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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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THE STORY

BOOK 1: A GODDESS INTERVENES

The first thing the poet-narrator does is ask the Muse to help him tell his tale. In Greek mythology the Muses, the daughters of Memory, inspire the arts. Homer wants the Muse to speak through him so his story will be true to the legends of the past.

Next comes a brief summary of Odysseus' wanderings since he left Troy twenty years ago. He is now on Kalypso's island of Ogygia, where he has been for the last eight years.

NOTE: If this seems like a long time for an epic hero to be dilly-dallying, remember that the gods have to help you, and you have to deserve their help, or you're stuck. This is Poseidon's punishment which, after all, Odysseus deserved. Remember, too, that Kalypso is very attractive.

Now, however, Poseidon is away at a banquet, enjoying the offerings of roast meat dedicated to him. Perhaps while his back is turned Odysseus can reach home.

After the invocation and summary, Mount Olympos is the first real scene. Zeus tells the story of Agamemnon. (Homer will use this story again later because it is the opposite of Odysseus' story.) Klytaimnestra's faithlessness contrasts with Penelope's constancy. Agamemnon is murdered, whereas Odysseus kills the lawless suitors. Orestes' painful role as avenger of his father's death contrasts with Telemakhos' achievement of manhood at his father's side.



Athena speaks up for her favorite, Odysseus, and Zeus agrees to send a message to Kalypso to let Odysseus go. NOTE: Although this is the story of Odysseus and Telemakhos, the first character to speak is Zeus. This gives you an idea of just how important gods and goddesses were to the Greeks.

A sailor's image shows Odysseus' yearning for home, his desire "to see the hearthsmoke leaping upward from his own island." It's something you would see from your ship far away on the ocean when the island is only a dot on the horizon.

Scene two takes place in Ithaka where we get our first look at Penelope's suitors. Notice what they're doing and whose cattle are being killed for their feast. We also get our first impression of Telemakhos, and it's an important one because as soon as Athena comes to him (she's disguised but he recognizes her), he begins to mature quickly. Here he is inactive, wistful, boyish.

NOTE: One of the Greek ideals is open-handed hospitality to strangers, no questions asked. Telemakhos lives up to the ideal. You may notice a tendency in the poem to idealize these Greek noblemen and their possessions. The dishes and furnishings mentioned here are perfect. Do you enjoy these descriptions, or would you rather see a few worn or tarnished household items?

The purpose of Book 1 is evident in the conversation between Telemakhos and Athena. When he sounds wistful, wanting a father, her response is, "You are a child no longer." His problems aren't going to solve themselves. He must act. He should call an assembly to try to get help in Ithaka. He should also set out with a ship and crew to learn about the world and find news of his father.

Telemakhos could tell Athena to mind her own business. He could refuse to take any adult actions. But Athena is really an embodiment of his own good sense. He rises to the challenge and even realizes that a god has spoken to him.

We now get our first glimpse of Penelope, who, when the bard, Phemios, sings of Troy, cannot bear to hear the song. The last time she saw Odysseus was twenty years ago when he left home to fight the Trojan War.

NOTE: Homer has set up an ironic situation, where we know something that Penelope doesn't-that Odysseus is alive. The audience likes to feel "in the know" compared to the characters. There's also a small joke in having Homer tell a story of Troy in which another poet (Phemios) tells a story of Troy.

Telemakhos smoothly conceals from Penelope's suitor Antinoos the fact that his visitor was an immortal. Telemakhos' father, Odysseus, is much admired by Athena for his ability to come up with a cool, false story. Like father, like son.

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