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  • The Trials of Telemachus:Who Was the Odyssey Meant For?
  • Sheila Murnaghan

A consideration of Telemachus's role in the Odyssey can start with a modern poem: Linda Pastan's "The Son," first published in 1988 as part of a seven-poem sequence entitled "Re-Reading the Odyssey in Middle Age." Because Pastan's poem presents itself as a response to reading the Odyssey, the possible affinities between what a modern poet does in retelling a story found in an ancient text and what a modern critic does in interpreting or "reading" an ancient text are particularly close to the surface here. Pastan's record of her experience as a reader is also a telling account of the interpretive challenges posed by Homer's presentation of Telemachus.

"Then the thoughtful Telemachus said to her in answer: . . . nobody really knows his own father."

The Odyssey, Book 1

If life is simply a lessonin how we should have lived it,perhaps the Odyssey was meant for Telemachus-a kind of primer, a head start.Even the parts about the mother distractedat her loom, the dog whining on the doorsill,and the kitchen so busy with ox and sheepto feed the suitors, that the boy was told,and told again, to play outside. When Athenafinally came to stir him up, he was like a childwhose toy bow has suddenly arched to the size [End Page 133] of a rainbow, as later the stranger'swould seem to in the Great Hall.After his own difficult journey-the menall mocking him at first, real dangersbarely averted, his voice hoarseningwith manhood, even authority-what it came down to in the endwas his wily father home at last,perfection itself, and morecritical than in those boyish dreamsof rescue. The man even warned his son,who had braved so much alone, not to shamethe blood of Odysseus. So was the lessonPatience or Valor? Power or Wisdom?Or was it simply family feeling:long evenings to come in Ithaca, Penelopeweaving both men tunics, with onlyhearth fires burning now. And stories,Ah the stories! Through the chilly night.1

Commenting on the Odyssey through a poem, Pastan makes moves that are prohibited for a critic. She projects Telemachus out of the text in which, from a stricter perspective, he has his sole existence, turning him into a reader of the Odyssey as well as a character in it. In fact she makes him its intended audience, speculating that "perhaps the Odyssey was meant for Telemachus-/ a kind of primer," imagining the poem as having been composed for the purpose of educating Telemachus. Beyond that, she does not stick to the text as we have it, but invents new episodes to support her reading. She makes the point that being Telemachus in the Odyssey does not seem to be either easy or fun by alluding to parts of the poem that are actually her own invention: "Even the parts about the mother distracted" and so forth. More subtly, she retells the episodes that are in the poem, but adds a new perspective, evoking a subjectivity that is absent from the original. She leads up to the state of perplexity in which she asks "So was the lesson / Patience or Valor? Power or Wisdom?" by reviewing the Odyssey's plot [End Page 134] from Telemachus's perspective and showing it to be disappointing and even embittering. She touches on key moments in Telemachus's story: the arrival of Athena disguised as Mentes, the recognition scene with Odysseus in Book 16, the contest of the bow, and the final battle with the suitors' relatives in which Odysseus enjoins Telemachus (Od. 24.508-09):2

          you must be certainnot to shame the blood of your fathers, for we in time  pastall across the world have surpassed in manhood and  valor.

As this quotation confirms, the episodes Pastan evokes are certainly present in the Odyssey. What is not there is the tone in which they are evoked. In response to a sense that Telemachus's adventures are ignored and belittled, Pastan rehearses them in terms that suggest...


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