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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 37: Thoughts on Book XVII

Let's begin with the ending, shall we?

"The day was over. Dusk was falling fast." (Fagles translation, line 677)

I really can't sing the praises of the Fagles translation enough, and his rendering of this last line is a good example of one of the key reasons why. This entire section of the poem is full of dread, and heavily laden with dramatic irony, where we know things that aren't known to the characters. Moreover, there are layers of irony, because only we the reader have complete knowledge both of what is happening and what lays ahead. Odysseus has shared some things with Telemachus; Telemachus has shared certain information with Penelope; the seer has shared information with Telemachus and Penelope, and on and on. There are many secrets being kept, many games being played, but the final aim for all of them is clear: bloody death awaits the suitors, and soon. The endgame has truly begun, so Fagles, knowing that, can take the opportunity of working the final line into two sentences that echo and reflect the feeling of slow-creeping dread that's pervaded the past 600 lines. It's not a literal word-for-word translation, but as anyone who's ever translated poetry can attest, if there's one sure way to drain the life out of a poem, it's to translate it word-for-word. Instead of merely translating the drama, Fagles heightens it.

But how did we get to this point? As I said, this little drama has become like a confusing game with many players, many of whom seem to be playing with different sets of rules. Let's start with Odysseus himself. Clearly, he's the lead actor in the events unfolding, but even he is being led and guided by those around him. The moment where Athena appears and encourages him to make the rounds begging in the great hall, as Telemachus had suggested, particularly struck me. Ostensibly, it's to separate the guilty from the slightly less guilty, but, as Homer makes clear, neither Odysseus, Athena, nor Telemachus have any intention of allowing any of the suitors to escape the deaths the three are plotting for them. So why go through this charade? Well, partly because it allows Antinous to prove, once again, that he is the worst of a bad lot. His treatment of the beggar appalls even the other suitors. But I think something else might be at work here, inasmuch as the idea of there being the worst of a bad lot inherently implies there is also the best of a bad lot. Indeed, as we discovered in Book XVI, there are suitors that even Penelope is inclined to view favorably. There are gradations of guilt in this group, and Odysseus is going to have to steel himself for the battle ahead--he must not let mercy sway him from his chosen course. And what better way for Odysseus to steel himself than by begging from the men he is plotting to kill, always knowing that, however generous they may be with their scraps, they are scraps of food that rightfully belong to him? Every crust of bread is both an act of generosity and an insult to him and his family. Now *that* is layering.

A similar sense of things being put into motion is caused by Telemachus' perfectly timed sneeze.


You know the passage--Eumaeus the loyal swineherd has just told Penelope about the stranger (Odysseus in disguise, of course) and his purported news of Odysseus. Penelope, expressing a seemingly newfound hope, at least partially inspired by the changes evident in Telemachus since his return and his caginess about what he may have learned (Telemachus perhaps isn't quite as good as dissembling yet as either of his parents), says that if Odysseus were indeed near, he and her son would kill all the suitors within a moment. Telemachus chooses this moment to sneeze. Penelope laughs--she actually laughs--and takes it as an omen that what she has just wished is about to come to pass. Is it too much to suppose that the sneeze, rather than being brought about by a stray bit of pollen, was actually timed by Telemachus as a signal to his mother? And that his mother heard the sneeze, surmised at least some part of its meaning and laughed at the knowledge she'd gained? Given this family, all plotters and weavers of schemes, one simply can't be sure. Or perhaps his sneeze was an attempt to cover up a gasp he was about to make at hearing his mother lay bare the simple fact of the case: Odysseus is near, and the suitors are about to die. After all, the less that idea is openly discussed within range of the suitors' hearing, the better.

But back to the conversations that are interrupted by the sneeze. Here is where two ideas begin to emerge that will come to fruition later: firstly, when, exactly, does Penelope know that this strange beggar who has the audacity to make demands on the sort of audience he will have with the Queen is actually her husband? After all, the portents and signs are all around--as early as Book II, we've had prophesies stating that Odysseus was returning, and that when he did so, he would be alone and unrecognized. The number of these, at least some of which Penelope is aware, has only been growing. At what point does the wife know that her husband has returned and, proving herself the true equal of Odysseus, begin to dissemble? Does it begin with that sneeze, or is it yet to come? Keep this question in mind. Secondly, make a note of her wish that the suitors be shot down by Apollo the archer. Just saying--bows might be important here.

Oh, but I haven't even mentioned one of the smallest, most perfect moments in The Odyssey: Argos, the loyal dog that Odysseus trained as a puppy, finally sees his master, greets him the best way he can, and then dies, having waited for his entire life to see his master return.  Odysseus can't acknowledge the dog for fear of ruining his disguise, but he does shed a hidden tear. The energetic young dog he left behind is now a pitiful creature, and in seeing that, it must strike Odysseus afresh all that has happened since he has left. His baby son is now a man, his young wife is now a woman of middle age, and his trusted pet clings to life long enough just to wag his tail for his master one last time. With other men, Odysseus needs ruses and disguises, lies and charms--but his dog knows him immediately through Athena's shimmer. There's no need for lies with Odysseus and Argos--their return to each other is immediate and heartbreaking.


You've probably already guessed a few of the things that are going to appear here, but still...QUOTES!

"Spear in hand, /Telemachus strode on through the hall and out, / and a pair of sleek hounds went trotting at his heels. / And Athena lavished marvelous splendor on the prince / so the people all gazed in wonder as he came forward. / The swaggering suitors clustered, milling round him, / welcome words on their lips, and murder in their hearts. / But he gave them a wide berth as they came crowding in / and there where Mentor sat, Antiphus, Halitherses too-- / his father's loyal friends from days gone by-- / he took his seat as they pressed him with their questions." (Fagles, lines 64-73)

I love this passage because it shows how, in the span of just eight days, Telemachus has gone from a young princeling unable to control an assembly to the rightful hear of Odysseus, striding about his father's house, ignoring the suitors, and seating himself with his father's companions. His transition is nearly complete.

"There the dog Argos lay in the dung, all covered with dog ticks. / Now as he perceived that Odysseus had come close to him, / he wagged his tail, and laid both his ears back; only / he now no longer had the strength to move any closer / to his master, who, watching him from a distance, without Eumaios / noticing, secretly wiped away a tear... / But the doom of dark death now closed over the dog, Argos, / when, after nineteen years had gone by, he had seen Odysseus." (Lattimore translation, lines 300-5 & 326-7)

Those lines speak for themselves, I think.

And of course, we close where we began:

"The day was over. Dusk was falling fast."


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