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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 21: Thoughts on Book VII

Sorry for the delay here--I've been busier than usual, as is customary this time of year. Fortunately, even when busy I still have more time than many, so I'm able to keep this blog going, if on a slightly delayed schedule, which should quickly be rectified. But enough of that...

Of plot, I must admit, this book is scarce, but we get to see Odysseus being Odysseus for the first time in really the entire book. Which is awesome.

Isn't Odysseus a clever man--and a marvelous liar? Finally, we see the man of many ways earn his epithet.

Tellingly, it's something he doesn't say that first catches the mind. He completely fails to comment on the fact that nobody can see him. Given that he sees the girl, and with her wanders around town for a bit, and yet is seen by no-one else, he certainly must know that this little girl with the braids, "the awesome one in pigtails" as Fitzgerald calls her in a memorable phrase, is more than she seems--and that the most likely candidate is his own patron goddess Athena. He understands the terms on which Athena wishes to operate, however, and does nothing to upset or recognize her, even when she gives him all the backstory he needs to ingratiate himself with the King and Queen. Note, she also uses the oft-quoted line "reach your high-roofed house, your native land at last" that plays like variations throughout this entire text.

But before this even, he's already lied to her! Indeed, he closes his first speech with a lie: in order to better go along with the slightly deceptive plan he and Nausicaa have hatched, he tells the disguised Athena that he knows no-one in the city at all. If the goddess is determined to work under subterfuge, then Odysseus will do so as well, it seems.

His dissembling (a great word I've seen applied most frequently to two of the most famous figures in Western literature, Homer's Odysseys and Plato's Socrates) doesn't end once he reaches the palace, however. Indeed, even though he appears in their midst all of a sudden, creating no small amount of surprise, he never mentions the obviously supernatural nature of his arrival, and instead, presents himself as the lowliest of beggars, sitting literally in the ashes of the fire.

Even when he is seated at the side of the King, in his favorite son's seat, no less, Odysseus continues to dissemble, talking of his hunger instead of his identity, let alone his favored place in Athena's heart. Only after the rest of the assembly has left, and Odysseus is left alone with the King and Queen does Arete feel that she can question the stranger and point out the fact that the clothes he is wearing belong to their household--indeed she made them herself! She asks him directly he who is and how he came by the clothes. Again, Odysseus dissembles, this time through omission. First, he tells them of his shipwreck on Calypso's island of his eventual departure, and of his subsequent shipwreck on the way to their land--but he completely removes from the story the sea goddess who saved him from drowning with her magical scarf.

And even then, once the whole story, or most of it, is known, he continues to lie! King Alcinous, recognizing that his daughter should have escorted the stranger to the palace herself, criticizes her for this lapse. But Odysseus, aware of the real reason that Nausciaa was hesitant to do so--namely, that Nausciaa rather fancied the handsome and bold Odysseus that Athena presented to her and her maidens and was conscious of the possibility of causing a scandal--covers for her. He gives an accurate account of the "why," i.e. jealousy and gossip, but he places the concern on himself instead of on the Princess. In this way, he keeps the secret that she accidentally let slip (as discussed in my post on Book VI) to himself and doesn't give her parents cause to scold her. Ironically, it's this very modesty, tact, and circumspection that causes Alcinous to express his wish that Odysseus could be his son-in-law.

The princess likes him, he has the King's approval, and he's even already seated in the prime seat. He could easily stay with them and create a new life in this land of those blessed by the gods. And yet Odysseus still wishes to return home and to see his native land at last, and he won't be turned from his quest--not now, when he knows his return is so close.

And remember: they still don't know who he is. This may be important for Book VIII--I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.

Also, a note on the translation. While reading the Fagles version, I was struck by his use of the word "hero" in line 16, for it is a curiosity of The Odyssey that Odysseus is only called a hero once in the entire poem--and it occurs later on. Neither of the other translations fall into the hero trap, fortunately--but no translation is perfect. As if we needed it, this a reminder that, however lovely a translation may be to read, it's still not relaying to us all that Homer is trying to say.

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And now, my favorite lines...

"In every venture, the bold man comes off best, / even the wanderer, bound from distant shores." Fagles translation, lines 59-60

Be brave, be bold--always good advice, I feel. Timidity rarely wins the day.

"sculptured hounds, flanking the entrance way, / cast by the skill and ardor of Hephaistos / to guard the prince Alkinoos's house-- / undying dogs that never could grow old." Fitzgerald translation, lines 98-100

Lest you miss how favored by the gods these people are, here we see a gift of the blacksmith god--dog statues. But not just statues--they are automata. Yes, they're robot dogs.

"My home and friends lie far. My life is pain." Fitzgerald translation, line 164.

There's a terrible austere beauty to that line, especially when read as a sort of motto for who this man is.

And, of course, Odysseus' entire speech about his belly and its constant need for satisfaction--it's lovely in every version of the text, but a bit long to be typing out here, so just go back and reread it and smile sadly.

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