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BOOK 23: THE TRUNK OF THE OLIVE TREE
NOTE: Homer shows himself the master of variety, able to give a wide-ranging battle in one chapter and a subtle psychological study in the next. When Eurykleia calls Penelope to come and greet her husband, you might expect, if this were a TV soap opera, a moment of hesitation followed by a big clinch. Instead, Penelope, like her husband, is cautious and intelligent. She shows the power of that intelligence, the quality that makes her worth struggling to get home to for twenty rough years.
Penelope enters the courtyard but keeps her distance, still not convinced that this man is truly Odysseus. She sits down across the room from him and looks at him. He sits with eyes lowered and waits.
When Telemakhos chides her for her coldness, she says she is stunned. She cannot speak to him yet, cannot even keep her eyes on his face. Have you ever felt like this, so filled with doubt and longing that you could barely look at someone? She says if it is really Odysseus, they will know each other, for they have their secrets. At this, Odysseus smiles. "Peace," he says to Telemakhos. "Let your mother test me at her leisure." Imagine his state of mind. He is still in rags and covered with the blood of battle. He knows he has just killed the flower of Ithaka's manhood and will have to answer for it. He is probably even tired.
In order to deceive the townspeople into thinking all is well, Odysseus has the women dress up and the harper play for dancing. To passersby it will seem like a wedding is in progress within. Then Odysseus is bathed by Eurynome. Athena improves his looks, and he dresses in clean clothes. He returns to the same chair by the pillar, facing his silent wife across the room. Have you ever noticed that people feeling shy or doubtful like to sit or stand with their backs toward something solid, like a wall or large piece of furniture?
He says she is strange, hard. He says her heart is iron within her breast. "Strange woman," he calls her, and in reply she calls him, "Strange man." Still they sit apart. He waits, and she waits, and you wait. Homer knows all about suspense and how pleasure is heightened if it is delayed.
Now comes the test, though of course Penelope is too canny to announce it. She simply tells Eurykleia to make up the bed in the master bedroom and place it outside the chamber. Suddenly Odysseus has a reason to be angry. He built that bed. One of its posts is the trunk of an olive tree. The bed cannot be moved unless someone has sawed off that bedpost. Only husband and wife and Penelope's one slave know the secret of this bed-only husbands and wives know the secrets of their beds, Homer seems to be saying. The bedpost that is a rooted tree suggests the fidelity that makes the strong bond between these two. This is the final proof that convinces Penelope of Odysseus' identity. They embrace at last. In Odysseus' arms, Penelope is as longed for as the sun-warmed earth is longed for by an exhausted swimmer. Anyone who has swum to the point of being bone cold and worn out and then settled on the hot beach knows what Homer is talking about: warmth, safety, relief.
Like any long-separated couple, now they talk. He says they are not yet in the clear. He wants to take her to bed, but she first wants to hear about the last journey Teiresias foretold for him. "My strange one," he calls her, but he tells her Teiresias' prophesy. She says that though the gods have robbed them of their best years together, at least their age may be kind. Eurynome and Eurykleia make the bed for them. Telemakhos hushes the dancing and the women in the courtyard. The ruse of the "wedding" seems to come true, as husband and wife "mingle in love."
At dawn the realities must be faced. Odysseus, Telemakhos, and the two herdsmen leave quickly for the country, to see Odysseus' aged father, Laertes, and to plan how they will deal with the anger of the town when the deaths of the suitors are known.