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The Odyssey: Father and Son

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

We've already talked about the great importance of Telemachus in the Odyssey. He's the centerpiece of the first four books, and his journey to adulthood is a fascinating example of a Bildungsroman, a German word which means a novel about coming of age. There are numerous examples of such works in fiction. Jane Austen's Emma, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, J. D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye. There are numerous examples. The Odysse is the first, and it's a supreme example of coming of age, plotting Telemachus' widening social circle as he acquires the skills to stand on his own two feet. We don't meet him again until Book 15. He's still with Menelaus and Helen. Athena appears to him when he's half asleep. She tells him it's high time he returned to Ithaca, and she warns him that the suitors are waiting to ambush him. So up he gets, bids farewell to Menelaus and Helen, and after the exchange of pleasantries, he heads off. He avoids returning via Pylos – he doesn't want to be detained by old man Nestor, who is a bit of a windbag, and after taking on board a seer called Theoclymenus, sets sail. On arrival back on Ithaca, Theoclymenus sees a falcon kill a pigeon, which he interprets as a favourable portent. "No other family on Ithaca will have as much kingly power as yours, and you shall possess it forever."

The first person whom Telemachus goes to see on arrival is not his mother but the pig keeper Eumaeus. Pigs were a very valuable commodity, and you would only put your most trusted slave in charge of them. And in fact, Eumaeus has already proven himself to be just that, as Odysseus has already found out. And it just so happens that Odysseus has been staying with Eumaeus, although he hasn't yet revealed his identity to him. So Telemachus enters Eumaeus' modest dwelling. Eumaeus is amazed – he's so amazed that he drops the mixing bowl in which he has been mixing wine, and he kisses Telemachus' head and his eyes and his hands, and he starts tearing up. And Homer now introduces one of his wonderful similes. "Just like a father, whose heart is brimming with love, welcomes his son… when he comes back after being ten years in a faraway country, so Eumaeus kissed Telemachus as if he had escaped from death." What's remarkable about this simile is that it's transferring the entirety of Odysseus' circumstances onto Eumaeus. Eumaeus is, in other words, being compared to Odysseus in all particulars. And all this time, Odysseus is an observer of this scene. Homer doesn't tell us what his reaction is to this display of affection. Is he comforted by it? Does it make him feel jealous? Does he feel threatened? We don't know. My own view is that he is comforted. But it must be something of a challenge as well. After all, here is Eumaeus acting as a surrogate father, which presumably he has been doing for twenty years – for the entirety perhaps of Telemachus' life. But, as I said, Homer gives us no indication of Odysseus' feelings at this point.

A conversation now takes place between Telemachus and Odysseus, still in disguise, in the presence of Eumaeus. Telemachus talks about the situation on Ithaca and the troubles in his household. Then he sends Eumaeus off to inform Penelope that he has returned safely, leaving him and Odysseus alone.

The next 50 lines are among my most favourite in the entire poem. Athena appears to Odysseus when Telemachus' back is turned and tells him to reveal himself to his son. She strikes him with her magic wand, returning him to his proper appearance – no longer an old beggar but again in the vigour of manhood. Telemachus is astonished – he suspects that Odysseus is a god. "No, I'm not a god. I'm your father," he replies, whereupon he starts weeping and kissing his son. But Telemachus still isn't convinced. "You can't be a mortal.

That magic trick you just performed – going from being an old man to resembling one of the gods. That's proof you're a divinity." "It's merely the work of Athena," Odysseus explains. "She can do anything she likes to change my appearance." So Telemachus finally believes. And now Homer introduces one of his most sublime similes. He likens Telemachus and Odysseus to ospreys or vultures who have just lost their young, stolen by farmers. The birds utter a heart-wrenching cry, just like father and son here. What's so arresting about this simile is that it's about loss and grief, whereas this is a moment of reunion and happiness. But the emotion is equally intense. And Homer is reminding us, too, in this use of this simile, that the tearful joy that father and son after experiencing now is the aftermath to years of deprivation.

Telemachus, by the way, is the one person whom Odysseus doesn't test for his loyalty. Telemachus is his son. There's no reason to test him.

Odysseus and Telemachus now plot the destruction of the suitors. Penelope promises – finally – that she will marry one of them. She will marry whichever of them can string Odysseus' great bow and shoot an arrow through a line of twelve axes. Telemachus sets up the axes, but before the competition begins, Telemachus tries to string the bow. He tries three times but fails. He's about to succeed on the fourth try, but Odysseus signals him not to do so, so he pretends he can't and hands the bow over to the first challenger, a man called Leodes.

This moment of the stringing of the bow symbolises Telemachus' final coming of age. The fact that he could have strung the bow indicates that he is his father's equal in strength. But he is still subservient to his father, who holds the reins of power. Odysseus has returned to Ithaca at the exact moment when his son has come of age. That is important because it indicates that his household has an adult heir. It will survive.

I talked briefly in the previous lecture of the encounter between Odysseus and his father Laertes, which takes place at the end of the poem in Book 24. Laertes, it seems, is a retiree. He lives away from the palace, tending his orchard. You would think Odysseus would simply go up to him and say, "It's me, Odysseus, your son." Instead, he conceals his identity in order to find out whether his father recognises him. He spins an elaborate tale and says he saw Odysseus five years ago. Laertes is overcome with grief and pours dust over his head as a sign of his misery, whereupon Odysseus grabs hold of him and reveals himself to him. Why does he do this? What is the takeaway from this incident? I've no idea. Perhaps we are to conclude that Odysseus simply couldn't help himself.

We've talked about father and son. In the next lesson, we're going to talk about wife and husband.

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Written by

Robert Garland