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When the heroes who fought at Troy are described in the Odyssey we are clearly back in the saga world. The description of Achilles' funeral, for example, in the twenty-fourth book was very likely a commonplace of high heroic epic. But the most conspicuous theme from saga is that of Return. Nestor and Menelaos between them describe the homecoming of several of the major figures from the Iliad. Clearly episodes relating the return of a hero were as common as the aristeiai describing their triumphs in battle. The story of homecoming had a name: nostos. The several nostoi are a leitmotiv throughout the Odyssey which is over-all a nostos, being the return of Odysseus. There is a hint in the Odyssey that epics of nostoi were currently fashionable. In describing the homecoming of Agamemnon the poet lingers over details that ordinarily an epic poet takes for granted. Indeed, the occasional remark on newness and originality suggest that the particular nostos of Odysseus, as our poet conceived it, was perhaps not merely fashionable, but almost novel.
Charles Rowan Beye, The "Iliad," The "Odyssey" and the Epic Tradition, 1966 Book XIII of the Odyssey describes the return of Odysseus to Ithaca; Book XVII describes his return, in disguise, to his palace, and the subsequent books describe the events leading to his return to his wife, his marriage bed, and his royal throne. Return is a fact of the Odyssey, a structural element in the form of the poem, but the idea of return is more than just an event of mythology, or just a consequence of the Trojan War's being fought across the Ionian sea from mainland Greece. The idea of return as a life-giving process runs deep and strong in all primitive societies, and anthropologists have often noted how totally the lives of primitive peoples are polarized around the return of natural phenomena. The eternal cycles of night and day, winter and summer, birth and death, rise and fall, permeate their lives and shape their imaginations. To secure and celebrate the return of life is often the purpose of their rituals, and the returning god, hero, or king is a feature of their myths.
Howard W. Clarke, The Art of the "Odyssey," 1967
Before following Odysseus' travels and the further events in Ithaca, it will be useful to pause with the related questions of the method of characterization in the poem and its guiding theme. Neither question is easy, and the resonance of the myth to inwardlooking ages adds problems. Who shall catch the myriad overtones of the journey, the return, and what they jointly tell of human possibility? But a few points are clear. To Homer, unlike Dante, the journey and the return belong together. Dante's famous Ulysses of Inferno 26 is the endless quester. His unappeased Faustian search has no place for homecoming. Because of Homer the vast world and small Ithaca both claim part of Odysseus' mind, each describes him. Unlike the homestaying suitors, he partly belongs to the world. He is seen in its varied settings, responds to them singly and, in a more important sense, cumulatively, and becomes their pupil. But though he has lived with immortals and seen the dead, none of these holds him. He refuses Calypso's offer of agelessness and immortality for mortal Penelope in Ithaca. The questions of characterization and of theme belong together because, as a character, the hero becomes known by his situations. The adventures make him; he does not in a subjective sense make the adventures.
M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus, 1979
Such mixed motives may seem impure or ignoble to those who take their ideals from self-sacrificing patriotism, or from self-effacing saintliness, or from self-forgetting romanticism. But these are post-Homeric concepts. Within the context of the Heroic Age and perhaps of the Homeric Age, too, this identification of one's own best interests with the general welfare of one's kith, kin, and comrades, with one's philoi in fact, was a saving grace for both the individual and society. All the Homeric heroes are egotists; but Odysseus' egotism has sent its roots out more widely into his personal environment than that of Agamemnon, Achilles, or Ajax.
One other aspect of Odysseus' Homeric character needs to be kept in mind at the last. In a way it is the most important of all for the development of the tradition. This is the fundamental ambiguity of his essential qualities. We have seen how prudence may decline towards timidity, tactfulness towards a blameworthy suppressio veri, serviceability towards servility, and so on. The ambiguity lies both in the qualities themselves and in the attitudes of others towards them. Throughout the later tradition this ambiguity in Odysseus' nature and in his reputation will vacillate between good and bad, between credit and infamy. Odysseus' personality and reputation at best are poised, as it were, on a narrow edge between Aristotelian faults of excess and deficiency. Poised between rashness and timorousness, he is prudently brave; poised between rudeness and obsequiousness he is "civilized"; poised between stupidity and overcleverness he, at his best, is wise.
William B. Stanford, "The Untypical Hero," in George Steiner and Robert Fagles, eds., Homer, A Collection of Critical Essays, 1962