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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 34: Thoughts on Book XIV

Welcome back! I know we're already moved on to Book XV in the schedule, but I haven't shared my thoughts on Book XIV yet, darn it, so I'm going to do so now. But, seeing as how this is well behind, I will be (hopefully) brief.

This is a lovely scene, really--and it essentially is one long scene, featuring the disguised Odysseus and Eumaeus talking, eating, and becoming friends. Of course, Eumaeus does not know that the disguised stranger is his beloved master Odysseus, but he nevertheless treats him as well, insofar as he is able, as have any of the great kings as Odysseus has encountered on his travels.

Which is one of the weird things about this section, really. Odysseus has returned home, but he has not yet had his return, his nostoi. The suitors are still plaguing his house, a topic about which his loyal swineherd is most upset, and his son, Telemachus, is still across the ocean, about to encounter an ambush. In a strange way, this need for secrecy and discretion turns this initial period in Ithaca into just another of the long series of stops along his journey where Odysseus has thrown himself at the mercy of his host. Odysseus is back on his native soil, but he is not yet home. Indeed, it will still be quite some time before Odysseus will be known to all as having returned in glory.

So we see Odysseus living by his wits--again. This time spinning a yarn about being a soldier from Crete who knew of  Odysseus at Troy and has heard talk of him since, seemingly an elaboration of the backstory he shared with Athena when he first arrived in Ithaca before they revealed themselves to each other. His story, oddly enough, seems to be a strange retelling of some of the adventures he shared with King Alcinous and Queen Arete during his stay with them: a crew not heeding their commander due to desire for treasure, a stay of some seven years with a person who is both savior and jailer (think Calyspo & the Egyptian King), a year with someone who damages the world with deceit (Circe & the unnamed Phoenician). He even incorporates elements on his stay at Phaeacia into his narrative, saying that he was found half-dead on the beach by the child of a monarch--sound familiar?

We see here Odysseus taking elements of his own life, elements that we "know" to be factual, as they were relayed to us by Homer as narrator, and weaving them into a tapestry that, while not true, isn't exactly false either. He modifies structure, he changes details, but he tells something approximating his own story. Only here we know what he is telling his host is false--don't we? I won't cover the same ground I went into more deeply in my post on "The Poets of The Odyssey," but I do think it's fascinating that, even though Odysseus' "real" story is much more unbelievable, full of witches and sea monsters and journeys into the House of Death, we give it much more credit within the confines of the narrative than we do to this one he tells his loyal swineherd.

There's much more to say on the events of this charming section, but I promised to be brief, so I'll just mention one more thing. Depending on your translation and reading style, you may have missed this (the Fitzgerald version omits it entirely, which is a pity) but, for the first time (I believe) sing the initial invocation of the muse, Homer directly addresses a character. The Fagles version, with its simpler and cleaner rendering has (line 408) "And you replied, Eumaeus, loyal swineherd," which you can almost miss if you're moving at a brisk pace, but the very literal Lattimore translation renders it as "Then, O swineherd Eumaios, you said to him in return" (line 360).

Now, I won't pretend to know why Homer chooses this moment to insert himself into the narrative, but I do think that Homer is essentially trying to confer honor onto this lowly character, possibly the most disadvantaged and lowest born in the entire story. "Here," he seems to be saying to the reader, "take note of this man--this servant, who shares as readily and as generously any king. Look to him and give him honor. Just because a man is not high-born does not mean his cannot exemplify the best among us."

But maybe you have other theories? If so, I'd love to hear them!

In the interest of brevity, I'm going to forgo the quote section of the post, but it shall come back. Yes, it shall come back.


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