English 287: Great Books
Study Guide to Books 1-4 of The Odyssey
Before beginning your reading of The Odyssey, you might want to get clear on when the events of the story were understood to have happened.
It would be good to read a brief summary of the saga of the Trojan War. Here are several. Eventually you might want to consult a couple. But for now, take a look at only one, since you don't want to delay your reading in epic itself.
- Ian Johnston (Malaspina University College, 1996), "The Legend of the Trojan War" (or at this site).
- History of the Trojan War (Stanford University).
- Bulfinch's Mythology, The Age of Fable - Chapter 27, Part 1: The Trojan War: a classic summary, with lots of annotation via links.
- The Trojan War - A companion with associated images. Click on the picture on the opening page, and you're off and running.
- Royalty.nu - The Trojan War - History, Myth and Homer - Schliemann
Keep in mind that the figure known as "Homer" has been the subject of much, still unresolved scholarly controversy.
The Greeks who listened to recitations of The Iliad and The Odyssey were themselves of the belief that Homer was a single person and was the author of both poems. Many were convinced that he was a contemporary of the heroes whose story these epics tells, and even that he must have been an eyewitness to the events recounted in The Iliad.
Modern scholarship is united in the view that this latter belief cannot be true. The language of Homer is a mixture of several dialects of Greek that were spoken only hundreds of years later than the culture described within the poems themselves. And the scheme of writing in which the earliest manuscripts appear on the scene is derived from a Middle Eastern writing system that was not invented until the 9th Century BCE at the earliest.
To be sure, the excavations begun in the 19th Century by the wealthy German businessman Heinrich Schliemann, and continued by a host of successors, have convinced many archeologists and students of the poems that the conflict known to later times as the Trojan War may well have occurred (the estimation is around 1200 BCE), so that the larger narrative framework within the action of the two epics takes place is not a product of pure poetic imagination.
(See, for example, Troy VII and the Historicity of the Trojan War.)
But though there was a writing system in existence in Greece during the era in which this coastal Asia Minor city was destroyed, it was suited only to keeping inventory records of palace wealth, and not to recording poetic narrative. In the period between the events of the poem and the writing down of the poems that have come down to us, this system of writing completely disappeared, to the extent that the Greeks who listened to recitations of Homer had no knowledge that it had ever existed.
Hence scholars today agree that Homer whoever created the epics could not have been a contemporary, or even a near contemporary of the events the poems tell of. Nevertheless, they are still divided over whether the poems are the products of a single person, or, indeed, whether either is the work of "an author" in our modern sense of the term. This is the subject of the famous "Homeric Question" (a term which really refers to a series of interconnected questions).
In particular, since the late 1920s, it has become clear that the character of the language of both The Iliad and The Odyssey marks them as the end result of a long tradition, probably over several generations, of oral improvisation.
At the same time, many students of the poems are unwilling to surrender the idea that each poem, in the form in which it came to be written down, shows the hand of a single organizing intelligence.
One of our tasks will be to gain some appreciation of the structural features of The Odyssey -- the overall "architecture" of its construction.
This is not the time to immerse yourself in the details of this famous question. But here are a couple of relatively simple accounts you can return to later if you find your interest piqued in it.
John Wright, About Homer. (This handy essay is also available -- curiously, without attribution -- at www.hellenism.net under the title Greek Mythology - Ancient greek myths, Homer. And here is another at www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/)
Also convenient is BookRags Book Notes' biographical entry on Homer.
[An excellent treatment of this complex of problems is provided by Bernard Knox in the Preface to our edition (the Fagles translation; Penquin). See his sections on "The Odyssey," "The Language of Homer," and "The Odyssey and The Iliad" -- pp. 3-24. It would not, however, be a good idea to try to put yourself through this until you've already got at least some acquaintance with Homer himself, through the medium of Fagles' translation.]
An excellent treatment of this complex of problems is provided by Bernard Knox in the Preface to our edition (the Fagles translation; Penguin). See his sections on "The Odyssey," "The Language of Homer," and "The Odyssey and The Iliad" -- pp. 3-24. It would not, however, be a good idea to try to put yourself through this until you've already got at least some acquaintance with Homer himself, through the medium of Fagles' translation.
Here is a general question to keep in mind as you read the first four books of The Odyssey. (In other words, this is a question that you will want to read before you turn to the epic itself.)
Everyone knows that The Odyssey is concerned with the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus (known in Latin as Ulysses) in his return home after taking part in the Trojan War. Yet the epic does not begin with Odysseus, but with his son Telemachus, a little over 20 years old, who was an infant when Odysseus left for the war. In fact, the first 4 out of the total of 24 books that make up The Odyssey comprise what readers have come to dub The Telemacheia. An obvious question, then, is this:
What contributions does this unit of The Odyssey make towards the overall effect and meaning of the whole? Is is merely "preliminary," or can we conceive the whole in such terms that this opening is an integral part of it?
Clearly, this question cannot be answered fully until we have become acquainted with the whole. But it is good to keep this curiosity in mind as one is reading the opening 4 books themselves.
- What do we notice as the main subjects and issues that are given prominence here?
- Then, as the epic shifts to a focus on Odysseus himself (beginning with Book 5), from time to time you'll want to raise the curiosity as to whether what's going on connects in any way with the action and issues presented in Books 1-4.
An interesting point that bears on this discussion is embedded in Bernard Knox's discussion of the history of the attempts of 19th-century scholarship to dismantle The Odyssey into component independent parts that some hypothetical ancient editors had then stitched together to make the epic transmitted to posterity. It will be best, though, if you see what you can come up with on your own, before consulting this discussion, which you will find in Knox's introduction to the Fagles translation (Penguin, p. 8, ∂2 - p. 11, ∂1).
Here are some questions that it will make best sense for you to ponder after you read the Book in question. Note that it would make the most sense for you to sketch your answers to these directly in the margins of the text of the epic itself, in the appropriate place. (You might also want to work in a series of summary notes -- for handy index purposes -- at the top of successive pages.) In any case: get in the habit of writing in the margins of any book you are reading with serious interest.
Questions over Book 1
- What key god is absent from the assembly?
- What might be Homer's purpose in having Zeus recall in such detail the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, and Orestes?
- What exactly is Zeus' decision?
- What prophecy does Zeus make concerning Odysseus? How does this affect our reactions in the narrative that follows? (This is a kind of question that requires being recalled to mind when the action concerning Odysseus resumes.)
- Telemachus receives Athena, who has arrived disguised as Mentes. What do you notice about the manner in which Telemachus treats Mentes?
- What is Athena's reaction to the situation in which she finds Telemachus?
- What information of particular interest to Telemachus does Athena/Mentes convey?
- What prophecy does Mentes make, and on what supposed basis?
- What observation does she make regarding Telemachus' appearance?
- What is noteworthy (how so?) about Telemachus' reply?
- What advice does she give?
- Note that it is of the following form: if P, then w; if not-P, then x, y, and z.
- What is the role, in this counsel, of the example of Orestes?
- What do we notice about Telemachus' response?
- What accounts for Telemachus' reaction to Mentes' departure?
- What is the theme of the song the bard Phemius is singing in the hall where the suitors are gathered?
- What details are important about Penelope's appearance when she shows up, and how so?
- What is her reaction to the entertainment?
- What is Telemachus' reaction to her reaction?
- What does he tell her to do?
- What is her reaction to this?
- What is the suitors' reaction to Penelope's reaction?
- What is Telemachus' response to this?
- How does the suitor Antinous respond?
- What is your assessment of Telemachus' response to this?
- How does the suitor Eurymachus respond?
- What is your assessment of Telemachus' response to this? (How do we evaluate his deception?)
- Eurycleia is merely a minor functionary at this point, but she will take on some importance later on as the epic draws toward its climax.
Questions over Book 2
Ithaca: an assembly
- Who calls the assembly? (What, presumably, is noteworthy about this?)
- Why do you figure Homer might have arranged for Aegiptus's prefatory address?
- What does Telemachus say is his reason for speaking?
- What are the elements of the dilemma he describes himself as facing?
- How do you figure Homer expects his hearers to react to the way in which Telemachus concludes his speech?
- Summarize the main points of Antinous' response.
- What history does he recount?
- How does he characterize Penelope?
- What demand does he make?
- What are we to take stock of regarding Telemachus' response to Antinous?
- What happens in response to his concluding prayer?
- Who is Halitherses, and how does he interpret this?
- We've seen Eurymachus before. How does he interpret the same occurance?
- What is his prophecy?
- What is his advice for Telemachus?
- How do you figure we are expected to respond to this?
- What are we to take stock of regarding Telemachus' response to Eurymachus?
- Who is Mentor? Summarize the main points of his intervention.
- Summarize the main points of Leocritus' response.
- On reflection, are we to notice any progression in the interventions of Antinous, Eurymachus and Leocritus?
Ithaca: along the beach
- What does Telemachus' appeal to Athena remind us of in respect of the events of the previous day?
- In what form does Athena appear? (Do you notice anything interesting in the nature of the names of the persons whose guise we have so far seen her take on?)
- What does Athena do here? (Note at least 2 things.)
Ithaca: the house
- What are we to notice about Antinous' address to Telemachus?
- What are we to notice about the manner in which Telemachus reacts to it?
- What are we to notice about the suitors' reaction to Telemachus' response?
- What does Telemachus proceed to do next?
- What is the reaction of Eurycleia?
- How does Telemachus secure her help?
- What oath does he get her to swear?
- What do you figure Homer thought would be his audience's evaluation of this act on Telemachus' part?
Ithaca: the town
- What two additional interventions on Telemachus' behalf does Athena make?
- Is Homer, do you think, figuring that this will diminish Telemachus' stature in his audience's eyes, or enhance it? How so?
the water's edge, and the sea
- What details stand out for you regarding the disembarkation for Pylos?
- What is the first thing the crew does after the ship is properly trimmed and set on course?
Questions over Book 3
- Who is Nestor? (Here, you would want to think of what the original audience for recitations of The Odyssey would presumably already know about him already, from their acquaintance with what they understood to be history [or, for us, legend and mythology]. You'd want to call on your memory of whatever you read, above, regarding the history of the Trojan War.)
- What is the household of Nestor doing when Telemachus and Mentor arrive in their ship? (Does some detail here ring a bell with us, regarding the deity in question?)
- What are we to make of Telemachus' misgivings about Mentor's first promptings? Do we figure Homer expects his audience to find him clumsy and fearful? Or would his behavior here count as a sign of good sense and proper modesty?
- How are Mentes and Telemachus received by Nestor's son Pisistratus and the others in attendance?
- What seems to be the ritually prescribed order of events? (How does it compare with what you noticed in Book 1, in Telemachus' reception of Athena/Mentes? [1: 132-68, 196-206, 356-60].)
- What does Telemachus state as his business in coming here?
- What distinct things does Nestor contribute, in respect of Telemachus' needs? (Consider both the needs he communicates explicitly and those that you understand are implicit in his situation.)
- An important part of Nestor's narrative has to do with the various fates of different Greek heroes in their return home from Troy. Each of these is a possible model for what, so far as Telemachus can at the moment know, might turn out to be the fate of his father. How many can you identify?
- What are we to make of the exchange in lines 233-260?
- What arrangement does Athena make with Nestor for getting Telemachus on his way to Sparta?
- Here's a question to reflect on after you've read Book 4: what might have been the purposes Homer achieves in setting things up this way rather than by having Mentor and Telemachus proceed by ship (i.e., together)?
- The journey to Sparta raises an interesting point: during the time between the Mycenaean era (when the Trojan War, if there was such, would have occurred) and the time when the Homeric epics are estimated to have been written down, there was no road passable to a wheeled traffic through the mountainous region between Pylos and Sparta. Here is one detail, at least, that must have been supplied by the imagination of Homer (or the improvisational tradition that a legendary individual named "Homer" has come to stand for). The implications of Homer's geographical ignorance of regions beyond the Aegean Sea are discussed in Bernard Knox's mini-essay on "The Western Seas" in his Introduction to the Fagles translation (Penguin, pp. 25-28). Don't go there now. But if your curiosity moves you, make it a point to check it out later.
- What is remarkable for those present about the departure of Mentor?
- What does this cause Nestor to resolve?
- What is the nature of his prayer? Where else in the epic do we find a concern for this value?
- Regarding the procedure in the sacrifice Nestor ordains (3:485-520), there is an interesting note in the Fagles edition you might want to consult (p. 505).
- Interesting, eh? As in the journey by ship to Pylos, the journey by chariot to Sparta takes place overnight.
Questions over Book 4
In this book, we continue to learn more about the history and character of Odysseus. Notice that this is "pieced out" in several distinct phases -- not given continuously.
- How does Menelaus know that the strangers who appear deserve to be treated with special respect? How does the procedure by which he receives Telemachus and Pisistratus compare with the procedure by which Telemachus received Mentes (Book 1), and that by which Nestor's household received Telemachus and Mentor (Book 3)?
- What do the initial phases of Menelaus' narrative of his journey home from Troy add to the action? (Note that this is all before the stage at which the guests are expected to identify themselves.)
- What did he occupy himself with on his return? (ll. 90-100).
- Here again we hear of the story of his brother Agamemnon
- What do we learn of Odysseus, before Helen enters the scene?
- What important contribution does Helen make, when she sees the visitors?
- Now that Telemachus is identified, Menelaus has more to say about Odysseus. What stands out?
- What is the effect of this on everyone present?
- What intervention does Helen make?
- What history is called upon to account for her ability to do this? What does this add to our conception of the sort of personage we are dealing with here?
- What is the effect of her intervention upon those present? What does this contribute to our conception of her? (I.e., do we figure that what she does is something Homer calculates will be seen with approval by his audience? Or will it function to raise suspicion or condemnation?)
- From the standpoint of plot function (as distinct from any effects upon the characterization of Helen herself), Helen's action makes possible the rapid transition from the previous narrative unit (Menelaus' further information about Odysseus and the party's reaction to it) and the succeeding ones (Helen's story about her encounter with Odysseus spying inside Troy, and Menelaus' story about how Odysseus kept him and his comrades from betraying themselves while waiting inside the Trojan Horse). Evidently, then, Homer thought that both units, and the second right after the first, were important. This raises at least the following couple of questions:
- What would be lost if the first were omitted (so that Helen's potion would have been unnecessary)?
- What would be changed if the second were omitted (and a different transition arranged to what follows it in turn)?
- What is interesting about the way Helen concludes her story about Odysseus in disguise inside Troy?
- How might Menelaus have reacted to it?
- What is signified by the way in which he does react to it?
- What is the point of Menelaus' story about Odysseus' behavior inside the Trojan Horse?
- What are we to make of his speculation in ll. 307-09?
- What is the note on which the conversation this first evening ends?
- The next morning (only then -- following the rules governing the practice of inter-noble hospitality in this culture) the host asks the guest what his business in coming is (ll. 349-51). What does Telemachus say?
- After an initial outburst over the situation reigning at Telemachus' house, Menelaus complies, with a narration of his encounter with the Old Man of the Sea (the sea-god Proteus, whose name is the origin of our word "protean," meaning "capable of taking various shapes or forms"). Let's look closely at this story-within-a-story to see what its various parts contribute to the frame-narratives -- the stories of Telemachus and of Odysseus himself
- What prompted Menelaus to encounter Proteus in the first place?
- What obstacles did he encounter? Who is Eidothea, and what help does she afford him in circumventing them?
- What is the First Question Menelaus asks the Old Man of the Sea, once he has him in his grasp?
- What is the answer he receives? (There are two parts.)
- What is the Second Question Menelaus asks?
- What does he learn from Proteus concerning
- Menelaus' own destiny
- What does Menelaus do on the basis of what he has learned from Proteus?
- What proposal does Menelaus make when he has concluded his response to Telemachus' question?
- What is Telemachus' reply, and what do we figure it is supposed to indicate to the audience Homer is imagining for his epic? (Are we helped in answering this by Menelaus' response?)
- There's an odd detail in line 701. Did this strike you, too?
- How do lines 698-702 set up the sudden shift of scene that follows?
- What is the response of the "ringleaders" of the suitors (Antinous and Eurymachus) to NoŽmon's question, and his answer to Antinous' query?
- How does Antinous' description of Telemachus in his speech to the suitors affect our estimation of Telemachus' character?
- What proposal does he make? (What is the effect of this on our participation in the story?)
- What is Penelope's reaction to Medon when he shows up to inform her of what is going on?
- What does this contribute towards our understanding of her?
- What is her response to what Medon proceeds to tell her?
- Did Telemachus do well in not informing her of his departure?
- What does she think of as a course of action now? (What point do you figure this might be meant, by Homer, to drive home?)
- What does Eurycleia reveal, and what does she advise?
- What effect does Penelope's taking Eurycleia's advice have?
- The focus shifts to the suitors, setting out to carry out their plan. What piece of information at the end of Antinous' address to his accomplices do you figure might play an important role in the eventual outcome of the epic?
- The focus returns to Penelope, fretting in her room.
- What strategy does Athena adopt to be of help?
- What crucial question does Penelope ask, and how do we account for the answer she gets?
- What, when Penelope awakens, appears to be the effect of Athena's intervention?
- How is the end of Book 4 effective (ll. 947-953)?
Having read through and reflected on Books 1 through 4, you should be able to identify and explain the narrative functions of the following:
Helpers to Odysseus' cause: Zeus, Athena, Hermes.
Antagonists to Odysseus: Poseidon.
Main human agents in the present action:
The protagonist: Telemachus
Helpers to Telemachus: Mentes (a quasi-human agent), Penelope, Mentor (human and quasi-human), Nestor, Pisistratus, Helen, Menelaus.
[Later in the narrative you'd want to add Eurycleia, but you can wait until then.]
Antagonists to Telemachus: the suitors Antinous, Eurymachus, and Leocritus.
Off-scene points of reference: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Orestes.
You may wish to consult our Links relating to Homer and The Odyssey. In particular, there are links there to some study guides elsewhere online that offer summaries of the successive books of epic that you might find useful in reviewing your grasp of what you have read.
Suggestions are welcome. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Contents copyright © 2002 by Lyman A. Baker.
Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.
This page last updated 13 September 2002.