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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 28

Survey of Books Thirteenth to Sixteenth. In this portion we are to witness the leading transition of the poem, that of Ulysses and Telemachus to Ithaca, the transition from the long and elaborate preparation for the act to the act itself, which is the supreme one of man, that of asserting and realizing the Divine Order. In these four Books is the gathering of the chosen forces into one spot and into one purpose—which forces have been hitherto separately developed; here it is that we behold the practical preliminary movement for destroying the Suitors. Hence arises the feeling which most readers express on a sympathetic perusal, that these four Books of the Ithakeiad, which is the name already given to the present division of the Odyssey, have enough in common to cause them to be grouped together in an organic survey of the poem. They have, first of all, unity of locality—the hut of the swineherd—to which, round which, and from which their incidents move. To be sure there is a glance at the enemy, the Suitors, who are at a different point; but even this glance serves to emphasize the setting common to these four Books, which is the abode of Eumaeus. Very humble it is, but it stands in every way as the contrast to the palace.

This unity of place naturally suggests unity of action as to what is going on in that place. All the forces in opposition to the Suitors are secretly gathering there and organizing. It is the center of attraction which is drawing out of the universe every atom of congenial energy for punishing the transgressors. It has brought Ulysses from Phaeacia, Telemachus from Sparta, and possesses already the faithful Eumaeus in its own right. This is the fortress, and these are the three men who make the attacking army. They are now getting themselves together. All three have passed through a grand discipline just for the present end, which is to be the great deed of deliverance.

Moreover the place has a character of its own, a peculiar atmosphere in sympathy with its purpose. Its strength we feel, its adamantine fidelity to the House of Ulysses. It is a secluded spot in contrast to the palace; its occupant is a slave in contrast to the kings who are suitors; his business is to be the companion of swine in contrast to the regal entertainment at court. The highest and the humblest of the social order are here placed side by side; with what result? The unswerving rock of loyalty is the hut and the heart of the swineherd; upon it as the foundation the shattered institutional world of Ithaca is to be rebuilt. The lowest class of society is, after all, the basis of the edifice; if it remain sound, then the superstructure can be erected again after the fiery purification. But if it be utterly rotten, what then? Such, however, is not the case in Ithaca, as long as there exists a man like the swineherd. From his rock, then, and, still more, from his spirit, is to issue the energy which is to transform that perverted land of Ithaca.

Still, here too Ulysses is the pivot, the central character; the hero both in thought and action, for whom Eumaeus furnishes a spatial and spiritual environment. The hut of the swineherd is but a phase, one landing-place in the career of Ulysses. An idyllic spot and forever beautiful; who but Homer has ever gotten so much poetry out of a pig-sty? We witness the transfiguration of what is the very lowest of human existence into what is the very highest, veritably the Godlike on earth.

Ulysses, however, has to remain in disguise even to his most faithful servant; not out of distrust we must think, but out of prudence. Knowing his master, the swineherd would be a different person in the presence of the Suitors; he has an open, sincere, transparent heart, and he would probably let the secret be seen which lay therein. The gift of disguise he possesses not, as Ulysses has clearly observed in his conversation; in this respect he is the contrast to the Hero himself. But Telemachus will get the secret, for he has craft, is the true son of his father; has he not just shown the paternal trait in cunningly thwarting the Suitors who are lying in wait for him, by the help of Pallas, of course?

In these four Books, accordingly, we behold one stage of the great preparation for the deed which is the culmination of the poem. Not now the disciplinary, but the practical preparation it is, when one is ready and resolved internally, and is seeking the method and means. Both Ulysses and Telemachus have had their training; now it must pass into action.

We behold, first, Ulysses making the transition from Phaeacia to Ithaca, and thence to the fortress of loyalty, from which the movement is to be made. Secondly we see all the instruments getting together, and being prepared for the work, particularly the three heroes of the attack. Finally we observe Ulysses inquiring and learning all about the situation in Ithaca; he obtains everything that information at second hand can give. But hearsay is not enough; he must see at first hand. Thus we pass to the palace, and out of the first series of four Books, which we are next to consider separately.

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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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