The Odyssey
Homer
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano
Plot Summary
Summary

The Odyssey is a heroic tale of Greek king Odysseus returning home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus 10 years to reach home after fighting in the 10 year-long Trojan War. On his journey back, he fights demonic adversaries, resists the advances of seductresses and braves rough sea to reach Ithaca. Back home, he plots the fall of suitors who have laid seize to his family and home.

The Odyssey is one of the two major Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. Many believe it to be a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer.

Odysseus’ fight is not only against external forces but also against inner temptations and his inability to heed to the gods' warnings. Despite all his shortcomings, the protagonist is steadfast in his resolve to unite with his family after fighting bravely in the battlefield.

The epic poem is a glorious tale of fate, retribution, and the conflict between civilization and savagery. The Odyssey, famous for its non-linear plot, is not necessarily a chronologically ordered tale or narrated from a single perspective. But, it is woven around the single theme of an intense desire to reunite with family after fighting it out with evil forces. Odysseus is driven chiefly by his nostos, or his desire for homecoming, a notion in heroic culture that instills bravery among warriors by reminding them of the people and institutions they were fighting for back home.

His return to Ithaca symbolically signifies the transition from life as a warrior to life as a family man, a husband, father, and head of a household. Odysseus is driven by a desire to reclaim his identity as a family man and to become a person he was before he left for the Trojan War.

The narrator of the Odyssey spells out the main conflict in the opening lines. It is the Odysseus’ desire to reach home and the evil forces that stop him from reuniting with his family. The introductory section, called the proem, begins with the narrator invoking the muse, asking for inspiration as he narrates the epic poem. The narrator introduces the protagonist of the poem as Odysseus with a single objective: “to save his life and bring his comrades home.”

The narrator identifies the antagonist forces which stop the protagonist from returning home. He holds Sun god, Helios, and Odysseus’ fellow sailors as responsible for this struggle: “The recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all, the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the sun and the Sun god blotted out the day of their return.” The narrator next introduces Poseidon as one of Odysseus’ main antagonists as all the gods took pity on Odysseus but Poseidon, “raged on, seething against the great Odysseus until he reached his native land.” The proem also lets us know that the Odyssey will be the story of Odysseus’ successful journey home: “the exile must return!”

The action begins with the arrival of Athena in Ithaca. Odysseus’ son Telemachus and wife Penelope are in a state of distress as the suitors have finished off all the food and wine. Disguised as a sailor, Athena says to Telemachus that his father is still alive and he should embark on a journey to find out his father. Telemachus is not sure whether Athena is telling the truth, nevertheless, he sets sail, warning the suitors to not trouble his mother.

Here, Telemachus is shown as a man full of doubts. He is not sure about his role as a leader, but, is ready to take the responsibility of a king. In the next couple of books, Telemachus comes to know that his father is being held captive on Calypso’s island. He also hears about his father’s bravery during the war and the terrible losses he suffered in the battle.

This is for the first time Telemachus learns anything about his father as he was just a toddler when Odysseus left for the war. Telemachus also experiences Greek hospitality as his hosts bathe him in oil, prepare feast in his honor, and present him gifts when he is about to leave.

The action shifts to Odysseus, who after being freed from Calypso’s island by Athena, sets out for home but is shipwrecked by Poseidon. Poseidon is still angry with Odysseus as he blinded his son, the Cyclops. Odysseus stops over in Phaeacia and narrates to his hosts the story of his 10 year-long journey after leaving Troy.

In this speech, Odysseus’ curious character comes out as a bold, curious and a confident man. Wherever he goes, he wants to know what the locals are like, whether they are “men like us who eat bread,” and who will offer Odysseus and his crew the hospitality they prize. Out of curiosity, he spends some time in the Cyclops’ cave and makes his men tie him to his mast. Rather than plug his ears, he wants to hear the song of the sirens. He ignores Athena’s warnings and angers the gods, who vow retribution but stop short of killing him. The gods promise him that they will make his journey home as difficult as possible.

The epic poem reaches its climax when Odysseus finally arrives in Ithaca from Phaeacia. Here, his story coincides with Telemachus’ and the duo faces one last hurdle together to mark a happy homecoming.
The duo enters the castle with Odysseus disguised as a beggar, narrating his own heroic deeds during the Trojan Wars. In this way, he is able to test the values and loyalty of his countrymen. Far from extending hospitality, the suitors abuse Odysseus, confirming their doom and reinforcing the importance of the host-guest relationship in the poem. Several suitors fail Penelope's challenge to shoot an arrow through twelve axe handles but Odysseus strings his bow and accomplishes the task easily, claiming to be the rightful husband of Penelope. He also proves that he still has the warrior-like qualities apart from being a good husband. Odysseus and Telemachus kill the suitors and servants, reconfirming Odysseus’ former aura with his role as husband, father, and a king. Telemachus’ evolution into a brave and decisive leader also gets confirmed in the whole episode. Odysseus is finally reunited with his wife, son and father. The poem concludes with Athena salving the wounds of suitors’ parents and restoring peace to Ithaca.

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