There are basically three different parts of The Odyssey.
The first part is centered on Telemachus, the son Odysseus left behind. Telemachus was only an infant when Odysseus left for Troy. At the start of The Odyssey, Telemachus is around 20 years old and suffering at home. Since his father failed to return from the Trojan War, his mother has attracted suitors from the neighboring area, who have all settled in their house. Penelope, his mother and Odysseus’ wife, has tried to placate the suitors and tricks them, but they eventually get sick of her tricks and want her to pick one of them.
In desperation, Telemachus travels to Pylos and Sparta to talk with King Nestor and King Menelaus about his father. The goddess Athena guides him to do this as a way of helping him grow up and get Odysseus home.
(On a side note, I should point out that the movie Troy, with the dashing Brad Pitt, got quite a few important facts wrong in the film. Menelaus does NOT die in Troy. He returns home. Also, the little lady Helen, you know, the one who started the war in the first place? She is back where she belongs by Menelaus’ side).
The second part of the story switches to Odysseus. At the time the story switches, he is still on Calypso’s island. She is approached by the gods and told to release him, which she does (Odysseus had been with her for 7 years at this point). On his way from Calypso’s island, Poseidon sees him trying to go home and sends a storm after him. Odysseus washes ashore on the island belonging to the Phaeacians. There, he recounts his travels from the end of the Trojan War to that point.
After fighting at Troy for ten years, Odysseus had departed with his men and raided a nearby civilization. Loaded down with treasures, they are caught up in a storm and end up at the island of the Cyclops, son of Poseidon (the sea god). While exploring, Odysseus and a group of his men get locked into the cave of the Cyclops, who starts to eat them one by one. The men form a plan and blind the Cyclops by shoving a red-hot stake into his eye.
Poseidon soon learns of the Cyclops’ fate and determines that Odysseus and his men will not reach home. After the Cyclops, the rest of Odysseus’ ships are destroyed near an island of giants before they find themselves on Circe’s island. She turns some of his men into swine, and again, a plan must be hatched to rescue the men. Odysseus eventually outwits her and she consents to helping them, but a year passes before the men actually leave, to excited to enjoy the comforts of her home.
After Circe, Odysseus makes a trip to the Kingdom of the Dead to gain advice from those who went before him, including a seer who will prophesize what he must do in the future in return for the gods’ help. While conversing with the dead, Odysseus learns the fate of his mother, and of his friend Agamemnon. Unlike Penelope, Agamemnon’s wife was not pining for him, but instead hatched a plot to kill him on his return.
They return briefly to Circe’s island to gain advice for the rest of their trip. Their next obstacle is getting past the Sirens, who lure men to their island. They also have to get past the whirlpool of Charybdis and the six heads of Scylla.
It is after all of this that they land on the island of Helios, the sun-god. Ignoring the warning not to eat his cattle, the men do and they are killed, all save Odysseus. That is when he finds his way to Calypso, where he stays for the next seven years.
The third part tells of the return of Odysseus. With the help of the Phaeacians, Odysseus finds passage home. Telemachus also finds a way home and they reunite. Together, the plot the demise of the suitors in their home and slaughter every man and the women of the household who betrayed the memory of Odysseus.
The middle part that focuses on the travels and adventures of Odysseus is usually the most well-known piece. It’s the section that is in most textbooks for high-schoolers. The other two parts are usually incredibly condensed and never really developed.
I actually think the first and last parts are more interesting than the middle. The first is essentially a coming of age story, where Telemachus has to learn what happened to his father to move on and grow up. The last part talks a lot about revenge and justice. Odysseus has to remove the men from his household and reassert himself after being gone from home for over 20 years.
As I near the end, I just have to keep asking myself, why is it that the middle section is more well-known than the other parts? Perhaps it’s the adventure feel of his journey that grabs more readers, but I just prefer the revenge of the end and the growth of the beginning. Maybe that means I am just a weirdo, or maybe the middle part is overrated and the other two parts are where the real story lies.
I’d like to think that I’m right.