Friday, January 7, 2011

Odysseus Strings His Bow

Wily Odysseus, wandering Odysseus, canny Odysseus. He fought the Trojans for ten years and took another ten years journeying home to Ithaka. The Odyssey has been noted as a story of adventure, of the often-comic adventures and trickery of Odysseus, of the pleasures of homecoming.

All of this misses what to me is the pivotal moment of the story. The point upon which the whole lumbering and picaresque narrative balances.

Odysseus has returned home in disguise. Suitors, dozens of them, have been living in his house, eating his food, slapping his servants, romancing his wife. Penelope, having lived practically as a widow for twenty years, is on the verge of marrying one of them. But Odysseus waits.

He comes into his house, clad in white beard and dirty rags: a bent and decrepit beggar. The suitors laugh. Jostle him. Pinch the servant girls; perhaps bed a few more. But Odysseus waits.

Penelope, her will and faith in her husband pared away by two decades of absence, announces she will marry the man who can send an arrow through the ring-shafts of a row of axes. Odysseus hears this, and waits.

The suitors demand Odysseus's great bow. None of them is strong enough to string it.

"Oh please, let me try," croaks the old beggar from his stool. The suitors laugh, tossing him the bow. He stands. He takes the bow and strings it with long-practiced hands. His arrow flies clean through the ring-shafts.

He nods to his loyal servant. "Lock the door." He turns to the suitors and casts off his tattered rags.

--STOP.-- The long buildup of pain, of indignity after indignity, the looming loss of his home and his wife and everything he's been striving to return to for twenty years: all of this hinges on this one moment, suspended like a note from a violin.

This is a story of revenge, of justice, of scalding rage and the white heat of righteousness.

He kills them all.

The story doesn't end there, of course: war looms; Athena intervenes; Odysseus takes Penelope to the bed he built so long ago.

But maybe one reason this speaks to us, thousands of years later, is that Odysseus does what many of us cannot: face his demons and destroy them.


Babs said...

Is there a way for us all to face our demons and rather than destroying them all, find ways to eradicate their control and force on our souls and our daily lives. Why let those demons have that control in the first place? They weren't given permission to take that from us.

S R Wood said...

Maybe. But then why does that scene in Odysseys's great hall speak across the ages? Vengeance, justice, righteousness....

Babs said...

Perhaps we're not supposed to live our lives the way Odysseus did. Who is to say he actually "had it right"? I'd take a more zen or buddhist approach to facing our demons. I'm pretty sure Odysseus didn't know the Buddha.

Anonymous said...

@ Babs
"Perhaps we're not supposed to..."
Says who?
"I'm pretty sure Odysseus didn't know the Buddha"
I am so glad he didn't. I like the Odyssey the way it is. I wouldn´t take a pasteurized Disney-like version.
Besides Homer lived around 850 BC and Buddah died around 486 BC, please do the math!