Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Honey, I'm home!

I finally finished The Odyssey. After some slow spots midway through, the pace picked up again, but not without the occasional boring interjection.

An Example of a Boring Bit

My favorite example of a boring plot interruption comes in chapter XV (although I suppose if it's my "favorite," it isn't maximally boring). Here we meet a new minor character, the wanderer Theoclymenus. It takes one long paragraph and then some to introduce him before we finally learn his name, and the introduction goes something like this:
So as Telemachus and his crew are about to sail away, this guy comes up to the boat. His great great grandfather Mumblyjumblius lived on the island Whatchamacallit way back when, but for some crazy reason moved to Yaddayadda, where they held him hostage and took all his stuff, and he was harassed by the lordship's mean daughter, but he finally escaped, and to get revenge, he took the mean daughter home with him and made her marry his brother. Anyway, he eventually moved to Thatotherisland and got hitched and had a couple kids, and they also had kids, but the one kid's kids didn't live to adulthood, and one of the other kid's kids didn't either, but the surviving kid did; but oy, he argued with his dad too much and moved away. Anyway, it was that kid's kid's kid who comes up now to Telemachus's boat and says, "Friend, I entreat you! Tell me, and hold nothing back: who are you?" (Paraphrase of Homer, The Odyssey, ca. 8th c. BCE, trans. George Herbert Palmer, 1891, rev. 1912; Dover Thrift Editions: 1999, Chapter XV, p. 147.)
The study group question for this chapter should be, "at what point in this paragraph did you fall asleep?" Of course, I suppose if Homer had been trying to score points by dropping my family's names, I would have hung on every word.

Blood and Gore

The later chapters include descriptive gore on par with the cyclops' eye-pokering. Highlights include Odysseus contemplating whether to punch someone hard enough to kill him or just hard enough to make a point; he decides on the latter, therefore,
he struck Irus on the neck below the ear and crushed the bones within. Forthwith from out his mouth the red blood ran, and down in the dust he fell with a moan, gnashing his teeth and kicking on the ground....Odysseus caught Irus by the foot and dragged him through the doorway... (Ch. XVIII, p. 176.)
All the suitors who are looking on think it is hilarious to see an old man beggar beat up an obnoxious young beggar. I'm not sure if the listener/reader is also supposed to think it's funny; after all, the suitors are boors, so they aren't great role models. Odysseus, however, seems pretty pleased with himself, since successfully beating up a beggar bodes well for eventually massacring 108 aristrocratic boors. So two points for the home team, rah rah!

Two more gory descriptions of mutilation and death stood out to me. First: need to teach a traitorous goatherd a lesson? Here's how!
...tie his feet and hands and drag him within the chamber; there fasten boards upon his back, and lashing a twisted rope around him hoist him aloft, up the tall pillar, and bring him to the beams, that he may keep alive there long and suffer grievous torment. (Ch. XXII, p. 215.)
It is worth noting that I read this chapter out of a different edition, since I was visiting my mom in Illinois and it was really cold outside and my Dover edition was locked in the car trunk, so I read from another prose translation that we had on a bookshelf in the study. That one said that the goatherd's hands and feet were to be tied behind his back, which makes things sound more uncomfortable; but it also said he was to be tied around the waist to the board, which makes it sound a little less uncomfortable.

Perhaps Homer was aware of the potential confusion, or at least aware that some of his listeners might not have caught the details the first time around, because he repeats the description a few 
paragraphs later, when two of Odysseus's loyal servants carry out the deed (although the boards are omitted):
...then on him sprang the two and dragged him by the hair within the door, threw him all horror-stricken to the ground, bound hands and feet together with a galling cord, which tight and fast they tied, as they were ordered by Laertes' son, long-tried royal Odysseus; then they lashed a twisted rope around and hoisted him aloft, up the tall pillar, and brought him to the beams [and mocked him...] (ibid.)
Poor Melanthius.

The second really notable description of vengeful execution pertains to the ladies. When you're as mighty as Odysseus, you have a houseful of servants; and as long as they are in your household's employ, they really shouldn't get cozy with your wife's boorish suitors. Out of the fifty women servants, Odysseus's dear nurse Eurycleia identifies "twelve in all [who] have gone the way of shame."

The way of shame! The way of shame! Odysseus punishes the women by making them clear away the dead bodies, sponge down the hall, and cart out the blood-soaked flooring. Then his son Telemachus locks them into a narrow, inescapable space while he rigs up their death machine:
He...tied the cable of a dark-bowed ship to a great pillar, then lashed it to the round-house, stretching it high across, too high for one to touch the feet upon the ground. And as the wide-winged thrushes or the doves strike on a net set in the bushes; and when they think to go to roost a cruel bed receives them; even so the women held their heads in line, and around every neck a noose was laid, that they might die most vilely. They twitched their feet a little, but not long. (p. 221)
Let that be a lesson, ladies, on going the way of shame. The men then bring out Melanthius, the goatherd who has been watching the slaughter from the rafters. They cut off his nose and ears, disembowel him, and let the dogs eat his still-warm guts, and--because they're still very very angry--they cut off his hands and feet. He presumably dies somewhere along the way, but Homer doesn't tell us when.

Apparently traitorous employees and women are worse than boorish suitors, since the suitors pretty much all enjoy clean, swift deaths.

Forgiveness and Love

But the end of The Odyssey is not all blood and gore, no no! Odysseus has a gentle side too. During the massacre, two people beg for mercy: the seer Leiodes and the bard Phemius. Odysseus feels that Leiodes should have known better, so he drives a sword through the seer's neck and cuts off his head; but Telemachus puts in a good word for the bard and another man, the page Medon. Generous Odysseus, smiling, spares them both. We love our bards.

Odysseus scores some points for realizing that brutally killing the best and the noblest youths of Ithaca is not going to go over so well with the neighbors. He and Telemachus hatch a plan appropriate to their nobility: they will get the servants to create a diversion and will sneak out of town the next morning to their well-wooded farm, where they can hide until the gods show them a way out of this mess (Ch. XXIII, p. 224). Fortunately, the gods decide they've had enough entertainment. Athene intervenes with an angry mob, calling, "Hold, men of Ithaca, from cruel combat, and without bloodshed straightway part!" This scares the bejeezus out of everyone and peace settles upon Ithaca.

Homer also tells us that Odysseus and Penelope, once reunited, "came gladly to their old bed's rites," where they "joyed in happy love" before joying in talking (p. 227). The lovey-dovey stuff is kept to a bare minimum, because mushy love stuff is harder to speak of than head-lopping bone-crushing liver-stabbing slaughtering.

The Final Grade

I give The Odyssey an A-. The A is for being the ur-roadtrip narrative; the - is for the boring bits and name dropping. Good job, Homer! Like The Scarlet Letter, I think high schoolers might appreciate this book more in a history class or a world literature class than in an English class. (When I was in high school, we read The Odyssey in an English class, even though The Odyssey has nothing to do with English per se. Today, such classes are called Language Arts, and The Odyssey would fit in just fine.)

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