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The Odyssey is a literal and figurative journey for nearly all of the main characters in it. In fact, the entire royal family of Ithaca goes through a change; even old Laertes seems to change in the short time we see him. However,the most notable character shifts take place in Telemachus and Odysseus. These two characters in particular go through changes that are a bit uncanny, mostly because the traits they develop, or in the case of Odysseus, fall in to are reflected in other characters. Telemachus, for example, exhibits characteristics that reflect his mother and the suitors, some of the decisions he makes show the reckless foolishness that Odysseus’s crew exhibited. On the other hand, Odysseus exhibits traits similar to Achilles,Agamemnon, and the Cyclops during the slaughtering of the suitors.
When we meet young Telemachus in Book One, he lacks experience in every sense, as there is no indication he has ever interacted with another person his own age, or outside of his home for that matter, nor has he had any opportunities for growth. As time progresses, we see Telemachus set out on his own (Book 2), make powerful allies (Books 3 and 4) and come into his own, so by the time his father lands on Ithaca, Telemachus has become a man and it seems he has taken after his father. While we learn that Athena favors Telemachus in the same way as his father very early on, it is not until Book Fifteen that we learn it is also Athena that spurs many of his changes, particularly his hatred of the suitors,“ hovering over him, eyes ablaze,Athena said, ‘ it is wrong Telemachus,wrong to rove so far,so long from home,leaving your own holdings unprotected—crowds in your palace so brazen they’ll carve up al your wealth,devour it all. and then your journey here will come to nothing” (15.10-15). As if this first comment weren’t enough to fuel his utter hatred of the suitors, Athena goes on, “picked men of the suitors lie in ambush…poised to kill you before you can reach home…” (15.31-33). This advice taken by itself seems like practical advice from the blazing eyed goddess, however, it just serves to make Telemachus paranoid. As a result of this taunting from Athena, Telemachus becomes a less than thankful guest first in Sparta, “Menelaus,royal Atrides,captain of armies, I must go back to my own home at once…” (15.96-97). Not only does this paranoia cause him to forget some of his manners, he also pays a compliment to Helen that is likely to upset Athena, “ Oh if only…Zeus the thundering lord of Hera makes it so—even at home I’ll pray to you as a deathless goddess” (15.200-203). As we have seen from Odysseus upsetting Athena is the last thing you want to do, and so is violating the guest right.
Once Telemachus learns of his father’s presence, it is as if he turns into another person, he becomes reckless almost to the point of foolishness, so much so that his mother even comments, “ Telemachus, your sense of balance is not what it used to be.When you were a boy you had much better judgment…now that you’ve grown and reached your young prime…now your sense of fairness seems to fail you” (18.240-249). In Book 20,on the feast day of Apollo, Telemachus struts around the palace, handing out orders like the man of the house. This is the first time we see Telemachus really being the man of the house, but we also see his recklessness here too, “ you missed our guest—he ducked your blow my god! Else I would have planted my sharp spear in your bowels” (20.341-342). This is a strong threat for such an offense, but this offense combined with his sense of paranoia and his father being home begins to paint a picture of a tyrannical Telemachus. This picture becomes clearer during the slaughter, when Telemachus, who has had no prior experience in warfare, kills suitors on his own. This scene is particularly telling as Telemachus takes the cowards way out, “ …Telemachus—too quick—stabbed the man from behind plunging his bronze spear between the suitor’s shoulders” (22.97-98). Telemachus is at this point so blind with fear and rage that he makes a potentially deadly mistake, “ that snug door to the fault,I left it ajar—they’ve kept a better watch than I” (22.163-164). Telemachus loses all humanity when he is left in charge of taking care of the maids, “they marched the women out of the great hall…crammed them into a dead end,no way out from there… Telemachus gave the men their orders: ‘No clean death for the likes of them, by god!’” (22.484-488). He hangs the women, in direct violation of his father’s request. Not only does this violate his father’s request, it seems as though he also violates the bodies themselves here. In the course of the poem, Telemachus goes from a foolish boy to a tyrant.
Telemachus goes through many changes quite quickly where his father has twenty years to change. Despite this fact, it seems as though the most important changes in Odysseus take place while on Ithaca. By this time, we have learned that Odysseus is a man that has faced many challenges, though one seems to stand out above the rest: the Cyclops. This is interesting because we see Odysseus conform to some non-human kind of justice when he kills the suitors. The first example of this is when he kill Antinous, “ he trained a stabbing arrow on Antinous…just lifting a gorgeous golden loving-cup in his hands…slaughter the last thing on the suitors mind” (22.8-11). Though I don’t doubt that Antinous had wronged Odysseus, perhaps more than all the rest of the suitors, the way Odysseus chose to kill him was less than heroic. This is the first episode in Odysseus change, as it seems that he has forgotten that killing an unsuspecting victim is less than honorable. Following this kill, it is no accident that the imagery is similar to that of the Cyclops vomiting up Odysseus men, “… the cup dropped from his grasp…and the man’s life blood came spurting out from his nostrils—thick red jets…” (22.14-18). It is only fitting that Odysseus keeps killing at this point since he is blinded with rage, which is an interesting image since Odysseus blinded the Cyclops, and is now blinding himself as is evident in several places, “the battle master kept on glaring,seething” and “ his menace shook their knees” (22.64, 22.72).
Up until this point, Odysseus’s actions and the imagery that surrounds them have been on par with those of the Cyclops. While it is clear that his actions are definitely being guide by some non-human idea of justice, it isn’t clear which non-mortal idea he is abiding by, as we have seen he definitely uses methods similar to the Cyclops, but he also seems to be guided by a god(s)’s plan. He calls on Athena, who appears as Mentor, here, “ remember your old comrade—all the service I offered you” (22.218-219). It seems convenient that Athena rouses him right after this plea, and allows him and his men to defeat the suitors. When we are being told of this rout, the image given is one of predatory birds,particularly eagles, swopping down on their prey, “ the attackers struck like eagles,crook-clawed,hook-beaked, swopping down from a mountain ridge to harry smaller birds…the eagles plunge injury,rip their lives out—hopeless, never a chance of flight or rescue” (22.317-320). Not only are we given this example to help the idea of Odysseus being guided by something greater, we are also given the scene where Leodes begs Odysseus to spare him, but Odysseus hacks him to pieces anyway. This scene clearly calls to mind Achilles’s wrath, “ a killing look, and the wry soldier answered, ‘only a priest, a prophet for this mob you say? How hard you must have prayed in my own house that the heady day of my return would never dawn—my dear wife would be yours,would bear your children! For that there’s no escape from grueling death—you die,’” and cements the idea of Odysseus being somehow divinely guided (22.336-341).
It is extremely clear that some non-human force is guiding the changes in these characters, and it is no accident that the changes in character that both Telemachus and Odysseus experience are reflected elsewhere in the poem as well. The question is really what the non-human force is. Is it Zeus? Is it Athena? Is it the spirit of one of the great heroes Odysseus fought with at Troy? This is what is unclear, as it seems that all of these play a role in each character’s evolution at one point or another.

20 Responses to “Character in the Odyssey”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Lindsey,

    You do a nice job of charting out the changes in Odysseus and Telemachus. It makes sense to me that Telemachus originally acts like his mother (he has grown up around her and the maids / servants) and the suitors (they are his age and are something like companions, though clearly not friends). And it makes sense that Odysseus acts like Achilles and Agamemnon for obvious reasons (the Cyclops perhaps less so). You use the text well to support these points.

    It is striking that Athena speaks of “your palace” and “your wealth” to Telemachus. Part of her plans is to inspire him, surely, but part of it may be to put him on the throne when Odysseus goes off to satisfy the geas regarding Poseidon. (And is this part of Athena’s plan, by the way? Zeus’ plan? We certainly never hear Poseidon talk about what Tiresias and Circe reveal to Odysseus. Or maybe it doesn’t really have anything to do with Poseidon in the end.)

    I think you are right regarding Penelope’s comment in Book 18; something about Telemachus has veered off course, perhaps. The hanging of the maids and the butchering of Melanthius (it is implied he took part in this, or at least allowed it) does not speak well to the type of rule he would enact were he to become king.

    Regarding Odysseus and Leodes, it is worth mentioning again that Odysseus spared Maron of Ismarus (9.219ff), who was a priest of Apollo. But Leodes (who is presumably involved in some fashion with Apollo, being a seer) is not spared. Something has happened on the way to the forum, so to speak–Odysseus is different. Or perhaps the circumstances are different, i.e., he is in his own house. Regardless, the fact that a seer is killed on the feast day of Apollo is surely significant.

    KH

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