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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 33: Thoughts on Book XIII

Yes, this post is late, but like Odysseus, who wanders for years in order to reach his beloved Ithaca at last, so does this post finally make it onto the web. Or something.

But yes--Ithaca! Odysseus has made it home. So what's left in store? Many, many things including some of the most romantic passages in all narrative literature--but we'll come to those in time. Let's say late autumn.

For now, let's talk some about the poor Phaeacians. Not only does Poseidon destroy one of their finest vessels, plunging it to the depths of the sea; he then completely surrounds their island with a mountain, making it completely inaccessible to the outside world. Added to that, Odysseus, however briefly, curses them! After all the time he spent there, and all he learned of King Alcinous and Queen Arete and the society of peace and virtue they've engendered, he's still willing to believe the absolute worst of them. His opinion of them sinks so far so fast that he actually does an inventory of the gifts they gave him (and taxed the populace to pay for, incidentally) to ensure they haven't taken any of them back!

But that's Odysseus--he's seen so many terrible and dishonest things, and done quite a few himself, it's as if he simply cannot believe in human goodness any longer. He assumes the worst in a situation, and therefore is always plotting of a way to either triumph over it or to escape it. Nothing is ever simply A to B, not for Odysseus, not any more, if ever. To quote a little-loved Doctor Who story from the mid-80's (which, if you're familiar with the series, is practically a redundant phrasing), "he'd get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line." His mind, always turning, turning, can't abandon the practice that has kept him alive through twenty years of hardships, even when his patron goddess, his beloved Pallas Athena, tells him that he has, indeed, arrived home at Ithaca.

And incidentally, isn't that a brilliant moment? Athena, I believe partially from a desire to be there when Odysseus realizes he is home at last, has shrouded the island in mist and only removes it once he has proven that he is still, indeed, the man of twists and turns--her Odysseus. But once the mist is listed, ah...

Of course, it is this very twistiness of mind (to coin a terrible phrase) that Athena is drawn to and that she shall continue to exploit. It it this that will continue to keep Odysseus alive as he tests the faithfulness of his wife (again, even though Athena has already vouched for it) and, more importantly, it will allow him to rid his palace of the suitors who have been plaguing it.

But first, Athena must ensure that Telemachus arrives home safely, having secured a name and a reputation out across the sea; and Odysseus must find his loyal servant, and one of the lowliest men in Ithaca, his loyal swineherd.

But that's for the next reading. Now, some quotations!


"This night at last / he slept serene, his long-tried mind at rest." Fitzgerald translation, lines 114-5

Oh, for such a sleep. What's ironic is that, as soon as he wakes from this sleep, wherein he has forgotten all of his cares, he immediately becomes crafty Odysseus again. Perhaps only the final sleep truly grants respite from the cares of this world.

"And then, that hour the star rose up, / the clearest, brightest star, that always heralds / the newborn light of day, the deep-sea-going ship / made landfall on the island...Ithaca, at last." Fagles translation, lines 105-8

It's perfect, isn't it, that Odysseus sleeps as the vessel travels at an incredible speed through the night only to land at Ithaca in the first light of dawn. Odysseus' journeys on the wine-dark sea are at an end, and a new chapter is beginning. Of course, one could view this as a cliche--but, given that Homer stands at the very foundation of the Western tradition, it wasn't cliched for him.

Athena's speech as the shepherd boy (too long to quote in full here: lines 237-249 in Lattimore; 300-316 in Fitzgerald; 269-83 in Fagles) telling Odysseus that he has indeed reached Ithaca, is, to borrow a phrase, a marvel to behold. She draws out the reveal far longer than necessary, instead listing details about Ithaca, its climate and topography, like a reality show producer, drawing out every last bit of suspense that she can. It's also important to note here that we, as readers, already know that he has, indeed, reached Ithaca, so this delay on Athena's part is purely for Odysseus' benefit. And the last touch, saying that the fame of Ithaca has spread all the way to Troy, an elliptical reference to Odysseus' great accomplishments during the war, is the perfect touch with which to end.

"You play a part as if it were your own tough skin. / No more of this, though. Two of a kind, we are, / contrivers, both. Of all men now alive / you are the best in plots and story-telling." Fitzgerald, lines 379-81

This is the highest praise that Athena can bestow upon a mortal. Two of a kind with the goddess of wisdom? Praise indeed! Also, this is Athena telling her favorite that, at last, he has someone he can trust completely and be totally honest with: her. They both can drop the disguises and ruses and be open with each other, as allies for the final battle ahead. And with Athena as your intimate ally, no power on earth can stop you. (Nerd note: the word translated here as story-teller, muthoisin shares the same root as the modern word "myth" and means literally in this context something like, "the teller of wonderful things." Isn't that lovely?)


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