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BOOK 21: THE TEST OF THE BOW
NOTE: Scholars believe that this part of the story, the trial of the great crossbow, goes back to its earliest origins. Performing a feat to win a woman's hand is basic to some of our oldest folk and fairy tales.
Penelope gets the bow from the storeroom, and Homer can't resist telling us how Odysseus came to have the bow. She brings a quiver of arrows "spiked with coughing death." Her maids bring a basket of axe heads, and she makes her announcement. The swineherd and cowherd are moved to tears by the sight of the bow, which angers Antinoos. He makes fun of them, accepts the challenge of the bow as fair, saying he remembers Odysseus from childhood. Another moment of grim foreshadowing occurs as Homer says that Antinoos will be Odysseus' first victim.
Earlier Odysseus showed the emotional stress he was under by rocking from side to side. Here Telemakhos reacts to the strain by snorting with laughter. He, too, is keyed up and nervous, perhaps also aware of the irony in Antinoos' remembering Odysseus, who after all is standing right there. Telemakhos digs a trench and sets the axe heads in a row.
NOTE: For years scholars have puzzled about exactly how he does it. Robert Fitzgerald thinks the axes have double heads, so one blade is buried in earth and the target is the twelve socket holes. Denys Page, in his book on folktales (listed in the Further Reading section), suggests that the axes are ceremonial, with bronze or iron handles from which they customarily hang, by rings in the ends of the handles. Page thinks the target is the twelve holes in the ends of the handles.
Telemakhos tries three times to string the bow and almost does it on the fourth try, when "a stiffening in Odysseus made him check." Have you ever been wrestling or running or swimming with your father and suddenly realized you could beat him, but you held back? It's a bit overwhelming to discover that you're as strong or stronger than your father. Now Leodes tries the bow and fails. Antinoos, directing the proceedings, orders Melanthios to light a fire and get some lard. They'll heat and grease the bow to try to limber it up. More suitors try and fail.
In the meantime the swineherd and cowherd leave the hall, downcast. Odysseus slips outside to speak with them. He asks if they would stand beside Odysseus in a fight, and when he is assured that they would, he tells them who he is. Their joy is cut short as he gives them orders. He says the suitors won't want him to try the bow, but Eumaios must defy them and bring it to him.
Eumaios must tell the women to lock their door and stay inside their hall, no matter what they hear going on in the courtyard.
Philoitios must run on the signal to the outer gate, lock it, and lash it shut. The suitors will soon find themselves weaponless and trapped.
The three return to the courtyard, where Eurymakhos takes his time with the bow: "He turned it round, and turned it round before the licking flame to warm it up." But he can't string it, and the humiliation stings. He says the suitors are like children compared to Odysseus. He feels ashamed. Antinoos is the last suitor, the strongest, the one with the best chance. But apparently he is daunted by the idea of failure, for at this point he suddenly says they should postpone further trials of the bow. You never find out if he could have done it, for he doesn't even try.
Now Odysseus says he would like to try. Antinoos, angry, says he must be drunk. Eurymakhos says it would be terrible if this beggar succeeded and people heard about it. Penelope says to let the beggar try. At this point Telemakhos speaks sharply to his mother, sending her upstairs, saying that he will decide who gets to try the bow. He knows blood is about to be shed and he wants his mother safely out of the way.
Eumaios starts toward Odysseus with the bow. The suitors raise an ugly din of protests, and Eumaios falters, setting the bow down. Telemakhos yells, "take him the bow!" He rails at the suitors, and one of them finds his frenzy amusing. That laughter sets off more laughter and the tension is broken. If a riot broke out here, Odysseus might never get a chance to try the bow.
But he does. (By now the women are shut in their hall and the courtyard gate is locked and lashed.) Odysseus takes his time, tapping the bow inch by inch looking for holes made by termites. The suitors mock him, calling him a bow lover, a dealer in old bows. Odysseus strings the bow in one motion and plucks the string, which sings a single note. The faces of the suitors change. Zeus thunders. Seated on a stool, Odysseus fits an arrow to the crossbow and makes the incredible shot. He says to Telemakhos, with heavy irony, "The hour has come to cook their lordships' mutton-supper by daylight." With sword and spear, Telemakhos moves to his father's side.