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CHARACTER ANALYSIS (continued)
At the beginning of the story, Telemachus is young, inexperienced, unhappy, and helpless. He tells Athena in the guise of Mentes that he is the son of the worst fated of men, and the goddess sketches for him a plan of action. Athena gives Telemachus vitality and confidence and enlivens his father's memory. On rejoining the suitors after Athena-Mentes' strange departure, he shows his new confidence by rebuking Penelope. As the goddess has advised, he calls the suitors to an assembly the next day, an act implying kingship. Telemachus has decided to rule at least in his own house. However, at the assembly the next day, his gesture is weak and desperate. The gathering is largely hostile to his plans, and the futile assembly dissolves. Telemachus, however, is not defeated.
Telemachus travels through much of the poem, and his voyages teach him piety, manners, a sense of a greater past, a hope for a better future, and, by implication, an inkling of what is demanded of a hero. Nestor teaches him to be pious by giving him an idea of what it means to live under the loving guidance of a father. Through his account of Orestes's revenge of Agamemnon's murder, Nestor shows him where his duty lies vis-à-vis the suitors. And the same story related in detail by Menelaus also teaches him how to value Penelope, his silent, suffering, and heroic mother. He will also learn before long what hardships have made of his father. He will see in him the severity of a man who has come to meaningful terms with life, home, and even death. He learns that those who seek adventure will turn out to be heroes and wise men, and those who remain at home will degenerate like the suitors, who live meanly and die disgracefully.
His encounter with Helen will also show him how she, a woman of intensity and Iliadic dimension, is also a woman of sorrow and guilt. She is divine, but has no peace, whereas the unhappy but faithful Penelope obtains peace after cruel trials. Through his travels and his reunion with his father, Telemachus learns what true heroism is. By the end of the poem, he understands the active heroism of Odysseus, who seeks to conquer the world, and the passive heroism of Penelope, who preserves the home for the hero. On Odysseus' return, Telemachus proves he has matured into a heroic young man, worthy of being Odysseus' son and standing by his father's side.
The gods are treated with a different intention in The Odyssey than in The Iliad. In the latter epic, their interventions and frivolous actions provide a contrast to the destructiveness and dangers of heroic life. In this poem, the gods are treated in a more calculated way. While the gods do occasionally judge human actions, the dominant role played by them is to offer challenge and protection to Odysseus. The goddess Athena becomes his chief protector, and she is seldom far away from her hero or his son. She instills confidence into Telemachus and aids him in his travels. She continually aids Odysseus, giving him advice and practical assistance. In the climactic scene of the slaughter of the suitors, she actually deflects weapons aimed at him and frightens his adversaries by flashing her shield from the roof. Although her character as a virgin goddess does not allow for a romantic relationship with Odysseus, she does hold him in great admiration and affection. At many places it may seem that she is in love with this enduring mortal, but she is not. They treat each other as equals, as when he recalls her kindness to him at Troy, or she praises him for his cunning.
Athena's role is not just that of aiding Odysseus; she also helps in his development as a character, teaching him patience, humility, and restraint. From her first act of assistance to her final peacemaking, she is largely responsible for the development and conclusion of the plot.
On certain occasions, the reader wonders whether Odysseus and his son could ever be heroes without Athena's help. It is important to consider, however, that at many critical points they do act alone and that they would not be helped by her at all unless they were worthy of it. Indeed, some critics feel that Odysseus' relationship with Athena enhances his position as a heroic survivor in an unheroic world. The reader may decide otherwise, but the fact remains that the Homeric poems have no other parallel to so close a relationship between a goddess and a mortal. Though later Greek literature occasionally allows such friendships, it makes much less of them than Homer.