The Massachusetts Medievalist on archetypal moments and problematic episodes (Odyssey, Books 21-24)

There are so many iconic literary moments at the end of The Odyssey that it’s hard to do more than simply touch on them (and inevitably leave some out). But here’s a starter list:

The bow that seems to know its true owner (just like “the wand knows the wizard”?)

The test of military skill with specific weapons (think Excalibur or Luke’s light-saber)

The choice to let the bard/poet live during the battle so he can sing immortal songs afterward (think about the various bards that appear during Beowulf)

The test of the bed that can’t be moved (with the special satisfaction of knowing that Odysseus, the wily hero, is now being tested himself by his perhaps equally wily wife)

Athena holding back the dawn so that Odysseus and Penelope can catch up a bit (we have all wanted this skill at some point, if not for this specific reason)

The imposition of peace from the gods to end the action (not technically a “deus ex machina” but pretty darn close)

Each of these moments defines a trope or archetype that is then repeated throughout narrative traditions — sometimes intentionally (think about the preparations for the fight between Hector and Achille in Walcott’s Omeros), sometimes unintentionally (think about the courtroom scene at the end of My Cousin Vinny). The parallels with the Ramayana‘s scene with the bow are so striking that they have led to much critical discussion about whether the original compositors of the Ramayana knew a form of the Odyssey.

But there are also some problems with the end of The Odyssey, all of which tie into Wilson’s description of Odysseus as a “complicated man.” Foremost is the issue of the slaughter of the slave girls in Book XXII – Odysseus orders Telemachus to murder them for their sexual infidelity to his house.  Numerous feminist critics have pointed out that these “maidservants” (see last week’s post for references to translation choices around these and other enslaved characters) had no choice in the matter, as female slaves were assumed to be sexually available to male guests.  Both Margaret Atwood and Madeline Miller have provided fictional redress to this problem as part of their novels that re-tell (some of) the events of The Odyssey from the points of view of female characters. (Side note: fanfic is an entry at Merriam-Webster but only a “draft addition” in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

For me this time around, Odysseus’s test of his father in Book XXIV was especially infuriating.  He’s back, he’s beaten the suitors, he’s reunited with Penelope, he has the adulation of his young adult son….but he still needs to make up one more lie, one more fake back story for Laertes to see if he can fool him. He can’t just give the old guy a break, announce his identity, show his scar, and get on with the important point that he’s just killed a lot of the young male population of Ithaca and surrounding districts.  The peace at the end of the epic is a divinely-imposed peace which seems very precarious to me right now (August 2018); the humans in the narrative have agreed to peace only under duress, and the violence under the surface has not been eradicated or dealt with but merely suppressed.  It seems like the end of any epic sequence (Beowulf, the Ramayana, Star Wars, Harry Potter…..) in that the ending isn’t really an ending but more of a pause. Homer didn’t compose a sequel — the Telemachy of books I-IV did not presage a separate epic of the heroic deeds of Telemachus — but he has definitely left wide open the door of opportunity to continue to think about what could happen next. Many of the authors in global literary traditions have walked, consciously or unconsciously, through that door.

So here ends the Lesley summer reading group 2018, though I’ll be monitoring comments here and on twitter through the month of August – I have very much enjoyed this chance to revisit one of the cornerstones of literary tradition!

7 Replies to “The Massachusetts Medievalist on archetypal moments and problematic episodes (Odyssey, Books 21-24)”

  1. This epic represents another trend in a lot of classical fiction that you addressed in your writing but did not include on your list of influences. So many of these old stories that are so highly regarded and so influential and well remembered are also really messed up, in ways that often go unjustified within the narrative.
    The Odyssey is an exciting story filled with monsters, adventure, magic and trickery! Odysseus is a rapist and a murderer.
    There’s nothing inherently wrong with featuring a morally questionable or even irredeemable character as a protagonist (Dr. Horrible and Clockwork Orange both come to mind here) but Homer (whoever they may be) does it wrong. And regardless of what circles it may be blasphemous to call Homer wrong in it still represents a problem. Odysseus is rarely painted as being in the wrong. His wrongdoings are glossed over. And regardless of what else he is or does his primary characteristic is always his cunning.
    Elements of The Odyssey have appeared in many cultures in many forms, and have captured the imaginations of readers throughout the centuries. As for Odysseus himself? Well we like the idea of him (usually more so when we know less about him). I would put forward that under certain circumstances the idea can be enough.
    Ronald Barthes’ Death of the Author promotes the interpretation of the reader above all else. This can be seen as having a special meaning when discussed in the context of a text that has been rewritten and reinterpreted as many times as The Odyssey. An individual reader has more than just the single core text to base their judgement of a story on. I am a strong proponent of the idea that stories belong to the people who hear them. Old stories like this in particular can sometimes start to become more elements of cultural awareness than physical definitive pieces of literature. Not everyone has read The Odyssey but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t tell you anything about it. I think the death of the author allows us to continue loving a lot of beautifully crafted stories while either sidestepping or actively undermining parts of the content that could be genuinely harmful influences to subsequent stories and societies.
    Because like you said, Homer set up a lot of the structural elements of storytelling that we still see today. They’ve always been a major literary influence, and have also unquestionably written things that we don’t want to see the influence of in any subsequent media. For all the good that there is in The Odyssey that other authors can use and learn from, its many faults seem just as good of a reason to see it reinterpreted. There’s something emotionally relieving about reading Miller’s interpretations of select elements from The Iliad and The Odyssey. She tends to stay true to the spirit of these well loved stories, while not just ignoring but acknowledging and sometimes trying to fix elements of them that might make us feel bad about loving them.

  2. Thanks for all these good points – it’s jarring to read “Odysseus is a rapist and a murderer” (I’d add “and an enslaver”) but it’s true. Homer in 2018 is a very different experience than Homer even a few years ago (Fagles is 1997, right?).
    It sounds like you’ve read Miller’s Circe, and (spoiler alert: stop here if needed) I love the way she dealt with Telemachus’s murder of the slave girls – that he’s tormented by it years later, that he knew it was wrong but he did it anyway to try to prove something (his manhood? his dedication?) to his father. And in Miller’s version of events, even that mass murder did not earn Odysseus’s love or respect (thanks, @C_GraceT, if you’re reading this!) – that what Telemachus really learned that was that he was never going to be enough for Odysseus. Miller didn’t directly quote Tennyson’s Ulysses, but it was very much on my mind (and hers, I’m sure) when I read that novel.

    1. I’ll skip over the spoilers for now because I haven’t gotten to the end of Circe yet (my book club decided they wanted to read something else). I’m hoping it won’t be like Song of Achilles which I started then took a break from to read The Iliad and ended up not finishing until a year and a half later.
      This is the part of my experience of The Odyssey that I really connect with my reading of Milton though ( just remembered that I said I’d talk about him before and then forgot to, oops). There are elements of Paradise Lost that require reinterpretation to make them palatable (probably not what Milton had in mind when he compared himself to Homer). I think these two works from completely different periods have similarly distorted perceptions of good and evil. I might call Milton’s devil the inverse of Odysseus, in that he is often read as sympathetic despite authorial intent, the accidental hero to Odysseus’s accidental monster.

  3. Another literary allusion moment — I just finished Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (which is spectacular in many ways) and one of the characters is named Homer. I am DYING to talk with someone about that name choice. And CW is coming to Lesley on 30 October, so perhaps some opportunity there?

    All to say that, yes, “authorial intent” is really no longer in play, and I think that’s a good thing. (Who will help me to convince the sophomores of that when term starts?)

  4. I’ll have to add it to my reading list! (without context my instinct is to assume that that name is meant to convey a sense of anonymity).

    I’m a little jealous of your sophomores; they’ve got some exciting stuff coming up! I’m already missing having literary analysis and criticism as a regular part of my life.

  5. Dr. D et al,

    I agree that the murdering of the slave girls seems unjust no matter how you spin it. As you mention, they did not have control in their relations with the suitors. Odysseus even admits that their behavior was imposed on them by the suitors while he calls for the deaths, stating “They will forget the things the suitors made them do with them in secret” (Wilson XXII.444-445). This logic does not make sense; the suitors made them behave this way, so they deserve to be punished. From the point of view of the maidservants, one of these suitors was likely to have become the head of the household in the near future; in my opinion, these women were merely ensuring their own safety and employment rather than scheming against their former owner. Not to mention, Odysseus has been gone for TWENTY YEARS, are they supposed to hold out forever for the slim chance that Odysseus returns? As slaves, their only loyalty to Odysseus is that he was their legal owner decades ago; there was no personal allegiance between O and these women that transcended this societal construct. Odysseus himself was a slaveowner, a liar and a city sacker, and as such was not morally superior to the suitors aside from his adherence hospitality norms. Additionally, it does not seem fair that Odysseus sentences the select group of women based on Eurycleia’s recommendation alone. He does not witness their alleged treachery himself and the victims are not allowed to plea their case. Odysseus even adds insult to their injury by first making them clean the site of the suitors’ massacre before meeting their own end. In this sense, their punishment appears worse than that of the suitors, who were the primary antagonists. I believe there is a double standard at play here in how Odysseus lets himself off the hook for cheating on Penelope with Calypso because he was allegedly not in control of the situation, yet these slaves, who were merely upholding their duties, deserve death.

    Dr. D, I wanted to ask your opinion on how Odysseus kills Antinous. Antinous is the primary offender of the suitor group, yet it is unclear whether he realizes Odysseus has returned when he meets his end. Odysseus shoots him with an arrow while he is preoccupied with drinking wine. I couldn’t help but compare this to Odysseus’ choice to reveal his identity to the Cyclops, which as we know had drastic consequences. Has Odysseus learned a lesson regarding his hubris? Given that this is the climax of the epic, one would almost expect a dramatic reveal to occur before Antinous gets what is coming to him. It seems the other suitors come to the realization as the massacre unfolds, but Antinous dies in ignorance. Do you think the specifics here are important?

    On a separate note, I want to say thank you for putting this reading group together. As an aspiring english/secondary ed teacher who has only read certain excerpts of the Odyssey in the recent past, your notes were extremely beneficial for my understanding of the text. I appreciate your insight and the effort that went into the posts. I also greatly enjoyed the Wilson translation. I found it to be pleasantly straightforward, to the point where I was often surprised at how quickly I moved through the books themselves and how much info I was able to retain. I think this translation can be extremely useful in 21st century high school classes due to its accessibility. I would absolutely love an Iliad translation from Wilson, but judging from how much time and effort went into her work with Odyssey, it’s safe to say that wont be for some time.

    Thanks again!

    1. Colin — you’re welcome! I enjoyed it too — and yes, I think you’re spot-on about Antinous’s death — fine close reading there.

      You’ve brought up the important point about the sexual double standard in the Odyssey (and most literature produced until very recently), that men have free rein over their sexuality while women do not. And you are right about the female slaves being strategic about their sexual favors, that they are probably trying to maneuver in the uncertain world of the domestic space with no male head of household. (side note: I now want a short story in Melantho’s voice telling her version of events; ideally, she gets fools Telemachus somehow and gets away at the end?)

      I’ve read some interviews in which Wilson says she is planning to translate the Iliad next, but has also said that it will be a very long wait!

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