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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

Present action takes place at Mount Olympos, the home of the gods; in Ithaka, Odysseus' island kingdom; at Pylos with Nestor, and Sparta with Menelaos; on Kalypso's island, Ogygia; and on Skheria island, where Alkinoos reigns. During the flashback on Skheria when Odysseus relates the story of his wanderings, a number of other settings are described as Odysseus moves from Troy, through the Mediterranean, to Ogygia.

THEMES

1. THE QUEST OF TELEMAKHOS Scholars call Books 1-4 the Telemacheia, since it is the story of Telemakhos' education and maturation as he moves out into the world. The standard term for a novel depicting a young person's education is the German Bildungsroman.

2. THE WANDERINGS OF ODYSSEUS In these folkloric adventures the hero is repeatedly tested and stretched by all that nature, man, and the supernatural world can throw against him.

3. HOMECOMING, VENGEANCE, AND THE RESTORATION OF ORDER The trial of the bow and axes was originally folklore. The theme of the faithful wife occurs in many legends.
4. LOYALTY Loyalty is most apparent in Penelope's resisting of the suitors, but it is a trait essential to all the characters in Odysseus' family. For twenty years Odysseus never stops wanting to return home. Telemakhos will not send his mother back to her father and force her to choose another husband. Instead, he sets out to find news of his father. The servants Eurykleia and Eumaios are also important exemplars of loyalty. Athena's devotion to Odysseus is another.



5. HOSPITALITY This is the sign of a civilized society. Telemakhos shows hospitality to Athena and to his father in disguise. He receives it on his visits to Nestor and Menelaos. Alkinoos extends hospitality to Odysseus, as do Kalypso and (after some initial unpleasantness) Kirke. Contrasting examples of suspicion, hostility, and barbarity abound, showing up in their most extreme form as cannibalism.

6. INTELLIGENCE The ability to solve problems is vital to an epic hero. Odysseus, as James Joyce put it, invented the first tank when he devised the Trojan horse. Penelope's ruse of unweaving the shroud shows her intelligence. Odysseus' quick wit and invention of believable lies, helping him to conceal his identity and assess situations, are much admired by Athena.

7. EXPERIENCE Both Telemakhos and Odysseus are men of action who learn about the world and themselves through travel to new lands, conversations with strangers, having adventures, and being tested.

8. RESPECT FOR THE GODS, ORDER, FATE These linked concepts provide the underpinning for the entire book. Klytaimnestra, Agamemnon's wife, is no respecter of the right order of things, or of the gods. Her murder of her husband is an example of lack of order, and it causes a chain of further dreadful events. Her son, Orestes, must kill Klytaimnestra in revenge and is then hounded for the rest of his life by the avenging spirits called the Furies, for committing that horrible but necessary deed. Odysseus' men defy the gods by eating Helios' forbidden cattle. It is only through the intervention of Athena that Odysseus is spared and allowed to return to his home, where the invasion of the suitors is portrayed as disorderly, chaotic, and wrong. Odysseus must struggle, suffer, and be obedient to the gods, but he cannot escape his fate any more than the suitors can escape theirs.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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