Odyssey Readalong: Books 19–24

The Odyssey Readalong

Now that noble Odysseus has punished the suitors, let them
make their oaths of faith and friendship, and let him be king
always; and let us make them forget the death of their brothers
and sons, and let them be friends with each other, as in the time past,
and let them have prosperity and peace in abundance.

The masterful story-telling continued in the last section of the Odyssey. As with the previous 6 books I was kept on the edge of my seat the whole time. Step by step Odysseus’ plan to get revenge on the suitors comes together and is carried out successfully, though not without the necessary dramatic hiccups. All of Odysseus’ testing has sorted the goats from the sheep, so to speak, and they fall right into Odysseus’ trap, despite warnings and opportunities to save themselves. Once the doors are closed their fate is sealed and not one suitor or traitor is left standing. There is a certain amount of gore but not as much as I was expecting, and it was all cleaned up in short order (by the treacherous maidservants who were executed immediately thereafter!). I found it interesting that Odysseus cleansed his house with “fire and brimstone,” which he called “the cure of evils.” We usually think of fire and brimstone as part of the punishments of Hell, but here they are used to banish evil rather than punish it.

The final crisis is bookended nicely by encounters between Odysseus and Penelope. In their first meeting he keeps his disguise to test her, and she explains how she is caught between wanting to wait for her husband and seeing her son’s inheritance wasted away by the feasting suitors. She finally resolves to put the suitors to a trial of strength and skill, and marry the one who wins. This epic has been full of trials, with both gods and mortals testing each others’ identities and faith. Penelope tests the stranger, Odysseus in disguise, asking him about his origins and to prove that he has seen Odysseus. In the penultimate book when Odysseus finally reveals himself to her, she tests him again, fearing some kind of deception. Clearly she is a woman after his own suspicious heart, and it is no wonder she is called “circumspect” throughout the epic. Their final reunion is quite touching as they both have such great admiration and love for each other.

The character of Penelope is interesting to me because so often she is doubted and maligned, even by her own son, but over the course of the epic she is shown to be not only virtuous but also shrewd in keeping the suitors off as long as she did. Finally she displays motherly selflessness in resolving to marry one of the suitors, hateful though the prospect is to her, in order to preserve the property of her less-than-supportive son. She gets her just reward in the return of her beloved hero, the greatest of men.

Had Odysseus not returned it’s hard to say whether her plan would have succeeded. During the archery trial, the suitors admit they are afraid not of losing the chance to marry Penelope but of being seen as inferior to Odysseus, whose bow they could not string. Before being killed one of the suitors accuses another of not being interested in Penelope herself but of plotting to kill Telemachos so he could take Odysseus’ place as king. In essence, Penelope was wanted as a trophy wife, as though marrying her would automatically make the lucky suitor as great as Odysseus. It seems unlikely that Penelope could have done anything to save her son, but luckily she had Odysseus and the gods to uphold justice for her and her family.

One little touch I found interesting was how during the climactic scene of slaughter, the food that the suitors had been feasting on was scattered on the floor along with their bodies. This was repeated several times, and I think it points to the illicitness of their feasting at Odysseus’ expense. Feasting and hospitality were evidently very important to the ancient Greeks, and abusing hospitality must have been seen as a great offense, great enough to get the gods involved in setting things to rights.

The epic ends with the suitors in Hades telling their whole story to Agamemnon, Achilleus, and the other heroes there. There is an obvious connection to the underworld adventure from book 11, and it gave me the same sense of it being shoehorned in after the fact. There doesn’t seem to be much purpose to it. Perhaps it was a way to blend in a competing poem on the same story from the underworld perspective. The very last section of book 24 returns to the above-ground action but terminates rather abruptly when Athene shows her power and terrifies both Odysseus’ company and the avenging Ithakans into dropping their arms and pledging peace. There is nothing about Odysseus making the required sacrifices to placate Poseidon and the other gods, so I wonder if the original ending of the poem was lost. Not that it is out of character for the gods to swoop in and direct matters—Athene did quite a bit of that during the battle with the suitors. There is also a sense of finality in the way Laertes expresses his joy at seeing is son and grandson showing their valour, and, with Athene’s help, kills the father of the worst of the suitors. Three generations have defended their honour and the gods put an end to it there. Perhaps that is a fitting end to this revenge fantasy. Though the gods seem capricious at times, it does seem that their main concern is to uphold the right and see justice done. The quote above is what Zeus told Athene would be the “proper” end of events, and that is exactly what she brought about.

I’m sure I haven’t even begun to understand this great epic, but at least I have begun my journey with it. I will read it again, hopefully a number of times, as well as the Iliad and the other texts that go with them. I must thank Trish for initiating this readalong, and I definitely recommend The Odyssey to everyone. It is not as difficult as one might fear from an ancient work of literature, and it is certainly entertaining, with everything from swashbuckling action to tender romance. If you haven’t already, give it a try!

Previous posts: Books 1–6; Books 7–12; Books 13–18.

For more Odyssey Readalong posts, visit Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity.

The Odyssey of Homer, Richmond Lattimore trans.


10 comments on “Odyssey Readalong: Books 19–24

  1. Seesaw says:

    May I suggest that one of these days you start reading James Joyce's Ulysses, or as they call it 20 century Odyssey. It will be much easier to follow it.

  2. Stefanie says:

    You made short work of The Odyssey! Glad you enjoyed it. Penelope is an intriguing character. You might like Margaret Atwood's novella The Penlopiad.

  3. Annie says:

    You are, as it were, a book ahead of me. I've just read 'The Iliad' for the first time and 'The Odyssey' is on the list for the new year. I hope I get as much pleasure from it as you have.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Seesaw, I think there is a Ulysses readalong brewing for next year, so maybe I'll read it then!

    Stefanie, it was good to have the readalong to keep me going, but really it is not a long read. The Penelopeiad is definitely on the list now!

    Annie, I did it backwards, reading the Odyssey first. I will have to catch up on the Iliad soon. I'm sure you'll enjoy the Odyssey and I hope you will blog about it.

  5. Trish says:

    Sylvia–I've loved reading your thoughts throughout our journey–you provide such wonderful insight for us all!

    I sometimes don't understand the negative feed Penelope gets from modern readers–you bring up great points about her virtue and faithfulness during the 20 years when her husband is absent. Perhaps we look at her through our modern lens and wish that she had taken a more firm stand against the suitors, but is this being unfair to her? Telemakhos on the other hand never seem to really grow up on his own–wish he had developed a little more as a character throughout the book.

    And I didn't notice the food strewn around the suitors! Wonder if this was downplayed in my translation or perhaps I was so caught up in the action I missed it.

    Again, big thanks for joining us!

  6. joanna says:

    Yay, we did it! 🙂 I was surprised at how easy it was to read, nowhere near as difficult as I thought it would be!

  7. Shelley says:

    “Penelope was wanted as a trophy wife” — so true! Those suitors were so full of themselves.
    Thank you for all of your insights. What a great readalong this has been!

  8. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, Trish. I definitely didn't see Penelope as some sort of pathetic doormat. I think she did the best she could with almost everyone against her and over 100 suitors in her house. I think Telemachos did assert himself more and more as the story progressed, but he never did develop much respect for his mother. Definitely not a mama's boy!

    Joanna, hurrah for us! I think most classics really aren't that difficult to read with the right translation or edition. We're lucky to have so many options to choose from.

    Thanks, Shelley! Yes, the suitors seemed pretty flaky to me, wanting to marry for status instead of earning it the way Odysseus and his generation did. They remind me of college kids who have had everything handed to them on a platter and waste their time on parties and video games and smashing up the car. If their fathers had returned from Troy I think things would have been different!

  9. Erin says:

    I really liked Penelope, even though she did so much weeping. I didn't notice how the slaughter was bookended by encounters between Penelope and Odysseus — I want to go back and read that part again now!

    I felt like a lot was missing or dealt with abruptly at the end of The Odyssey. It would make sense if the original ending was lost somehow.

  10. Sylvia says:

    Erin, it seems everyone found the ending a little abrupt. Another possibility is that the story originally ended with the previous book, but then someone asked “Hey, what about the suitors' families? Won't they want revenge? And you forgot about Laertes!” and so someone (who was not up to Homer's standards) tacked on an ending to finish off the loose threads. As usual, the sequel is never as good as the original! 😉

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