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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 36: Thoughts on Book XVI

How do you write about a passage of poetry that literally makes you cry? How do you try to analyse or explore or critique lines that you don't connect to rationally but rather that you feel in your heart and soul? As much as I love this poem (and that is a great deal), Book XVI is the first time since embarking on this epic reread that I had to put down the book to wipe away tears. Words written 2500 years ago by a poet lost to time can still do that. Just words on a page--what a miracle a poem is.

Anyway, enough about my personal reactions. This section is all about building to and coming down from THE moment--the moment when Odysseus and Telemachus meet and recognize each other for who they both are, father and son reunited. These passages are the fulfillment of one of the thematic elements that has been churning away under the current of this entire poem: Telemachus needing to know that his father lives and have it recognized that he is his son, and Odysseus needing to be recognized as having returned to his family and his rightful place. Of course, Odysseus' journey is not yet complete, as his Queen won't meet him for some time yet and his father is still pining for him, but in a very strong sense, this is culminating moment of Telemachus' journey. He is reunited with the father that he doesn't even remember and is recognized by him as not only his son, but as a man. I say as a man, because Odysseus confers with his son as to the best course of action to take, and in fact, allows himself to be led by him regarding a key decision. They hold a council of war, and the torch can finally begin its transition from one generation to the next.

But of course, this section has another moment with dramatic weight: Penelope rebukes the suitors. Having failed in their attempt to ambush Telemachus at sea, the contingent of suitors has returned home and several of them are urging further attempts at his life. Penelope is made aware of this and steels her courage to remind the suitors that they are bound by loyalty and tradition and that to seek to harm Telemachus would be a grave offense indeed. She's quickly rebutted by Eurymachus, who falsely claims that Telemachus need not fear from them, but this scene I think shows at least two important points.

Firstly, it shows that Penelope, however passive she may appear at times, does have an inner strength and still holds enough sway over the suitors, even after years of delay, that they dare not acknowledge to her what they are planning, and, indeed, what they have already attempted. It appears that while some of them might be in favor of an open revolt, most are still content to play the game, as it were--and that is largely due to how good at the game Penelope must be.

Secondly, and this is the more interesting point to my thinking, it shows a range of thinking and personalities among the suitors themselves. Antinous comes off as a true villain, vicious and scheming, eager to spill the royal blood so as to make an end to the whole business once and for all before the people of Ithaca rise up in support of their Queen. Amphinomous, possibly out of cowardice, or possibly out of the prudence that apparently causes Penelope to favor him more than the others, rejects this idea as impractical and impious. He at least continues to pay lip service to simply being a suitor for a widow's hand, even if he has found himself among those who are prepared to do great evils in the name of that pursuit. This shading of character between the various individuals in the group often thought of as acting in concert as one is good to keep in mind when we do finally see what fate befalls them. Are they all equally guilty? And, if not, do they all deserve the same punishment? Are we known by the company we keep, or by how we try to influence others to be better than they might otherwise be?

Carefully constructed plans having been made between Odysseus and Telemachus, the gears are starting to turn toward the final battle...


Since I admitted to crying, I figured I couldn't do better for a parting quotation that to use the passage in whole that made me stop, dry my eyes, and hug my book. The interplay of the absent, now returned father, as divinity and as man, as image and reality, is terribly moving for me, and I imagine it is so for other sons of fathers who, for whatever reason, were more present as an idea than as reality. The culminating image of the birds of prey is just the final grace note on a wonderful exchange.

This is the extended passage, from the Fagles translation, where it occupies lines 200-248.

"[...] His own son
gazed at him, wonderstruck, terrified too, turning
his eyes away, suddenly--
                                       this must be some god--
an he let fly with a burst of exclamations:
"Friend, you're a new man--not what I saw before!
Your clothes, they've changed, even your skin has changed--
surely you are some god who rules the vaulting skies!
Oh be kind, and we will give you offerings,
gifts of hammered gold to warm your heart--
spare us, please, I beg you!"
                                      "No, I am not a god,"
the long-enduring, great Odysseus returned.
"Why confuse me with one who never dies?
No, I am your father--
the Odysseus you wept for all your days,
you bore a world of pain, the cruel abuse of men."

And with these words Odysseus kissed his son
and the tears streamed down his cheeks and wet the ground,
though before he'd always reined his emotions back.
But still not convinced that it was his father,
Telemachus broke out, wild with disbelief,
"No, you're not Odysseus! Not my father!
Just some spirit spellbinding me now--
to make me ache with sorrow all the more.
Impossible for a mortal to work such marvels,
not with his own devices, unless some god
comes down in person, eager to make that mortal 
young or old--like that! Why, just now
you were old, and wrapped in rags, but now, look,
you seem like a god who rules the skies up there!"

"Telemachus," Odysseus, man of exploits, urged his son,
"it's wrong to marvel, carried away in wonder so
to see your father here before your eyes.
No other Odysseus will ever return to you.
That man and I are one, the man you see...
here after many hardships, 
endless wanderings, after twenty years
I have come home to native ground at last.
My changing so? Athena's work, the Fighter's Queen--
she has that power, she makes me look as she likes,
now like a beggar, the next moment a young man,
decked out in handsome clothes about my body.
It's light work for the gods who rule the skies
to exalt a mortal man or bring him low."

                                                   At that
Odysseus sat down again, and Telemachus threw his arms 
around his great father, sobbing uncontrollably
as the deep desire for tears welled up in both.
They cried out, shrilling cries, pulsing sharper
than birds of prey--eagles, vulture with hooked claws--
when farmers plunder their nest of young too young to fly.


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