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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 44: Thoughts on Book XXIV

First, by way of a preamble, I should say that, while this is the last regularly scheduled update for The Odyssey Reading Club, I plan to do at least two general overview posts in the coming weeks, so now would be a very good time to submit any questions or comments you have about my posts, or about the book as a whole. You can comment here, shoot me a question on Twitter (twitter.com/sjcaustenite) or over on the Facebook page--Odyssey Reading Club.

Second, as a sort of premature epilogue, it's time to "officially" announce that, while The Odyssey is ending, the story continues--or at least this crazy idea of living with a text for a year continues. 2013 will be the year of Tolstoy's War and Peace, perhaps the archetypal long classic novel. A separate post, previewing the new project, will go up soon. All I'll say for now is that War and Peace is long, but it is highly readable, and if you've made it through all 12,000+ lines of Homer's occasionally dense poetry, Tolstoy's rather clear style may even be something of a welcome relief.

But now, for the last time, let's look at one book of this amazing poem.

In a way, Book XXIV could be seen as Homer tying up the loose ends that are still dangling after Odysseus' return and recognition that we've seen over the past few books. The suitors are dead, but their family and friends are not. Odysseus has returned to his rightful place, but his father, old Laertes, doesn't know it yet. These two issues seem rather disparate, and, coming from a lesser writer, they may have been. Homer, however, weaves them together, subtly unifying them, both in terms of place and action (it is to Laertes' home, not Odysseus', that the suitors' relatives come for revenge), but also in what they represent.

The family story of Odysseus and his father, after all, is not just a story of two private citizens, but of the old king and the current king. Their family is a political one in the traditional sense of the term--and the anger over the killing of the suitors represents a threat to their claim on the throne. Odysseus' position on the throne is dependent largely on his father's before him, and just as Telemachus is given respect because he is his father's son, so is Odysseus as the son of Laertes. When the three of them prepare for battle, past, present, and future Kings of Ithaca, it is not just for their lives that they are fighting, but for their rule, their dynasty.

Before we go too far down this path however, I do think it's important to look at the actual recognition scene between Laertes and Odysseus. Usually over the course of his poem, Odysseus has been the one to decide when he is recognized, and by whom: Polyphemus, Alcinous, Eumaeus, even Telemachus all only know who Odysseus is because he reveals himself to them in some way. The battle of wits with Penelope is the first time we see someone get the upper hand over Odysseus, and Eurycleia discovers who he is when she touches his scar, though since Odysseus was not hiding his identity from them, those moments are something closer to mutually created recognition. With Laertes, however, Odysseus the liar finally finds someone to whom he cannot lie: his aged father, who has lived in grief for twenty years for his only son. Indeed, Odysseus attempts to deceive his father, but finds he is overcome with emotion and quickly drops his facade, telling his father that he is, indeed, his son, his Odysseus. Finally, after twenty years, Odysseus' cunning and guile have deserted him, or, to be more accurate, he has found that he can abandon them, and he weeps as he is reunited with the father whose name follows him wherever he goes--Odysseus, son of Laertes.

Of course, before all of this, we have the interesting passage of the suitors in the underworld. One last time, Homer compares his hero with the two men whose fates he both escaped--Achilles, killed on the plains of Troy, and Agamemnon, murdered by his wife's own hand. They talk to each other and then greet the suitors, one of whom tells their tale, seemingly hoping for sympathy. Agamemnon, however, is not about to give it to them. Instead, he takes joy in his old comrade's triumph before returning to his own tragic story. Odysseus could have been Achilles, mourned by one and all, if he'd died on the fields of Troy; or he could have been Agamemnon, betrayed by an unfaithful wife after a decade spent away from home; instead, Odysseus has both the glory of having helped win the Trojan War, but also of living to an old age with his beloved wife. For all of Achilles' fame and beauty, and for all of Agamemnon's wealth and power, I think both of them would have gladly instead been Odysseus of Ithaca, the long-enduring yet ultimately triumphant.

One lovely touch before we discuss the end of the poem. It's so perfect, and so Homeric, that we find Laertes tending to his orchards. It immediately shows a contrast between Laertes, who is cultivating the soil and caring for the land, and the suitors, who contented themselves with reaping the benefits of living in Ithaca, feasting on hogs and sheep and drinking wine from the vineyards, essentially abandoning their own responsibilities to provide for themselves and their families. Taking this one step further, Laertes, even in his grief, is looking toward the future, making sure that his orchards do not fall into ruin. Agriculture is an inherently forward-looking enterprise and involves in it the promise of abundance tomorrow--it is a hopeful activity. Laertes, thus, while he may be living in grief, has not abandoned hope; he still tends to his orchards, even though he will almost certainly die before he enjoys many of the fruits of his labor. He is doing this, not for himself, but for his son and grandson.

The final scene of the poem sets itself out to be essentially a repeat of the battle sequence we had earlier in Book XXII, with Odysseus, this time flanked not just by his son and a few servants, but by his father and his servants, facing down a much larger force. Athena, however, is ready for the bloodshed to end. She allows Laertes one final moment of glory in battle, killing the leader of those seeking to overthrow the royal house, before she intervenes, calling on all sides for peace. Odysseus, tellingly, is too enraged and too full of battle-lust to listen at first, and it is only when a lightning bolt from Zeus crashes to the earth at his daughter's feet that he finally holds off. Odysseus has won the day, but even Athena's favorite, needs to be chastened to heed the gods. And so, Athena, still in Mentor's guise, hands down terms of peace.

And so The Odyssey ends. The Iliad is notorious among some readers for ending before the fall of Troy, instead closing with the funeral of Hector, Trojan's champion. The Odyssey, however, ends with its story complete. Odysseus is returned, the suitors are dispatched, the King and Queen are reunited, and his status, and the status of his son to follow, is reaffirmed. However, it is telling that this is only achieved by what could be considered the first deus ex machina in Western literature. Had not Athena, and her father Zeus, conspired to bring peace to Ithaca, what might have been the result? Fortunately, wisdom, in the guise of mentor, prevailed, and peace, gladdening even Odysseus' heart, was the result.

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Only one quotation, and it's probably not the one you're thinking of. When Odysseus attempts to tell his father a false story of himself, he only thinly disguises who he truly is, punning on the meanings of the words in Greek and of his own name, which means "much accursed". Unfortunately, the Lattimore translation seems to either miss the joke or assume a basic knowledge of Greek from its readers, and gives us:

"I am from Alybas, where I live in a famous dwelling, / and am the son of Apheidas, son of the lord Polypemon. / My own name is Eperitos;" (lines 304-6)

That's not super clear, is it? Now try the Fitzgerald rendering:

"I come from Rover's Passage where my home is, / and I'm King Allwoes' only son. My name / is Quarrelman." (lines 334-6)

And lastly, we have the Fagles rendering, which I think is the clearest in the vernacular, and has the virtue of actually translating all of the names, unlike the Fitzgerald:

"I come from Roamer-Town, my home's a famous place, / my father's Unsparing, son of old King Pain, / and my name's Man of Strife..." (lines 340-2)

Here we have Odysseus' final declaration of his own identity; he is Eperitos, Man of Strife, son of King Allwoes. It is perhaps the truest lie ever told.

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