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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 29: Thoughts on Book XI

Well. That was certainly a thing.

I kid, of course, but Odysseus' visit to the underworld, with its lists of names and references that even an ancient would have trouble keeping straight, can be quite overwhelming to the modern reader.

Which is a shame, because, at its core, this is about a man confronting his past and anticipating his future. In the underworld, a space essentially outside of the world, Odysseus must deal with what his place and his role in the real world is. The main figures he encounters are Elpenor, Tiresias the seer, his mother, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Heracles. While he sees and comments on others, it is essentially those six whose stories Odysseus shares with his hosts (as we're reminded mid-story, he is narrating this whole thing) and, through Homer, with us. Let's look at them all briefly and see what they might be doing there.

Elpenor is quite a pitiful figure, whether alive or as a ghost. How he survived the plains of Troy is beyond my understanding. He's clumsy, uninspiring, and seemingly a bit stupid. Still, he's not a bad person--he's just a regular person who, because of his journeys with Odysseus, has met an untimely death. Worse, his absence wasn't even noticed by Odysseus and his remaining crew when they left Circe's island. Instead, he lay dead, having fallen off a roof, totally forgotten by his comrades until his ghost appears to Odysseus to request a decent sailor's burial. The lack of burial rites was a great shame for the Ancient Greeks, so it only makes sense that Elpenor's ghost would be uneasy until his remains were given a proper burial. But more broadly, Elpenor is emblematic of all of Odysseus' crew who, we already know, will never make it back to their homeland. Odysseus will return home alone, as we know both from the poem and Tiresias' prophecy, having lost (destroyed--remember the words double meaning?) all of his companions. Unlike the warriors who died gloriously on the fields of Troy, or the heroes who made it home to die of old age, Odysseus' companions will all die in horrible, and mainly stupid, ways. Eaten by a Cyclops, eaten by giants, drowned when their boats were destroyed: those are not great ways to go. And what was their sin? What did they do to offend the gods so? They were under Odysseus' command, which means their faults are his own. That is the sum total of their crimes. Poor Elpenor. At least he gets a name and a voice, which is more than can be said for most of them.

Next comes the cause of the journey, the visit with Tiresias. Tiresias explicitly tells Odysseus that, unless he is careful, he won't make it home at all; and even if he does, it will be alone, on a stranger's ship. Tiresias even tells Odysseus exactly how he will lose the remainder of his men--the cattle of the sun will be their undoing. But he holds out the possibility that, if they leave the cattle of Helios untouched, they may all still reach Ithaca safely. But if they kill the cattle, they will surely all die. But more than that, he lays the blame for their deaths, as well as the deaths of all of the crew he's already lost, squarely at Odysseus' feet: "Even so, you and your crew may still reach home, / suffering all the way, if you only have the power / to curb their wild desire and curb your own, what's more" (lines 117-120, Fagles translation; emphases mine). It is Odysseus' job, as captain, king, and general, to ensure the safety of his men, but he is fighting not just their "wild desires," but his own, as well. It is a fight that we already know his is bound to lose. Unless he can be strong and wise and guide his men well, they will all die horrible deaths, whereas Odysseus, though long-suffering, should he reach Ithaca, will die a peaceful death at a ripe old age, surrounded by his loved ones. 

Odysseus' mother, Anticlea, another in the long line of women who aid or spur on Odysseus over the course of his travels, is next to speak. Interestingly, she's approached Odysseus even before Tiresias, but Odysseus, mindful that he's there to speak to the seer, holds her back until he's finished hearing what the future holds for him. It's a minor echo of the constant delays that Odysseus creates for himself in his attempt to return home. But back to Anticlea. She's died over grief for her son. At this point, Odysseus has already been gone over eleven years (ten at Troy, plus another with Circe), so who knows how long she pined away for her son, her only child, before her grief carried her away? She is a reminder of all that Odysseus has lost at home while he struggles with (and sometimes delays) his homecoming. His three attempts to embrace her are heartbreaking. Think about it--you go away, say to college, to the army, or you just move away, and the first time you find our your mother has died is when her ghost tells you. You try to hug her, but you can't. Odysseus will never hug his mother again. His infant son will be a man before he sees him again, and he'll never have seen him grow up. All that time; all those people who will have died; all the hugs and smiles and laughs he'll never share. That is what Odysseus is sacrificing by delaying his journey home--and his mother reminds him of all that he has missed.

Next, after the long litany of famous women and an pause to return to the main narrative of Odysseus with King Alcinous and his court, we turn to the heroes and legends of Troy, plus a final visit from Heracles, the greatest of Greek heroes. Since Agamemnon and Achilles echo each other perfectly, I'll deal with them together, leaving Heracles for last.

As we've already seen many times, Agamemnon and Achilles are the two ghosts that haunt The Odyssey, and here they are, in the ghostly flesh, at what is essentially the center point of the narrative. Here, in the underworld, Odysseus has already come to see who he is at his essence--what he's lost, what he has wrought, and what is still in store for him. With Agamemnon and Achilles, we and Odysseus see who he isn't; not the defeated husband of an unfaithful wife, and certainly not the great warrior who sacrifices life for glory. And yet, they all share a common concern: Agamemnon, the greatest of kings, brought low by an unfaithful wife; Achilles, the greatest of warriors, killed by a coward's arrow; they both only ask about their sons. Like Odysseus, they want to know if they will be remembered through their sons. Agamemnon, after informing Odysseus of his pitiable death at the hands of his wife, immediately asks after Orestes. Odysseus, rather impatiently, tells his old commander that he has no news for him. For Achilles, however, Odysseus has much better news: his son joined the ranks of those at Troy and was a great warrior. Neither, however, will get to share in his son't glory; only Odysseus will be fortunate enough to be a hero and see his son be one as well. Odysseus whose fame stems not from his power or his prowess, but from his wit and his endurance.

Which brings us to Heracles. Heracles, the only other figure in Greek myth to have endured as much as Odysseus. Hated and cursed by his step-mother, Hera, Heracles was forced to serve his cousin and perform a series of seemingly impossible tasks. He survives, however, due to his amazing physical strength and his bravery. True, he dies a horrible death, but he is rewarded with a place among the gods, recognized after his death for what he was in life: a god in mortal guise. Odysseus, however, is no god. No. He is a man. A brilliant, talented, lucky, blessed man--but a man, nonetheless. Here Homer explicitly draws the parallel that is implicit throughout the entire poem, for what is Odysseus except an everyman's Heracles? His labors are various and difficult; his journey is long and arduous; they both even have to descend into the underworld, a feat few mortals would even contemplate, let alone undertake. Unlike Heracles, however, Odysseus has no divine reward waiting for him. Odysseus' reward, the thing that makes it worth the journeying, is his own home, his family, and a quiet peaceful death in his old age. That is Odysseus' great reward.

And Homer seems to believe it's ours, as well. We can't be Heracles. But we can be Odysseus.

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There is so much in Book XI I've left untouched, I'm going to skip the quotation section and just advise you to go back and reread it. Yes, the whole thing. The whole thing is my favorite passage. This episode, more than almost any other, is so alive that not a moment seems lost, not a word unnecessary. Even the long litany of women, a Dante-like (Dante totally ripped off Homer's genius in this section, as Virgil did before him) list of names, has such depth and richness when their stories are known and understood. Women tormented by the gods in life who find some semblance of peace in death. And the men! The men who challenged or defied the gods in life, who find only suffering in death. And Ajax, poor, silent, sullen Ajax, too caught up in the slights he felt he experienced in life to realize that he is dead and need feel anger no longer.

What an amazing book this is.


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