantly) still-unnamed stranger. She also rather charmingly gives herself away to Odysseus when giving him instructions on how to follow them: by worrying about what the men of the town might think at seeing Nausicaa with this (now) handsome stranger, she (accidentally?) lets him know that she is, herself, viewing him as a potential husband. After all, if the thought had never occurred to her, she wouldn't ascribe it to anyone else, would she?

Also worth noting, Nausicaa tells Odysseus to approach her mother the Queen, not her father the King. So we'll have yet another woman come to the aid of the great Odysseus. I honestly haven't worked out yet what I think Homer is driving at with this heavily female element. Any ideas out there?

Two random notes: 1) Nausicaa's name means "burner of ships," and no, I'm not giving away a plot twist by telling you that, and 2) she is the first character in Western literature to be described as playing a game with a ball.


Quotation Time!

"Far gone in weariness, in oblivion, / the noble and enduring man slept on;" Fitzgerald translation, lines 1-2.

I love this description of Odysseus at this stage in his journeys. Even lost in the oblivion of a deep sleep, he's still the noble and enduring man--enduring being the operative word for much of The Odyssey.

"And may the gods accomplish your desire: / a home, a husband, and harmonious / converse with him--the best thing in the world / being a strong house held in serenity / where man and wife agree. Woe to their enemies, / joy to their friends! But all this they know best." Fitzgerald, lines 194-9

Flip it slightly, and this becomes not just Nausicaa's wish, but also Odysseus'--his home, his wife, their shared mind. Woe to their enemies, indeed...


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