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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 35: Thoughts on Book XV

First off, let me say that I do intend to get back to updating the glossary--I think one is sorely needed for Book XV, and one for Book XIV wouldn't go amiss, either. Time, however, is at a premium for me right now, and I feel it's more important to get this post out there before backtracking a bit.

That said, this is a bit of a strange book, isn't it? It's ostensibly "about" Telemachus' return from Sparta, cutting off just before father and son are reunited at the hut of the loyal swineherd Eumaeus. Homer breaks up the story of Telemachus, however, with a lengthy exchange between the (still disguised) Odysseus and Eumaeus detailing how Eumaeus came to be in service to the royal family of Ithaca.

The question, as always, is why? And not for the first time, I genuinely am not sure. Moreover, not only am I not sure, from a literary perspective, why Homer places this story where he does, I'm not even sure in terms of the narrative why it's told, by which I mean, I don't know why Odysseus asks to hear it. Does he already know this story? Eumaeus is his long-time servant, after all, and if he was actually reared by Odysseus' mother as he claims, then surely Odysseus knows a good portion of his past already. Or, alternately, has he always been curious about how this swineherd came to be so valued in the royal household, and it is only now, in the disguise of a wayward traveler that he can ask? Perhaps it's simply that Odysseus, knowing that he is essentially stalling for time until Telemachus arrives home as Athena has guaranteed, has decided that the best way to avoid going on more about his past and who he really is is to ask his host to speak about himself? What is clear is that, like so much in this poem, it challenges us to try to understand it, but only yields up its meaning incrementally, and even then, refracted through the rest of the poem.

As I said above, however, the main narrative thrust of Book XV is Telamchus and his return to Ithaca. These passages are full of moments, funny and telling, that obliquely echo things we've already seen or ask us to remember the earlier parts of the story--which we read half a year ago!

Just to briefly discuss a few of my favorites:

Telemachus praises Helen, both for her recognition of him as the son of Odysseus (way back in Book IV) and for her sudden prophecy of a triumphant Odysseus, and says that he will pray to her as if she were a goddess. We've seen this before--they were essentially the last words we see Odysseus say to Nausicaa. Both women, one young and blossoming, one older and fading, have granted out dual heroes important gifts: Nausicaa the gift of life; Helen, of stature. Indeed, scholars have pointed out that Odysseus' final days at sea, beginning with his first sighting of Scheria, thematically and temporally track Telemachus' journey to prove himself.

Telemachus, eager to get home and not be stuck listening to old King Nestor go on and on, asks his young friend, essentially, to cover for him. As such, his stay in Pylos on his return journey is very brief, and, while he leaves behind his friend Pisistratus, he gains a passenger in the seer Theoclymenus, who, upon returning to Ithaca, augurs a bright future ahead for Telemachus. We've had many prophecies over the course of the poem, but, I believe, this is the first that, instead of centering on Odysseus and his actions, centers on Telemachus and his descendants. Thus, the emergence into his own self and destiny that Telemachus began when he left Ithaca is completed upon his return.

And there we leave the story, with father and son about to be reunited for the first time in twenty years...

P.S.--Did you catch the direct address of Eumaeus this time? The use of "you" to refer to him is most striking.

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Some lovely quotations that, I think, get to the heart of one of the great enduring themes of this poem:

"These nights are endless, and a man can sleep through them, / or he can enjoy listening to stories, and you have no need / to go to bed before its time. To much sleep is only / a bore." Lattimore translation, lines 392-5

Human beings are storytellers, and must have been from our first ability to communicate. What is more primal, more natural, and more human than telling and listening to stories to pass the long dark hours after the sun has set but before we're overtaken by sleep?

Then, just a few lines later, we have this--

"[W]e'll drink on, you and I, / and ease our hearts of hardships we can remember, /sharing old times. In later days a man / can find a charm in old adversity, / exile and pain." Fitzgerald translation, lines 485-9

And in telling out stories, we share our burden and lighten our hearts, and we can find solace, and even charm in distance and time. We often say "someday, we'll look back on this and laugh"--while Odysseus and Eumaeus aren't laughing, they are looking back, and perhaps smiling, knowing all they have endured.

Comments

  1. Very interesting post.
    In fact, the way I found my way here was because I decided to do research on the strange way Homer addresses Eumaeus. The first result was this blog, and after reading, I understand that you are confused as to why Odysseus would ask Eumeaus his life story if Odysseus knows it well. This might be because you are reading a different translation from me (Robert Fagles is the one I'm reading) but it is clear that Odysseus simply asks for the state of his parents to see whether they're still alive (he was gone twenty years, after all). Eumaeus takes this opportunity to mention how he was reared by Odysseus' mother, but it seems like there is no point in the story in which Odysseus specifically asks Eumaeus to tell his life story.

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