Books I-IV are referred to as the Telemachy--the opening story of Odysseus' son Telemakhos--which prepares us for what's to come. The Telemachy serves a dramatic purpose by implying that the son has a essential role in the overthrow of the brazen suitors, a part for which he is not yet ready. Athena intervenes in Telemakhos' life disguised as Mentor. In Book II, Telemakhos "awakens" and begins to test his prowess--he surprises the suitors with his new found earnestness, he calls an assembly, and he embarks on a "father quest." During his journey, the stories told to him by Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen all recall the kleos or fame of his father, Odysseus, and describe his part in the Trojan War. We also get a reference to Agamemnon's death at the hands of Aigisthos and Klytaimnestra (Clytemnestra). The stories of adventure and war also serve as a contrast to the normal, domestic life (now gone awry) that Telemakhos lives in Ithaca. We learn the plight of Ithaca. We learn the plight of Penelope. We learn the true character of the suitors--lead by the powerful and arrogant Antinoos. These men put themselves fully in the wrong when they plot to murder Telemakos at the end of Book IV.
The Telemachy establishes a value system within the epic whereby mortals begin to see their own part in bringing about human affliction and suffering. Zeus says in the opening of the epic: "My word, how mortals take the gods to task! / All their afflictions come from us, we hear / And what of their own failings? Greed and Folly / double the suffering in the lot of man." In the beginning of the epic, Zeus condemns Aigisthos for his "folly" in the murder of Agamemnon (when he returns from the Trojan War) and champions Agamemnon's son, Orestes, as the avenger. Orestes serves as a role model for the yet unwilling and immature Telemakhos. Penelope's character will be measured by the story of Agamemnon's wife, Klytaimnestra, and her betrayal of her husband on his homecoming day. Nestor tells this story to Telemakhos in Book III and establishes Klytaimnestra as the Bad/Mother/Woman archetype. Folly and greed link the suitors with Odysseus' lost shipmates and the now dead Aigisthos. The Telemachy shows us exactly what Odysseus does not know about his wife and son and their plight.
The story of the House of Atreus establishes a recurrent pattern (archetype) for women to overcome and men to live up to--the myth influences the behavior of Telemakhos, Penelope, and Odysseus, and our understanding of their family drama. Focus remains on Aigisthos as prime villain, on Agamemnon as victim, and above all on Orestes as slayer and avenger. It is up to Telemakhos to see that his part and the suitors coincides with the story of Aigisthos' death at the hands of Orestes. In Book XI, the ghost of Agamemnon tells Odysseus the story of his deadly, unfaithful wife Clytemnestra. Agamemnon's warning to Odysseus establishes the tradition of misogyny and justifies Odysseus' dolos when he returns to Ithaca. Penelope, for her part, must avoid becoming like Clytemnestra, a femme fatale, and therein she ultimately verifies the archetype of the Good/Woman/Mother. However, Penelope is not ultimately predictable, for she has hidden depths and surprises, even for Odysseus, when she tests his identity with her story of the marriage bed in Book XXIII. Regardless of Penelope's character, Agamemnon's story of Clytemnestra continues to define--in literature, art, song, and politics--male expectations of female behavior. As part of revising an ideology of misogyny, the Agamemnon-Clytemnestra mythos is contrasted with that of Odysseus and his wife Penelope.
As husband and wife, Menelaos and Helen (Book IV) play upon the game of ambiguity--Helen tells Telemakhos the story of how she recognizes Odysseus, who has entered the city of Troy in disguise (and how she converses with him but does not give him away). She is not without shame, but her own story casts her as pro-Greek; Menelaus tells how Helen attempted to betray the Greek warriors (hidden inside the Trojan Horse) by calling out each man's name in the voice of his wife. Her calling out to the Wooden Horse suggests she favors the Trojans. The pro-Greek position she attributes to herself in her own story is juxtaposed to her husband's account of her behavior at the city of Troy. So, while Clytemnestra perhaps, more clearly, represents a binary opposite to Penelope, Helen (as wife) is more complex and potentially more troubling because she is undefined and unlimited, even though her mythos is shame. She represents the lover archetype.
Book V through XII are distinctive. These books establish the importance of hospitality or Xenia for Odysseus as he meets the Phaiakians on the golden isle, Skheria. Odysseus' stories (that make up the Ring Compositions, Books IX through XII) are told to the Phaiakians during feasts and celebrations.
In Book V we meet Odysseus for the first time, trapped in the sea chambers of Kalypso. Book V represents a second beginning as we shift narratives from the story of the son to the story of the father. While Athena travels to Ithaca to awaken Telemakhos, Zeus commands Hermes to travel to Kalypso and order her to let Odysseus go. The first words that Odysseus speaks in the epic establish the heroic emphasis in Homer's Odyssey. The Iliad portrays heroes fighting against other heroes in battle and establishes prowess as the most valuable heroic quality. In the Odyssey, heroic qualities are measured not by a struggle with equals on a battlefield, but with struggles against enormous odds (suitors), struggles against monsters (Kyklops) and struggles against supernatural powers (Kirke). The Heroic qualities now include honeyed speech, knowledge of civility and xenia, diplomacy, cunning and wit, endurance and intelligence, guile and craftiness, disguise and trickery.
In Book V we get the importance of nostos, the homecoming. Odysseus declares that he seeks home as his telos or goal, even above Kalypso's promise of immortality. Hardships are inevitable: "Let the Trial Come." We learn that Poseidon is indeed Odysseus' adversary and we hear how Ino, a sea nymph, saves Odysseus from drowning. Odysseus washes onto the cold shores of the Phaiakians' island and sleeps in a bed of leaves.More on Book IV: Menelaus' story at the end of Book IV about Proteus, the ancient sea-god, acts as a subtle but direct transition linking Book IV to Book V, the second beginning, where we meet the marooned Odysseus on the island with Kalypso, which means "hidden." Menelaus tells Telemakhos the story of being trapped on an island unsure of direction and course. This is of course the same condition we find our epic hero in at the beginning of Book V.Menelaus' story also suggests something intriguing about the nature of Proteus. Such shape shifters are connected with the images of dreams; he is the sea-god who know the deeps (lines 407-408) and serves Poseidon and perhaps shares in the archetype with Thetis, Achilles goddess/mother who also changes shape. From a psychological perspective, the sea then is a likely metaphor for the unconscious depths of the human mind. And extending the metaphor in narrative creates the allegory of the hero's journey across the sea as a journey into some form of self-knowledge or apprehension of divine knowledge, the hero's transformation of consciousness.
1. Look at Telemakhos' growth to manhood. Analyze the stages of his assumption of responsibility and the recognition of the fact by others.
2. Books I and V open with the council of the gods. What is the main item on their agenda in the two books? What is the significance of the parallelism of the two councils?