Only six books of The Odyssey and one week left of Trish’s readalong! I’ve been listening to Ian McKellen read the epic to me on audio and using the corresponding Fagles translation in print as a supplement. This week, we read Books 13-18.
Same warning as the past two weeks: I like how the story is split into books, which strike me as being sort of like individual episodes in the TV series of The Odyssey. I’m going to structure my summary in the same way. If it’s a little much for you, feel free to skip down to the “Thoughts” section!
When we left off, Odysseus was telling King Alcinous about how his crew had been killed by Zeus’s storm, sent as punishment for killing the cattle of the sun god, Helios. After nine days at sea, Odysseus had washed up on Calypso’s island. For a full summary of previous events, please see my weekly posts about Books 1-6 and Books 7-12.
Book 13: Ithaca at Last
Odysseus’ tale is over. In the morning, Alcinous and the other men shower Odysseus with gifts and prepare a ship to take him home. They depart when night falls, and Odysseus sleeps through the journey. The Phaeacian crew carries the sleeping Odysseus to shore, unloads his treasure, and then sets off for home. But Poseidon notices that Odysseus has made it home at last and complains to Zeus. Zeus suggests Poseidon turn the ship into a rock just as it approaches home, then heap rock around the Phaeacian port, both of which Poseidon does.
Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, Odysseus has woken up. Because Athena has shrouded him in fog to hide him, Odysseus doesn’t recognize Ithaca and thinks he’s been betrayed; he wonders immediately how he’ll hide his treasure in this strange land. The goddess appears to Odysseus as a woman and tells him that he’s in Ithaca. Odysseus, not recognizing Athena, begins to invent an identity for himself. Athena tells him to cut the crap and reveals herself. After convincing him that he is, in fact, home in Ithaca, Athena helps Odysseus hide his treasure and then updates him about the suitor situation in his palace. She disguises Odysseus as an old man, tells him to go find the swineherd, then sets off to get Telemachus from Sparta.
Book 14: The Loyal Swineherd
Odysseus finds the home of Eumaeus the swineherd. Eumaeus is firmly convinced that his king is dead and will not believe Odysseus that this is not the case. He kills two pigs for their dinner, complaining that the suitors take all the finest animals for their own feasting. He tells Odysseus that many men have come claiming to have news of the missing king in order to win the favor of Penelope and Telemachus when, in fact, they know nothing. When Eumaeus asks Odysseus to tell his own story, Odysseus invents a false one that’s just as grand and complicated as his true tale. (Since it’s all lies, I’m not going to summarize it here!) When Odysseus’ story is finished, Eumaeus lends him a cloak. Odysseus sleeps while Eumaeus tends to the pigs.
Book 15: The Prince Sets Sail for Home
Athena turns up in Sparta and tells Telemachus it’s time to go home, and quickly. She warns him about the ambush but assures him the gods will keep him safe. Once he arrives in Ithaca, he is to go first to the swineherd and stay a night there. The next morning, Telemachus asks Menelaus to send him home. He goes straight to his ship instead of stopping in Pylos, where King Nestor would undoubtedly delay him. As the ship is about to sail, a man named Theoclymenus approaches Telemachus and asks for passage on the ship, explaining that he’s been expelled because he killed a man. Telemachus allows him to board the ship, and they hit the road…um, sea.
Back at the swineherd’s hut, Eumaeus tells Odysseus he’s welcome to stay on, then tells his guest his own life story. The two men talk late into the night.
Meanwhile, Telemachus approaches Ithaca. He has the ship drop him off and head to port, leaving him to visit the swineherd. He leaves Theoclymenus in the care of one of the other men until Telemachus can get him the next day.
Book 16: Father and Son
Telemachus arrives at Eumaeus’ hut, where he meets the swineherd and an old, unknown beggar. They eat and trade news. Telemachus sends Eumaeus to tell Penelope her son has returned, warning the swineherd not to spread the news around. When Eumaeus is gone, Athena restores Odysseus to his real appearance, and father and son have a heartfelt reunion. They catch up, then begin plotting what to do about the suitors. Odysseus instructs Telemachus (1) not to tell anyone Odysseus has returned; (2) to hide all the weapons except for two; and (3) not to intervene on Odysseus’ behalf when he comes the following day to the castle as a beggar. Telemachus agrees.
Meanwhile, the ship that bore Telemachus home arrives at port and Eumaeus announces the prince’s return. The suitors are confused and annoyed; they realize the ship they sent to ambush Telemachus has already returned home, its mission having failed. Penelope comes in and yells at them as they begin to think up new schemes, then retires to her room. As Eumaeus returns from the city, Athena turns Odysseus back into the old beggar. The swineherd relates the news from town, and the three men eat and then go to sleep.
Book 17: Stranger at the Gates
In the morning, Telemachus heads to town to see his mother, Penelope. He runs into Theoclymenus and brings the seer to his mother, who asks about Odysseus. The suitors are up to their usual feasting.
Meanwhile, Eumaeus is leading Odysseus, still in beggar garb, into town. The pair is taunted along the way. They enter the hall, first Eumaeus, then Odysseus. Odysseus visits each suitor in turn to test their character and loyalty, pretending to beg. An argument breaks out with Antinous, one of the nastier suitors, who is rude and cruel to Odysseus and ends up throwing his footstool at the beggar. Penelope, who has yet to meet the beggar, asks that he be brought to her so she can question him. Odysseus says that he will come later; he does not think it wise for them to be seen together by the suitors. The party rages on.
Book 18: The Beggar-King of Ithaca
A local beggar called Irus turns up and tries to make Odysseus leave. The two swap insults and threats, finally agreeing to fight. Antinous offers dinner as a prize. Athena beefs Odysseus up as the beggars prepare to fight, and Irus gets scared. Odysseus whacks Irus across the jaw, and the fight is over. Odysseus is given the dinner he won.
Athena, in the meantime, inspires Penelope to appear before the suitors to “fan their hearts, inflame them more” (p. 381) as well as to warn Telemachus to stay away from “that pernicious crowd” of suitors. Penelope refuses to clean herself up, so Athena puts her to sleep and goes to work making Penelope extra lovely. Penelope wakes up and heads down to where the men are feasting. The desired effect is achieved:
“The suitors’ knees went slack, their hearts dissolved in lust–
all of them lifted prayers to lie beside her, share her bed.” (p. 382)
But Penelope ignores them and instead scolds her son for allowing the beggar (Odysseus, though she does not know that) to be poorly treated in his house. Then she scolds the suitors for devouring her own goods instead of bringing her gifts. Antinous proposes that each suitor bring her a gift, and each one sends a man to go and fetch something from his house. Penelope and her maids retire with the newly acquired loot while the suitors party on. Odysseus sends the maids away, saying he will tend the torches himself for as long as the suitors wish to stay. Athena wants Odysseus to suffer further insults, so the suitors lay into him again. One of the suitors throws another stool at Odysseus, but Odysseus ducks and the stool hits the wine-steward instead. Telemachus tells the suitors it’s time to go home, and they are so amazed by his decisiveness that they obey.
These six books are certainly different from the six previous ones. Where books 7-12 were mostly linear, relating Odysseus’ tale as he told it, books 13-18 jump around: from Odysseus, to Telemachus, to the palace full of suitors, and back, all in a short span of time. Things are happening on all fronts, and the focus shifts accordingly. In some ways, this different structure builds anticipation. At the same time, though, most of this chunk of The Odyssey is spent on preparations. Nothing particularly exciting happens; it seems it’s being saved up for the final bit of the story.
I did get kind of tired of irrelevant back stories. For instance, Odysseus’ invented life history was unnecessarily long-winded. Yes, I see, he’s clever and quick and a wonderful storyteller. I’d say we learned that when he told Alcinous his actual life story. I’ll admit I didn’t pay thorough attention to that bit. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be vital information to the epic’s end!
I noted in my Week 1 recap that Telemachus seemed to be a gigantic baby. There were suggestions that maybe Athena sent him on his little news-hunting expedition to man him up. If that was the case, I must say, it seems to have worked. The new Telemachus seems much more sure of himself. Just in time, because I’m not sure what heroic Odysseus would’ve thought if he’d returned home and met immature Telemachus.
I enjoyed last week’s reading more than this week’s, just because more happened. I’m expecting a big finish next week, though, so perhaps it will make up for the slower pace of this week!