I thought it might help those of you tackling this for the first time to have a place to talk about things as you read, so I'm sure these posts will be a bit of summarizing, and a bit of my own observations reading through this for the umpteenth time. :)
I already discussed the opening lines, which remain my favorite lines of the entire work, but there is so much more that happens in the opening books! We don't start with dear Odysseus, but rather with his son Telemachus and his journey to set things right in Ithaca.
Book 1: Athena Inspires the Prince
So, after the opening lines of The Odyssey, in which the bard reciting the story invokes the Muses to inspire their recitation, we learn about the state of affairs in Ithaca since Odysseus has been away from home. When The Odyssey was originally recited, or performed, by the bards in Ancient Greece, everyone knew the history behind it-that men from Greece rallied behind Menelaus and Agamemnon to get Helen back from Paris. So, all the Greeks ventured to Troy to get Helen back, and after ten years of fighting, Odysseus comes up with the idea of the Trojan Horse and Troy falls.
It is now years later, and while many other men have returned home, or have perished on the way home (news has traveled to let their families know), nothing has been heard from Odysseus or his men. All of the gods, with the exception of Poseidon, have taken pity on Odysseus, who is still far from home in the clutches of Calypso. Poseidon is still a bit mad at Odysseus for stabbing out the Cyclops' eye (something we will read about in a bit), so he has delayed poor Odysseus from returning home. However, the rest of the gods agree to help Odysseus when Poseidon conveniently isn't in attendance, and Athena decides to interfere directly with Odysseus' son Telemachus so he can take back his home in preparation for Odysseus' return.
Athena disguises herself and arrives in Ithaca at Odysseus' home. In his long absence (which is 20 years by the time he eventually returns), his son has grown up and his home has been overrun by suitors for his wife. Athena arrives to discover the suitors lounging around the home, eating and drinking and otherwise dishonoring Odysseus in his absence. Telemachus seeks out the stranger and they talk. it is during this discussion that Telemachus confides that he is unsure of what to do-how to drive the suitors away from his home and mother and take back his home;
"Dear stranger, would you be shocked by what I say?
Look at them over there. Not a care in the world,
just lyres and tunes! It's easy for them, all right,
they feed on another's goods and go scot-free-
a man whose white bones lie strewn in the rain somewhere,
rotting away on land or rolling down the ocean's salty swells.
But that man-if they caught sight of him home in Ithaca,
by god, they'd all pray to be faster on their feet
than richer in bars of gold and heavy robes.
But now, no use, he's died a wretched death.
No comfort's left for us...not even if
someone, somewhere, says he's coming home.
The day of his return will never dawn." (lines 184-196)
Poor Telemachus is clearly lost-he doesn't know what to do to regain his home and honor his father's memory. Unlike the other Greeks who fought at Troy, Odysseus' fate is unknown. Others who died in battle or on the way home-that news has already made it. Odysseus is simply lost, and because of the uncertainty surrounding where he is and what has happened to him, Telemachus is at a loss for what to do.
Athena counsels Telemachus to go abroad to seek news of his father and to "become a man." By leaving home and taking action, she is taking him away from the uncertainty and anger regarding the suitors and will empower him to seek his own fate. She suggests traveling to Sparta and Pylos to seek information about his father and his fate. Telemachus agrees to her plan before Athena leaves.
|For reference: Ithaca (Odysseus' Home, Pylos, Sparta, and Troy (location of the Trojan War)|
|Telemachus and Penelope|
Book 2: Telemachus Sets Sail
The second book of The Odyssey opens with Telemachus waking the morning after his talk with Athena. He calls the Achaens to assemble to speak about his plans. Athena only intervenes slightly;
"And Athena lavished a marvelous splendor on the prince
so the people all gazed in wonder as he came forward,
the elders making way as he took his father's seat." (lines 12-14).
The counsel turns on Telemachus. Many place blame on Penelope for not simply choosing a new suitor (she actually spent three years tricking the suitors by saying as soon as she finishing a weaving, she would marry, but she unraveled her weaving every night. They eventually caught on). In response to the negativity and anger pointed in Telemachus' direction, Zeus sends down eagles as a sign of the gods' favor toward Telemachus and his quest to find his father. This is ignored by the counsel.
Telemachus then outlines his plans for journeying to Pylos and Sparta in hopes of discovering Odysseus' fate. He is laughed at as the counsel disbands. Feeling discouraged, he prays to Athena and she encourages him to continue on with the plan, even without the support of the counsel;
you'll lack neither courage nor sense from this day on,
not if your father's spirit courses through your veins-" (lines 302-304).
Telemachus returns home where the suitors also mock him for his plans, while Athena goes in search of a ship and crew for his journey. He makes plans with a servant to arrange supplies for the trip, then sneaks away to pack the ship and begin his journey in search of his father with Athena by his side.
I've already mentioned that the parts most are familiar with in relation to The Odyssey are only a small piece of the story. Because in addition to Odysseus' actual journey home and the monsters he faces, there is also the coming of age of Telemachus, and Odysseus' plan to retake his home once he sets foot in Ithaca.
This first 4 books focus closely on Telemachus and the life he has without Odysseus at home. he is first portrayed a bit of a list boy. He was only a baby when Odysseus left for war, so he has grown up under the protection of his mother, Penelope, and the servants in the household. And once Odysseus didn't return, his home became overrun with suitors, eager for a chance to marry Penelope and take everything Odysseus worked for. Telemachus is lost. His mother is too consumed by her grief for Odysseus to notice that her son is suffering from the pressure of the suitors taking over the home. Telemachus has no male role model to guide him, so once the gods interfere, he is eager for their help.
I quite enjoy the story of Telemachus. He IS weak at the beginning-he allows the open dishonor of his parents and lacks the courage to stand up for them. It is only after Athena speaks with him and inspires him to be proactive that he gains the courage to speak out to those around him. As Athena tells him, he must "become a man." The first step is take action be seeking information about his father and where he may be.
We still have two more books that focus on Telemachus. He'll visit Pylos and Sparta to learn about his father's whereabouts before returning home to deal with the suitors. We'll see more growth from him, but it is only when Odysseus comes home that we see that he does, eventually, "become a man."
The other thing I want to mention is the interference of the gods. The Greek gods are notorious for interfering with mortals, and Odysseus has been a victim of that. Poseidon hates Odysseus, for many reasons we'll learn later, and has prevented him from returning home. The other gods only interfere when Poseidon is occupied elsewhere, a fact that cracks me up every time I read it. But you do have to keep in mind that since Odysseus must return by sea, Poseidon can really prevent his journey.
But Athena is sick of sitting by and watching as things turn sour in Ithaca. As the story continues, we'll see the places where the gods decide things are important enough to interfere...and what they let go.
**Please let me know if this format was helpful for you. And ask questions below! I'd love to get a bit of discussion going.*