World Literature I (Eng 251)
The Story of the Odyssey, Briefly Retold
Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI
Books 1-4: When Odysseus sailed for Troy, he left behind his clever wife Penelope and his infant son Telemachus. A few years before Odysseus returns, a large group of suitors try to force Penelope to marry one of them by moving into her palace for an endless party devouring the food and drink belonging to Odysseus.
Shortly before Odysseus returns, Athena, disguised as Mentor, shows up on Ithaka and arranges for Telemachus to travel to the mainland seeking word of his father Odysseus. Telemachus hears that Odysseus is alive, but stuck on Kalypso's island. The suitors try to ambush and kill Telemachus as he returns to Ithaka, but Athena arranges for him to get home safely.
Books 5-8: Meanwhile, Athena has also arranged with Zeus to release Odysseus from Kalypso's island and allow him to return home. Odysseus leaves the island on a raft, which Poseidon wrecks in a storm as a final act of vengeance because Odysseus blinded his son, the cyclops Polyphemos. Nearly dead with exhaustion, Odysseus washes up on Scheria, land of the Phaiakians, and collapses in a bed of leaves to sleep. In the morning he encounters the princess Nausicaa and her girl friends who (inspired by Athena) have come to the beach to wash their linen. Nausicaa tells Odysseus the way to her parents' palace, where he is nobly hosted.
Books 9-12: While feasting at the palace, Odysseus retells the stories of the fall of Troy and his amazing adventures since he left Troy. These are stories from the ancient oral tradition of sailors' adventures to strange places, often beyond the boundaries of the real world. The following is a list of the adventures Odysseus relates while he is a guest on Scheria:
Odysseus' Amazing Adventures
The Scherians appreciate Odysseus' stories, arrange games in his honor, admire his heroic stature, give him gifts of royal treasure and take him home to Ithaka on a magically swift ship.
Books 13-24: His treasure safely concealed, Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, hides out with the good swineherd, Eumaios, contacts his son, Telemachus, and plots the overthrow of the wicked suitors. He is so careful he doesn't even let his wife Penelope know he is home. With a little help from Athena, Odysseus and his son finally slaughter all 108 suitors, have the maids cleanse the palace hall of bodies and blood, and then hang the disloyal maids who have been sleeping with the suitors. Odysseus finally reunites with faithful Penelope. Retaliation by the suitors' families, which could lead to endless feuding, is stopped by Zeus and Athena.
The Odyssey can be read as a poet's travel guide to the imaginary Mediterranean, with plenty of examples of how one ought to treat guests. The first four books of the Odyssey are about Telemachus' visit to the mainland, where he is well fed, given gifts and well treated. This is how guests ought to be received. The suitors are slaughtered for the crime of being bad guests who eat their host's cattle, drink his wine and try to marry his wife and kill his son.
(c) Thompson: 7/10/1998; updated: 08/11/2005