Friday, December 05, 2008

The Odyssey: Books 23, 24

The Odyssey The Great Rooted Bed

Penelope still won't believe. She's too depressed. She just wants to sleeeeep. The old nurse says, "He's the stranger they all manhandled in the hall. Telemachus knew he was here, for days and days." (30-31) For some reason this inspired joy in Penelope, but not for long. She still doubts. Perhaps the stranger is a god. He couldn't possibly be her long-lost husband.

She makes her approach slowly.

One moment he seemed...Odysseus, to the life--
the next, no, he was not the man she knew,
a huddled mass of rags was all she saw. (108-110)
Telemachus scolds his mother for spurning his father. Odysseus lets her be. Letting a wild thing approach you works best, don't they say? That's my metaphor. In Homer, for the most part the men get the wild animal comparisons.

Odysseus, always the tactician, makes plans to avoid avenging relatives. Let people "think it's a wedding-feast that's under way." The two will go to their country estates. Finally the wary Penelope circles closer, offhandedly offering her famous test.
Come, Eurycleia,
move the sturdy bedstead out of our bridal chamber--
that room the master built with his own hands.
Take it out now, sturdy bed that it is. (197-200)
And Odysseus gives the deeply needed correct response.
"Woman--your words, they cut me to the core!
Who could move my bed? Impossible task...
Not a man on earth, not even at peak strength,
would find it easy to prise it up and shift it, no,
a great sign, a hallmark lies in its construction.
I know, I built it myself--no one else...
There was a branching olive-tree inside our court,
grown to its full prime, the bole like a column, thickset.
Around it I built my bedroom... (205-216)
If the tree is the female element, she is certainly quite strong and sturdy. Odysseus molded her to his marriage bed. Bed and home are melded together. His marriage was a strong marriage to survive such a long separation. Does Odysseus now have cause to wonder? Is he teasing her by turning the tables on her?
Does the bed, my lady, still stand planted firm?--
I don't know--or has someone chopped away
that olive-trunk and hauled our bedstead off?
. . Living proof--
Penelope felt her knees go slack, her heart surrender... (228-231)
Now she is convinced. Odysseus weeps. Athena holds back the night to give the two more time. Odysseus tells her of his final labor, of planting an oar where it is mistaken as a winnowing fan, and making his offerings to Poseidon. But first, that rooted bed calls....

Still feeling the afterglow, Odysseus tells her of all his travels and trials. In one night? This took me a month to read! He leaves early in the morning, to see his father.


The ghosts are making their trip to Hades, led by Hermes. Note to self: a trip to hell is always a good opportunity for a flashback, in kind of a petty way. The ghost of Achilles jabs at Agamemnon: rather than favored by Zeus as they all expected, rather than dying with honor on the battlefield, Aggie was cut down by familial traitors. Aggie says Achilles was the happy man for dying on the battlefield. A litany of the mourning rituals follows.

New ghosts meet old ghosts. Amphimedon tells a very one-sided story of Penelope's trickery with the weaving, and how "just then some wicked spirit brought Odysseus back, from god knows where," and how Odysseus cut them all down, "corpse on corpse in droves." Their bodies are untended, he whines. Agamemnon cuts through all that.
"Happy Odysseus!"
Agamemnon's ghost cried out. "Son of old Laertes--
mastermind--what a fine, faithful wife you won!
What good sense resided in your Penelope--
...The fame of her great virtue will never die.
The immortal gods will lift a song for all mankind,
a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope.
A far cry from the daughter of Tyndareus, Clytemnestra--
what outrage she committed, killing the man she married once!(210 -220)
The dead sure can get caught in an endless loop of self-pity. Or is it only particular ones? How they lived they are in death? Achilles is still arrogant; Agamemnon is still self-involved; the suitor is still sees himself as blameless.

Meanwhile, Odysseus, Telemachus, and the loyal men have reached
Laertes' large, well-tended farm
that the old king himself had wrested from the wilds,
years ago, laboring long and hard. (227-229)
Odysseus approaches his old father. Now it is his turn to hold back, approach slowly.
Debating, head and heart, what should he do now?
Kiss and embrace his father, pour out the long tale--
...or probe him first and test him every way?
Why does he choose to test? What is this compulsion to verify? What is being verified? Odysseus spins another tale, but as soon as he sees Laertes' black cloud of grief he stops.
Odysseus' heart shuddered, a sudden twinge went shooting up
through his nostrils, watching his dear father struggle...
He sprang toward him, kissed him, hugged him, crying,
"Father--I am your son--myself, the man you're seeking,
home after twenty years, on native ground at last.... (356-360)
Ah, perhaps it is not until this moment that Odysseus is really home. It is through his father's love and grief that he can really reach his native ground.
And Athena stood beside him, fleshing out the limbs
of the old commander, made him taller to all eyes,
his build more massive, stepping from his bath,
so his own son gazed at him, wonderstruck--
face-to-face he seemed a deathless god...
"Father"--Odysseus' words had wings--"surely
one of the everlasting gods has made you taller, stronger,
shining in my eyes!" (408 -415)
I think I see a bit of Telemachus in Odysseus now. Like father like son. Fathers and sons.

The vengeful relatives of the suitors arrive, but Athena stops the fighting. She commands,

Break off--shed no more blood--make peace at once!" (585)
So it ends.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow-what a wild ride! Hooray for the rooted bed. The slaughter of the women was pretty unsettling I must say...