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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

D. Snider
A Commentary on the Odyssey of Homer - Part II

From, Homer's Odyssey: A commentary
[Please note that the Table of Contents here published, is created by Elpenor and is not to be found in the print version]

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Page 27

To these three men we are to add the woman, Penelope, who has her part, perhaps the most difficult in this difficult business. She cannot resort to violence, she must use her feminine weapon, tact, with a degree of skill which makes her an example for all time. Indeed not a few of her sex declare that she has overdone the matter, and that her acts are morally questionable. But there can be no doubt that it is the part of tact to find fault with tact, and that woman will always decry woman's skill in artifice, without refraining from its employment altogether; indeed just that is a part of the artifice.

For this and similar reasons the moral bearings of this portion of the Odyssey have always aroused discussion. In general, the question comes up: What constitutes a lie? Is the disguise of Ulysses justifiable? Is the subtlety of Penelope morally reprehensible? The old dispute as to conduct rises in full intensity: Does the end justify the means? Two parties are sure to appear with views just opposite; the one excuses, the other condemns, often with no little asperity. The Odyssey has been denounced even as an immoral Book and both its hero and heroine have been subjected to a burning ordeal of literary damnation.

The poet has, however, his wrongful set, the Suitors, about whose character there is no disagreement. They are the negation of that Divine Order which is to be restored by those who believe in it—the three men who come together at the hut of the swineherd, and who have been trained by the time and circumstances just to this end. Ulysses has had to pass through his negative period and overcome the same within; now he is prepared to meet the Suitors and to destroy them without the negative recoil which came upon him after destroying the city of Troy. He can do a necessary deed of violence without becoming violent and destructive himself; he will not now re-enact the Ciconian affair.

Let us look into the inner movement of the matter here indicated. The slaughter of the Suitors by Ulysses was undoubtedly a negative act, yet the Suitors also were negative in conduct, wholly so; thus violence is met and undone by violence, or negation negates negation. What is the outcome? Manifestly a double result is possible: if a negative cancels a negative, there may remain still negation, or there may be a positive result. Ulysses has passed through the first of these stages by his discipline already recorded, after which he is master of the negative; the destruction of the Suitors will not now make him destructive, as did the destruction of Troy. It will be seen, therefore, that the poem has a positive outcome; after some trouble, Ulysses will renovate the country, will restore Family and State, in fine the whole Order which had been upset by the Suitors.

With the transition from Fableland occurs a marked change in the style of the poem. In the previous portions we have already noted the Marvelous Tale of Fairyland, the Heroic Tale of Troy, the Idyllic Epopee of the Present, the latter especially in Phaeacia. But in these last twelve Books we read a story of actual social life, a story which almost strikes into the domain of the modern Novel. Still fabulous adventures will be interwoven—now more in the form of the novelette—with Phoenician and Egyptian backgrounds. Also a tone of humanity, even of sentiment, makes itself felt in various places. A new situation brings with it a new style, yet Homeric still. Hereafter these points will be more fully noticed.

We have already indicated the fact (p. 19) that Pallas starts to organize the Odyssey in Book First. Two portions she designates, the Telemachiad and the Ulyssiad, which really belong together, showing the spiritual palingenesis, or internal renovation of son and father ere they proceed to the renovation of their country. Such in general are the first twelve Books, showing the two masters of destiny, the two positive men with their idea; the second twelve Books show them realizing their idea, and doing the great deed for which they have been prepared.

This second half of the Odyssey falls into two divisions. The first is located at the hut of the swineherd and brings the three men together, whose general character has been already indicated; they have been trained by life to a living realization of the Divine Order. This division consists of four Books (XIII-XVI). The second division transfers the scene from country to town, from hut to palace. Ulysses in disguise will witness personally the full course of the wrong of the suitors, against his property, his family, his state, and against the Gods. Then he becomes the minister of the world-justice which he has already seen in Hades. Finally he harmonizes the distracted institutional life of his country and the poem ends. This second division embraces the last eight Books, and has its own special stages in its movement.

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Cf. Pharr, Homer and the study of Greek * Odyssey Complete Text
Iliad Complete Text * Homer Bilingual Anthology and Resources * Livingstone, On the Ancient Greek Literature
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