The Odyssey: Books 19-24

by Erin on November 30, 2010

Odyssey Readalong BadgeIt’s the last week of Trish’s The Odyssey readalong! I’m now finished listening to Ian McKellen read the epic to me. During this final week, we read Books 19-24.

I’ll repeat, one last time, my warning regarding the length of my summaries: 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 home at last, disguised as a beggar in his own house and scheduled to meet Queen Penelope shortly. Telemachus had just kicked the suitors out after they’d been excessively cruel to Odysseus. For a full summary of the earlier books, please see Books 1-6, Books 7-12, and Books 13-18.

Summary

Book 19: Penelope and Her Guest

Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, goes to meet with Penelope. He tells her his invented background story, mentioning that Odysseus stayed with him many years ago and that he was wearing a particular cloak and pin. Penelope recognizes these clothes as the one she gave her husband and so believes the beggar’s story. Penelope insists Odysseus have his feet washed before bed, and he says he will allow Eurycleia to bathe his feet. As she does so, the old nurse notices a distinct scar Odysseus received from a boar long ago and recognizes her king. Odysseus instructs her to keep her realization to herself, and Athena distracts Penelope so that she doesn’t notice. Penelope announces that the next day she will hold a contest for the suitors; she will marry the winner. The queen takes her leave and goes to bed.

Book 20: Portents Gather

Odysseus beds down in the hall but can’t sleep. Athena comes to him and gives him a pep talk. Penelope doesn’t sleep much either and spends much of the night praying.

In the morning, suitors and herdsmen begin to gather. Throughout the morning, Odysseus is taunted and harassed. Tension mounts.

Book 21: Odysseus Strings His Bow

Penelope brings forth Odysseus’ bow and announces she will marry the man who can shoot an arrow from the bow straight through twelve axes. Telemachus, then each suitor in turn, tries to string Odysseus’ great bow and fails. Finally, Odysseus asks to try and Telemachus grants his permission. Of course, Odysseus easily strings his bow and shoots the arrow perfectly.

Book 22: Slaughter in the Hall

Odysseus and Telemachus switch into battle mode. Odysseus fires arrows in rapid succession while Telemachus fetches the weapons he had set aside earlier. Athena joins in, deflecting weapons that are hurled toward the king and his son. Odysseus is merciless, slaying even a suitor who begs for mercy. Only the minstrel and herald are spared, at Telemachus’ request.

Odysseus then asks Eurycleia to tell him which of Penelope’s maids are treacherous. He instructs Telemachus to have the servants clean the hall of bodies and blood. The traitorous girls are taken outside and hung.

Book 23: The Great Rooted Bed

Eurycleia goes to Penelope and tells the queen what has happened. Penelope goes downstairs to where Odysseus is but remains convinced the gods are playing tricks on her. To test Odysseus, Penelope tells Eurycleia to move their bed out of their bedroom. Odysseus freaks out because their bed was carved from an olive tree and would have to be chopped out in order to be moved. Since only Odysseus, Penelope, and a servant know about the bed, Penelope at last believes her husband has returned. Husband and wife spend the night catching up on all fronts. In the morning, Odysseus goes to visit his father, Laertes, with Telemachus and the herdsmen.

Book 24: Peace

While Odysseus sets off, Hermes leads the souls of the dead suitors down to Hades. They meet Ajax, Agamemnon, and Achilles and swap stories.

Back in the world of the living, Odysseus sends the other men ahead to Laertes’ house while Odysseus goes out to find his father. He encounters the old man gardening and proceeds to pretend he’s someone else, pretending he is searching for Odysseus and asking for news. It isn’t until Laertes weeps and pours dirt over his head that Odysseus stops being cruel and reveals his true identity to his father, using the boar scar on his leg as proof. They return to Laertes’ house, and those who have gathered there sit down to a meal.

Meanwhile, in the city, word has spread about the suitor massacre. The assembled townspeople argue over whether or not to avenge the suitors’ deaths, but Athena intervenes before they can get too far. She instructs them to make peace, which they do.

Thoughts

The Odyssey by Homer (audiobook cover)Well, we’ve reached the end. I must say, I’m not particularly impressed by how Odysseus acted upon returning home. Instead of seeming like a great and shining king, he seems more like a brute. There is so much bloodshed and so little mercy! I was particularly angry at how he treated his poor father, Laertes, tormenting the poor man to tears with his joke before finally identifying himself. What kind of man does that?

I also thought the end was a little…unsatisfactory. Athena just comes down and says, “Hey, let’s have peace everyone!” and they all agree? That’s a bit anticlimactic. And did Odysseus have to do his pilgrimage with the oar, or not?

I did think it was clever how Penelope tested Odysseus by telling her nurse to move their bed out of her room for him to sleep on. I also liked that Odysseus got mad and actually seemed to think she’d ruined his work of art. Clever, clever woman. Even if she did spend most of this section getting “her fill of weeping.”

I’m really glad I participated in this readalong, Thanks to Trish for coordinating it and the other participants for…well…participating! The audiobook worked out wonderfully for me, and even if I didn’t love everything about The Odyssey, I’m certainly happy I set aside my previous dislike and gave the audio version a shot. I definitely enjoyed it much more as an audiobook!

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12 comments
Shelley
Shelley

I agree the end was very anticlimactic, and also the ambush that didn't happen to Telemachus. He left us hanging at the end of book six or so, and then when were finally get back to it, Athena just makes it so he steers clear of them. That would make a horrible movie!

I enjoyed your summaries and thoughts, and you've made me want to listen to this version with Ian McKellan reading!

Joanna
Joanna

I didn't like the fact that he tormented his poor father either. It seemed so cruel.

And the bed thing was so clever!

Trish
Trish

I can't understand why there was the bit at the ending with Odysseus lying to his father either--seems kind of pointless when he's already come out to everyone.

Even though Penelope is portrayed as a weeper (though who isn't in this tale!), I admire the strength that she does have. Will be really curious to read The Penelopiad by Atwood one day.

So glad you joined us Erin, and I'm thrilled that the audiobook worked out for you!!

softdrink
softdrink

That scene with his dad really got to me, too. I thought that was so cruel...I mean, he made his father cry!

Jenny
Jenny

I'm really very fond of Penelope. She's the archetypal waiting character, but actually she does some clever, interesting things in the poem. Bless her.

(I remember reading some play of Shakespeare's where he said "All the yarn she spun in Ulysses' absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths." I thought that was lovely.)

Amanda
Amanda

My son is reading this right now and Jason was telling him just how many volumes of books are missing. We only have the Odyssey and the Illiad but apparently there were originally over 20 books. Morrigan was wondering why it felt so abrupt at the beginning and end.

Erin
Erin

That's right, I forgot about the non-ambush! No wonder the bits of The Odyssey that always get told are Odysseus' actual adventures. The rest of it is full of holes!

Erin
Erin

I also liked how Odysseus didn't seem to realize Penelope was testing him, especially after he told her she was welcome to test him!

Erin
Erin

Yes! And so mean! Poor Laertes. Odysseus didn't deserve such a kind father! I definitely understand why Penelope weeps a lot, and I did like her quite a bit. I read The Penelopiad long ago, but I'd like to revisit it with The Odyssey fresh in my mind!

Thanks again for organizing this readalong -- I'm so glad I joined you, too!

Erin
Erin

So mean! "Big O" lost major points with me for that one. And never really redeemed himself, since the story ended a few lines later!

Erin
Erin

Of the (few) women I've met in ancient literature, I think Penelope's one of my favorites. Despite all the weeping (and I suppose who can blame her?) she's pretty clever and level-headed. What a lovely Shakespeare quote!

Erin
Erin

Wow, I didn't realize so many were missing! I guess that explains why the stories feel rough in some spots. Half of me wishes someone would make up a better ending, though. Or write a sequel that ties up all the loose ends in a more satisfactory way!