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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 43: Thoughts on Book XXIII

Admit it, you cried a little. Or, at least, you felt as if crying would not be an inappropriate reaction to the final reunion of Odysseus and Penelope.

However, as with everything involving this preeminently cagey couple, their reunion is perhaps more complicated than seems strictly necessary from the outside. Indeed, both the nurse who fetches Penelope (and, it should be noted, upbraids her slightly for doubting the evidence she's put before her) and Telemachus fail to understand the nature of the bond between Odysseus and his queen. After Penelope descends and takes her place in the great hall, she eyes her husband but says nothing; for his part, too, Odysseus is silent and only speaks to Telemachus, urging him to go about creating a diversion that will buy them time to figure out how to prevent an uprising by the suitors' many relatives.

Of course, the fact that the diversion that Odysseus has his son create is of a wedding celebration in progress--well, that's exactly what's happening, isn't it? It's a sort of renewal of vows: two adults, far older and wiser than when they last saw each other, recommitting to their shared life. It's only fitting then, that the key detail, the final test the ever-cautious Penelope presents her husband, is that of their marriage bed. The bed that, like their marriage itself, only reveals its secret to the two of them--rooted into the very soil of Ithaca like Odysseus itself and partially made from an olive tree, Athena's gift to the world. The bed unifies them in marriage as it unifies the elements of Odysseus' character: the skill, the craft, and the deep attachment to his land, Ithaca.

In using his bed as the final test of identity, the bed that he made for the two of them, Penelope displays firmly that she understands Odysseus. This understanding, this secret knowledge that only the two of them share, that is what held them fast to each other, even as suitors vied for Penelope's heart and a beautiful goddess offered Odysseus immortality if she would love only her. They are well-matched like no other man and wife in ancient literature; indeed, it's arguable that they're the most well-matched couple in all literature, ancient or modern, and that all other equally matched pairs (think of the pairings of Austen, who relate on a level of mind and intelligence, much like the King and Queen of Ithaca) are merely shadows and reflections of Odysseus and Penelope.

The reunion continues even after they go to bed where, while some conjugal bliss is also enjoyed, the bulk of the night--a very long night, as Athena has held back the dawn as a gift to the reunited couple in what is perhaps the loveliest touch in a poem of lovely touches--is spent in telling their stories. Penelope tells Odysseus of her trials with the suitors, and Odysseus tells Penelope of his voyages, not leaving out his time with Circe and Calypso, which is not what most husbands would want to tell their wives. He even tells her of the final trial he must endure before he dies--which, instead of filling her with fear, actually fills Penelope with the hope that, one day, perhaps, they'll finally just get to be together. No more trials, no more tests, just the two of them, in old age, simply enjoying each other.

And I lied--there's one lovelier touch than Athena holding back the night. Namely, when Odysseus makes a passing mention to Tiresias' prediction regarding his death, Penelope insists on being told immediately about the prophecy, and Odysseus, in reaction, calls her "strange." I love that moment because it shows that, even though they know each other so well, she still has the power to surprise him. There's still something about her that is a mystery to him. What more could someone such as Odysseus want, cunning and wise as he is, than to be loved by a wife who both understands him and yet surprises him, when so little in life comes as a surprise? The cunning strategist, taken by surprise--fitting, that.

But there is still work to be done--one final recognition and the ultimate resolution of the problem with the suitors. And then we will have finished this remarkable poem--one that I feel I understand better now than I ever have, but that still has the power to surprise me, and I daresay always will.



There are literally dozens of wonderful lines in Book XXIII, but the most wonderful, for me at least, is the Homeric simile (remember those?) that Homer uses to describe the way the lovers react once they can truly be together again. Penelope is here described as the survivor of a shipwreck, just as Odysseus has been many times--again, Homer links them in language. The shipwreck imagery is so apt and so poignant that it almost creates its own mini-poem within the larger epic. Here it is in full, from the Fagles translation, where it is at lines 262-272

Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel
when they catch sight of land--Poseidon has struck
their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds
and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming,
struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore,
their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy
as they plant their feet on solid ground again,
spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her
the sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze,
that her white arms, embracing his neck
would never for a moment let him go...



  1. I think I made the mistake of reading part of this passage too much from my own point of view, and as such, I'm glad I read this post. The lovely part about Odysseus calling Penelope "strange" struck me very differently. When my significant other calls me strange, it's always done affectionately and with pride. I didn't stop to think that this is not normal. I love the idea that he still finds her surprising despite all we know of his intellectual prowess. That's a nice touch, and one I wouldn't have noticed. So thanks!


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