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What I’m Reading: The Odyssey – Book 4

When last we rode with “thoughtful” Telemachus, he and Peisistratos, Nestor’s son, were on their way to the home of “glorious” Menelaus and Helen (she for whom his father was fighting when he went missing). As book four begins – and we come to the end of the portion of the Odyssey typically known as the Telemachy – Telemachus and Pesistratos are finally arrving at the King’s palace. They are greeted with, of course, a grand feast. This is “Homer’s little book about food” after all.* But what’s interesting about book four is that all the feasting done bears a much different tone than in previous books. In book three we find the suitors partying in Odysseus’s home. There’s a raucous tone about the evening, like something out of a Will Ferrell movie. Earlier, in book one, we find the gods dining while discussing the fate of their favorite humans and it’s a decidedly more serious, judicial occasion.

Here in book four the tone shifts a bit and we witness a solemn, funereal atmosphere.

As readers, we know that Odysseus is alive, that one day he will return home and drive the bothersome suitors from his dining hall. That he will reunite with his wife and the son he’s barely met and the many friends he fought alongside during the Trojan Wars. We know that his vicotry will come. There’s will be trials along the way, but his vicotry will come.

Telemachus, however, doesn’t know this. For all he (and Menelaus and the others) knows Odysseus has been torn apart by wolves or slain by a minotaur or pushed into the sea by marauders. And so book four feels like a memorial service of sorts for a man who likely never received a proper burial. Both Menelaus and Helen wax rhapsodic about Odysseus’s exploits: his cunning and valor and his way with words. And Telemachus, who doesn’t speak until line 290, can barely communicate for all the tears he sheds.

Book four is a book about sorrow, I think, and the ways it ingrains itself in the character’s lives, how it’s inescapable. The sorrow of the characters is so deeply felt, in fact, that Helen poisons her guests’ wine with “a medicine of heartease, free of gall, to make one forget all sorrows”. And, later, after discovering the suitors’ plot to do away with her son, Penelope is so distraught – “weeping constantly “ – that only a god-sent figure in a dream can calm her heart.

The message seems to be that sorrow is unavoidable and can only be overcome by the magic of a deity. Ironically, though, the sorrows themselves are given by the Olympians, as Penelope mourns in line 723. That the gods are so vindictive only exacerbates the problem. I touched on this in my last post when I wrote about the role of food in Greek culture and the way it so often was used, via sacrifice, to appease vengeful gods.

Here’s where I confess: this is a key problem I’ve long had with Homer, or, rather, with much of Greek literature. There’s so little joy. I suspect many of you feel just the opposite, but I find that, for all their stylistic grandeur and magical storytelling, the Iliad and Odyssey are rainy day books. This isn’t a bad thing (after all, CS Lewis referred similarly to the Fairie Queen, one of his favorites books), but it partly explains why I’ve never taken great joy in the reading experience. Until this reading.

As I read these opening books – the Telemachy – I’m struck most by the characters who push on as virtuously as they can in the face of those vindictive deities, especially in the spirit of Odysseus whose nobility shines so brightly despite his absence. In Telemachus we have a young character who, as Menelaus and Helen observe here in book four, is the spitting image of his father in more ways than one, and while he may not be the warrior his father was/is (yet), we get to watch him grow into a character that is deserving of his own tale.

In the meantime, the Telemachy is over and we move on to Odysseus. Next week.

What’s your experience with book four?

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