But he did not do it, he could not do it; herein lies his limitation and theirs also, in fact, the limitation of the entire Greek world. What did these companions do? "They perished by their own folly;" they would not obey the counsel of their wise man; they rejected their Hero, who could not, therefore, rescue them. A greater wisdom and a deeper suffering than that of Ulysses will be required for their salvation, whereof the time has not yet come. He would bring them home, but "they ate of the oxen of the sun;" they destroyed the attribute of light in some way and perished. The fact is certainly far-reaching in its suggestion; a deep glance it throws into that old heathen world, whose greatest poet in the most unconscious manner hints here the tragic limitation of his people and his epoch. It is a hint of which we, looking back through more than twenty-five centuries can see the full meaning, as that meaning has unfolded itself in the ages. Time is also a commentator on Homer and has written down, in that alphabet of his, called events, the true interpretation of the old poet. Still the letters of Time's alphabet have also to be learned and require not only eyesight but also insight.
The Invocation puts all its stress upon Ulysses and his attempt to save his companions. It says nothing of Telemachus and his youthful experience, nothing of the grand conflict with the suitors. Hence fault has been found with it in various ways. But it singles out the Hero and designates three most important matters concerning him: his knowledge, his suffering, his devotion to his companions. Enough; it has given a start, a light has been put into our hand which beams forward significantly upon the poem, and illumines the mazes of the Hero's character.
Mark again the emphatic word in this Invocation; it is the Return (nostos), the whole Odyssey is the Return, set forth in many gradations, from the shortest and simplest to the longest and profoundest. The idea of the Return dominates the poem from the start; into this idea is poured the total experience of Ulysses and his companions. The two points between which the Return hovers are also given: the capture of Troy and the Greek world. Not a mere book of travels or adventure is this; it contains an inner restoration corresponding to the outer Return, and the interpreter of the work, if he be true to his function, will trace the interior line of its movement, not neglecting the external side which has also a right to be.