I’m a bit late with my first post about The Odyssey for Trish’s readalong. I’ve been listening to Ian McKellen read the epic to me on audio, which is fantastic. The problem came when I sat down to write my summary of books 1 through 6 and couldn’t work out the exact play-by-play. I’ve been waiting for my print copy of the Fagles translation (same as my audio version) to come in at the library.
I’ll warn you, my summary is going to be long. 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!
As The Odyssey opens, Odysseus is stuck on Calypso’s island. Poseidon, angry with Odysseus over the blinding of the Cyclops (Poseidon’s son), is refusing to let Odysseus go home. While Poseidon is away accepting an offering, Athena convinces the rest of the gods that Odysseus should be released. Athena takes off for Ithaca, Odysseus’ homeland, while Hermes heads for Calypso’s island.
Disguised as Mentes, Athena shows up at Odysseus’ home, which is overrun with suitors trying to marry the hero’s wife, Penelope. Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, grieving for his father, welcomes Mentes. Athena then lays out a plan, instructing Telemachus to sail to Pylos and Sparta in search of news about his father. Telemachus heads to bed, mulling over the plan. His childhood nurse tucks him in, in a scene I found lovely:
“He [Telemachus] spread the doors of his snug, well-made room,
sat down on the bed and pulled his soft shirt off,
tossed it into the old woman’s conscientious hands,
and after folding it neatly, patting it smooth,
she hung it up on a peg beside his corded bed,
then padded from the bedroom,
drawing the door shut with the silver hook,
sliding the doorbolt home with its rawhide strap.” (p. 91-92)
In the morning, Telemachus calls the citizens of Ithaca to assembly. After arguing with the suitors about Penelope, Telemachus announces his plans to sail for Pylos and Sparta for news of Odysseus. He wanders off to pray for a safe journey, and Athena, disguised as Odysseus’ old friend Mentor, joins him and gives him a divine pep talk. Heartened, Telemachus goes to prepare supplies for his journey. Only his old nurse, who is charged with collecting the supplies, knows of his plan; no other servants, nor Penelope, are told. Meanwhile, Athena assembles a ship and crew. In the middle of the night, after making an offering to the gods, the ship sets off on its journey.
Telemachus’ ship arrives in Pylos. Telemachus and Athena (disguised as Mentor) are welcomed by King Nestor, and they feast together. Nestor then asks Telemachus why he has come, and Telemachus explains that he seeks news of his father, Odysseus. Nestor reminisces about the Trojan war. They talk some more, and Nestor assures Telemachus that Menelaus will have more information about Odysseus. Nestor insists that Telemachus stay in the king’s house instead of on the ship. Athena/Mentor suggests that Nestor send Telemachus to Sparta by chariot. The next day, Telemachus and one of Nestor’s sons set off to visit Menelaus while the ship and crew wait in Pylos.
The travelers arrive at the house of King Menelaus of Sparta, where a double wedding is taking place. Menelaus and Helen have reconciled, and they welcome their guests into their home. Menelaus comments on how much he misses his friends who were lost during and after the Trojan war and how Odysseus suffered the most. At the mention of his father, Telemachus begins to weep. Though they have not given their names, Helen guesses that one of the guests is Odysseus’ son. Soon everyone is weeping, and Helen drugs the wine to soothe them all to sleep. In the morning, Menelaus asks Telemachus why he has come, then recounts his own journey home from Troy and says he heard Odysseus was being detained on Calypso’s island. He invites Telemachus to stay for a while, but Telemachus says he really must be getting back to his sailors and to Ithaca.
Meanwhile, in Ithaca, the suitors and Penelope realize Telemachus has gone. Penelope is distraught, and Athena sends a dream to calm her. The suitors, furious, devise a plan to ambush Telemachus on his way home.
Back at the gods’ council, Athena argues again that it isn’t right for Odysseus to be trapped with Calypso when the suitors run rampant in his home and now plot to ambush his son. Zeus sends Hermes to Calypso’s island to tell the goddess she must release Odysseus. She is upset, but she does as she is told. Odysseus does not believe he’s being released and asks Calypso to swear an oath that she isn’t tricking him.
Over the next few days, Odysseus fashions a raft with tools Calypso supplies. When it is completed, he sets sail and spends seventeen days at sea before he spies land. But Poseidon, returning home from accepting his tribute, spots Odysseus and sends a storm to slow him down. The raft breaks apart. Ino, once a mortal woman but now an immortal resident of the sea, sees Odysseus struggling and lends him her sash, which will keep him afloat. Odysseus finally reaches land near the mouth of a river. He crawls up into some nearby woods–naked, for he took off his heavy, waterlogged clothes in the sea–and falls asleep.
The king of the land in which Odysseus has landed is Alcinous, who rules the Phaeacians. While Odysseus sleeps, Athena enters the king’s house and, disguised as one of the princess’s friends, visits Alcinous’ daughter, Nausicaa. Athena urges Nausicaa to take all the clothing to the river to wash, for Nausicaa may soon be married. Nausicaa goes to her father and asks to use a carriage. She and her girls set off for the river. Upon arriving, they wash the clothes, have lunch, and then play catch. Their cries wake Odysseus. Breaking off an olive branch to “shield his body, / hide his private parts,” he approaches the princess and asks for her help. She gives him some of the clothing they’ve just washed, and they all set off for the city. Odysseus stops to pray to Athena while Nausicaa and her maids continue on to the city.
It seems I’ve forgotten everything I knew about The Odyssey from college except for the bad taste it left in my mouth. I didn’t remember, for instance, that the story begins with Telemachus. It also slipped my mind that we meet Odysseus in the middle of his story, after he’s already lost his men and ships. This structure is certainly more complicated than a straightforward telling would have been, and it definitely increases the intrigue and suspense.
I really enjoy the way in which certain phrases are repeated over and over: “When young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,” “send him scudding over the sea’s broad back,” “the wine-dark sea” and other such phrases come up again and again, and their repetition lends a sort of rhythm to the story. I think they stick out especially for me since I’m listening to the audio version; I’m not sure I’d notice them as much if I were reading the text.
It’s interesting to me that the gods don’t really seem to be omnipotent. For example, while Poseidon is off accepting his offering from a distant land, he doesn’t realize Odysseus has been set free. It’s not until Poseidon is returning home and actually sees Odysseus that he realizes what has happened. It’s also interesting to see how involved in mortals’ lives the gods are. They are constantly intervening for or against certain mortals. Perhaps because of this close involvement, the mortals are forever sacrificing animals and pouring out libations for the gods.
I’m a little annoyed with two characters: first, Telemachus. I’m not sure how old he’s supposed to be, but I find him to be quite whiny and immature. Athena seems to have infinite patience when it comes to prodding him along. If I were Athena, I’d have given up after about five minutes. It seems odd to me that she’s willing to coax him through his journey to find news of his father when she knows darn well where Odysseus is the whole time. Some people have suggested perhaps it’s to help Telemachus become a man. If that’s the case, the odds of Athena succeeding don’t look particularly good.
I’m also a little miffed that Helen is back, nestled in with Menelaus. Wasn’t she the reason all those men spent years fighting the Trojan war? Isn’t that why Odysseus is lost and so many of Menelaus’ friends died? What is she doing right back by his side? I’m pretty sure she deserves something worse than that.
So far–I’m shocked to say!–I’m quite enjoying listening to The Odyssey. It’s very accessible, and I’m not having any trouble following. I think listening instead of reading makes a huge difference for me. It keeps me from getting bogged down with the text and moves me along faster. I’m very glad Trish suggested trying the audiobook!