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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 27: Thoughts on Book X

As usual, this isn't going to be a thoughtful, composed essay so much as it's going to be a jumble of ideas and questions, so please forgive me if it goes astray. I was dreaming when I wrote this...

Book X, I think, is where one of the major lessons of Odysseus' story starts to become clear, which is that, until his sole focus is returning home alive, curse of the gods or no, it shall never happen. 

He gets very close at the beginning of this Book, it is true, guided by the winds of Aeolus. But his own obstinacy in refusing to allow any of his able bodied men to steer the ship--for NINE STRAIGHT DAYS--brings about his own downfall. He falls asleep--natural enough. And his men, not overtly mutinous so much as simply greedy at this point, preparing to divide up what they, logically enough, assume to be treasure given to Odysseus by the great Aeolus, unleash that great king's real gift, the winds, blowing them far off course. None of this would have happened if Odysseus had let someone else steer his ship--one of twelve at this point, mind you, or if he'd told his men what was in the ox skin to begin with. Odysseus, himself, even says that it is not an act of the gods, but rather "reckless folly" which prevents him from reaching home.

Upon being sent packing by Aeolus, who refuses to help Odysseus a second time, seeing that he is clearly cursed by the gods, the fleet rows for six days before reaching the land of the Laestrygonians. Now, most of the fleet snugly anchors itself in their harbor, a move which Odysseus seems to think unwise, as he leaves his own ship outside the harbor mouth. Still, he in no way expresses any concerns to his commanders, and instead sends some men ashore to find out what sort of people live there, if any. The phrase Homer uses "men like us perhaps, who live on bread," has occurred before, when Odysseus sent scouts to investigate the Lotus-Eaters. Yes, and that turned out so well. And even though the words are different, the sentiment is the same as the one that drove Odysseus and his men to investigate Polyphemus' cave. Of course, this excursion leads to the utter destruction of 11/12ths of his fleet and the death of dozens, if not hundreds, of his men. Essentially, the army that sailed with his from Troy has been lost. 

And why do all these things keep happening? Because Odysseus can't just focus on getting home. He fancies himself an explorer, a hero, a doer of great deeds. And so, instead of slipping quietly on shore for a day or two, getting some more water and food, he keeps sending expeditions inland. They're never for supplies. They're not even raiding parties to loot and pillage tribes inland, as with the Cicones--they're because he's curious. Which is commendable, but, at a certain point, after having several men eaten by the Cyclops, others become instantaneous drug addicts, and then watching most of his fleet get destroyed by cannibalistic giants, you'd think he'd stop being so curious and just be desperate to get home.

So, what happens when they land on Circe's island? HE SENDS MEN INLAND TO INVESTIGATE! True, he does send a full group of men--twenty-two plus the troublesome Eurylochus--and he does indicate that they need to get better bearings to navigate, but surely, having just feasted on a stag and had their fill, and rested for three days, they could just relax a little, maybe catch some more game and then sail off until they find an island that has no signs of habitation. But Odysseus has spotted smoke--and where there's smoke there's fire--and where there's fire, there's people, and he wants to know what kind of people they are. I suppose he's the world's first anthropologist. But he's supposed to be going home. He and his fleet have already been gone for over ten years fighting the Trojan War. No wonder his men are just about fed up with him.

The classic story of Circe turning his men into pigs I'll gloss over for now because what I mainly want to say about it will be contained in two Big Idea posts (yes, more are coming) I'm working on: one on the key role of women in the poem, and the other about the narrative voice of Odysseus and how trustworthy he is. But this is noteworthy: he and his men stay on Circe's island for a full year, and it is only after much prodding from his men that he tells Circe he wants to go. Having defeated her and made her swear an oath not to harm them, Odysseus is no captive as he will later be with Calypso. Rather, he's having a lovely time hanging out with a beautiful demi-goddess while his wife and son wait expectantly at home.

But he can't go straight home--no. To find his way back home, he will have to speak to the famous blind seer Tiresias, who, unfortunately, is dead. Which means Odysseus is setting sail next for the underworld. And that's the story of Book XI.  

And now, some of my favorite lines...I'm limiting myself because there are whole lengthy passages I would just copy and paste if it wouldn't get too obnoxious.Which it would.

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"Then I waking / pondered deeply in my own blameless spirit, whether / to throw myself over the side and die in the open water, / or wait it out in silence and still be one of the living;" Lattimore translation, lines 49-52

Roughly 2000 years before Hamlet wondered "To be, or not to be," here we have Odysseus asking essentially the same existential question: to end it all now, or to struggle and endure all the pain the certainly lies ahead. Odysseus, of course, chooses to endure--but never let it be said that he didn't waver. This is perhaps his lowest moment.

"So we fared onward and death fell behind, / and we took breath to grieve for our companions." Fitzgerald translation, lines 147-8

I love the image here, unique in the Fitzgerald translation, of death itself pursuing Odysseus and his crew. They escape death by rowing until they out-run it, as if in a race, at which point they can pause to breathe, and to grieve.

"They burst into cries, wailing, streaming live tears / that gained us nothing--what good can come of grief?" Fagles translation, lines 220-1

As originally pointed out on Twitter by my friend Erika (@HollyGoDarkly--go, follow her now, and then come back), this sentiment certainly is rich coming from a man who we've seen sobbing repeatedly over the course of the poem. Still, perhaps the man who suffers the most knows best how little there is to be gained from giving in to sorrow?

P.S.--The Fitzgerald translation, for the second time that I've discovered, slips into rhyme in the passage where Hermes is speaking to Odysseus. While I haven't scoured every resource, I have checked, and I can find no justification for Fitzgerald having Hermes, and, so far, Hermes alone, speak in rhyme. Effective, I suppose, but...weird. Also, can anyone identify the rhyme scheme he's using here? It's ABAB CCBC, which I can't place. Last time, Hermes spoke, roughly, in traditional rhyming couplets. This is something else.

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