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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 41: Thoughts on Book XXI

I mentioned on Twitter today, only half jokingly, that this section of the poem was so good that it almost seemed wrong to try to break it down into smaller units or analyze it. The book divisions are artificial, created long after Homer died, but just as with the Bible, they are often so perfect as to be almost impossible to to imagine anywhere else.

For example, think of how we open this book compared to where we close it. We start with Penelope, guided by Athena, who gathers her handmaidens around her and fetches her husband's bow, which has been locked in storage for twenty years. We end with Odysseus, having proven his worth with that bow, still in his hands, flanked by his son Telemachus and aided by his loyal male servants. We begin with "feminine" cunning and end with "masculine" strength. In between, we've essentially had one long set piece--the Test of the Bow, as it's called. That, my friends, is structure serving narrative, and it's amazingly hard to pull off, and it happens here so effortlessly that's it actually rather easy to overlook.

During the Test of the Bow, we have schemes inside of schemes. We have Penelope, who, inspired by Athena, sets the challenge to the suitors: string my husband's bow and fire an arrow through all twelve ax heads, and I'll marry you. We have Telemachus, who is so struck by the idea as a way of initiating what might be called the final phase that he actually laughs, knowing that once his father has his bow, the blood with start to flow. We have Odysseus, who immediately seizes upon his wife's notion and makes a plot based on it, taking the opportunity to assure himself of the loyalty of both the swineherd and the cowherd. And, because none of these people can talk to each other about their plans as they unfold, we have Athena playing a vital role, often in the background.

Penelope's role is perhaps the most interesting. When most of the suitors fail even to string the bow, save Antinous, who suggests they all wait and try again tomorrow, essentially taking up Penelope's earlier strategy of delay, Penelope is instrumental in allowing the disguised Odysseus an attempt to string the bow. She jokingly says it would be unthinkable that she would run away with whoever this tramp is and be his bride. Of course, as I argued earlier, Penelope knows exactly who the tramp is. And she's certainly not going to run away and be his bride--because she already is his bride, and she's already living in their bridal home. She's being clever and playing a potentially dangerous game, because she knows that she must do whatever she can to ensure that Odysseus gets his hands on that bow.

However, once she has played her role, Telemachus strongly encourages her, shall we say, to get the hell out of Dodge. Take your women upstairs and tend to their weaving; I'll take care of things here. Penelope is slightly taken aback, but here, I think, she realizes that, not only does she know that Odysseus is in their presence, but Telemachus knows it, too, and they are all, finally, of one mind. She retires to her chamber and sets to weeping, as she is wont to do, though I would argue this time from fear and worry over what is about to happen and what could wrong than from grief. In the end, Athena puts her to sleep to make sure that, whatever terrible deeds are wrought downstairs, Penelope won't be tainted by them.

There's so much to be said about this section, so many fine touches, including the perfectly timed omen from Zeus that's so powerful it's still a cliche today, but as I said earlier, taking it apart almost cheapens it. Allow personal anecdote: when I was a senior in college, deciding which Jane Austen novel to write my final thesis on (no, no other authors were considered), I initially settled on Emma. It's possibly her finest work, her longest, and, to me, the most resistant to analysis. All of the others, to varying degrees, have entry points and footholds: the gothic parody of Northanger Abbey, the portrait of a relative spinster and a declining aristocracy in Persuasion, etc. Emma, however, just sat there, being great, but refusing to let me write about it. (If you're curious, I finally settled on Mansfield Park, which is such a strange, almost perverse book that it has myriad entry points.) For me, Book XXI of The Odyssey is like Emma. Sometimes, when confronted with a truly amazing work, the best thing isn't to analyse it, but just to read it and enjoy it.

In that spirit, there will be no quotations this time around. There are plenty to choose from, to be sure, but they lose their tension and meaning when taken out of context. Just go back and reread the text--it'll take you twenty minutes, probably, and I'd be hard pressed to think of a better way to spend that time.

Comments

  1. Another great post! I do have one thing to add/suggest. You surmise that Penelope's crying is, at this point, due to fear/worry over what may happen. I think I agree that Penelope knows what's going down and that her husband is indeed back in town. I think that while fear and worry do play a role, there's another emotion that's opening the floodgates, and that's relief.

    That passage struck me hard when I read it. At first I wondered why she'd be crying, knowing things were coming to a head and that her beloved was back home, so I tried to put myself in her place. Immediately, I realized I'd've probably collapsed well before this point, simply because the weight of not knowing had been lifted. (I'm neither as strong nor as crafty as Penelope.) Yes, she figured it out before now, but this is the point at which things are finally falling into place. So while the uncertainty of what'll pass in the next little while is tear-worthy, I think the release of decades of wondering and the ability to finally see the light at the end of the long tunnel draw out the tears every bit as much.

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    1. That is such an excellent point--exactly right. Twenty years of anxiety, and then, it's almost done. Well said.

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