Sunday, 23 October 2011

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 4

Here is the Sparknotes summary:

In Sparta, the king and queen, Menelaus and Helen, are celebrating the separate marriages of their son and daughter. They happily greet Pisistratus and Telemachus, the latter of whom they soon recognize as the son of Odysseus because of the clear family resemblance. As they all feast, the king and queen recount with melancholy the many examples of Odysseus’s cunning at Troy. Helen recalls how Odysseus dressed as a beggar to infiltrate the city’s walls. Menelaus tells the famous story of the Trojan horse, Odysseus’s masterful gambit that allowed the Greeks to sneak into Troy and slaughter the Trojans. The following day, Menelaus recounts his own return from Troy. He says that, stranded in Egypt, he was forced to capture Proteus, the divine Old Man of the Sea. Proteus told him the way back to Sparta and then informed him of the fates of Agamemnon and Ajax, another Greek hero, who survived Troy only to perish back in Greece. Proteus also told him news of Odysseus—that he was still alive but was imprisoned by Calypso on her island. Buoyed by this report, Telemachus and Pisistratus return to Pylos to set sail for Ithaca.

Meanwhile, the suitors at Odysseus’s house learn of Telemachus’s voyage and prepare to ambush him upon his return. The herald Medon overhears their plans and reports them to Penelope. She becomes distraught when she reflects that she may soon lose her son in addition to her husband, but Athena sends a phantom in the form of Penelope’s sister, Iphthime, to reassure her. Iphthime tells her not to worry, for the goddess will protect Telemachus.

This is the last book of the so-called "Telemachy" - the part of the Odyssey that focuses on Telemakhos and his journeys in search of news of Odysseus.  In the next Book, Odysseus himself will come into the action, but for now we continue to see Telemakhos grow into manhood in the footsteps of his dad.

The opening passage of the Book sheds light on the nature of Homeric Greek marriage, characterised as it was by the exchanging of daughters, sons and property:
They came to the vale of ravined Lakedaimon
and went to the house of renowned Menelaos.
They found him feasting his many kinsmen for the
wedding of his son and of his faultless daughter.
He was giving his daughter to Akhilleus' son,
for at Troy he had promised and pledged to give her
to him, and the gods were fulfilling their marriage.
He was sending her with horses and chariots
to the glorious city where the groom was king.
He had brought Alector's daughter from Sparta for
his son, strong, beloved Megapenthes, born of
a slave; for the gods gave Helen no more offspring
once she bore her lovely daughter Hermione,
who had the beauty of golden Aphrodite.
When Telemakhos joins the revelry, Helen and Menelaos recognise him without much difficulty.  As we have come to realise by now, he is patently his father's son.  This is what Helen says:
"I have never seen such likeness in anyone,
neither man nor woman - I feel awe to see it -
as he looks like he is great-hearted Odysseus'
son, Telemakhos, whom that man left in his house
as a baby, when, because of me, the dog-eyed,
the Akhaians went to Troy to wage fierce war."
Answering her, fair-haired Menelaos spoke up:
"I too now see the same resemblance as you, wife:
for that is what that man's feet looked like, and his hands,
and the looks of his eyes, and his head and his hair."
We also discover that Telemakhos looks different because he is of royal blood:
"...For in you your parents' lineage is not lost,
and you are of the lineage of sceptered kings,
nursed by Zeus, for base men could not beget such sons."
Helen, incidentally, comes across as a distinctly dodgy character, serving drugs to the men with their wine and telling them how silly she had been to go to Troy and how happy it had made her when Odysseus killed Trojan men.  This is somewhat undercut by Menelaos recounting how she very nearly betrayed the Greeks hidden in the Trojan horse.  Penelope also appears in the action, though at this point she is still being portrayed as something of an emotional female.

Aside from this, we have some familiar recurring motifs.  Menelaus is a properly hospitable host, as Nestor was in the previous book.  The story of Agamemnon and Aigisthos is told again, for the third time.  Both for Telemakhos and for us, the time of investigating and learning about the returns (nostoi) of the Greek heroes from Troy is drawing to a close.  Telemakhos has to sit and listen to Menelaus and Helen telling stories about the father whom he has never met - but from now on, the action will focus on Odysseus, who is about to enter the action in person.  We are also reminded again of the importance of kleos, repute.  This is how Penelope describes Odysseus:
"Long ago I lost my lion-hearted husband,
who surpassed the Danaans in every virtue,
a good man, whose fame [kleos] runs wide through Greece and Argos...."