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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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BOOK 4: THE RED-HAIRED KING AND HIS LADY

The emotional pitch of Book 4 is higher than that of Book 3. You see many tears and extravagant gifts, you hear many stories and an invitation to stay not just overnight but for eleven or twelve days. Then, at the height of Telemakhos' acceptance by Menelaos as the son of his dear friend, and as a worthy person in his own right, Homer dramatically shifts the scene back to Ithaka and shows us the suitors plotting Telemakhos' murder.

The visit to Menelaos even begins at a high level of emotion-Telemakhos walks into a double wedding for Menelaos' son and daughter, complete with a banquet, minstrel, and tumblers. The theme of hospitality is sounded again when one of the king's companions-at-arms asks if the strangers should be invited in, considering the occasion, and is scolded for even asking. Of course they should. Nestor's home was extremely comfortable, but Menelaos' palace is grand. There's a nice bit of characterization showing Telemakhos' boyish reaction to all the elegance: he whispers to Peisistratos that he can hardly believe his eyes, all that bronze, gold, amber, silver, and ivory. Clearly Telemakhos and Peisistratos have become good friends.



Before knowing who his guests are, Menelaos begins to speak of Troy. It took him seven years to get home. He made a lot of money during his travels, but in the meantime his brother, Agamemnon, was murdered. He admits that he often weeps over the companions lost at Troy. He speaks of Odysseus and how much he misses his good friend. The irony of the situation is that he is speaking to Odysseus' son, which we know but he doesn't. On hearing about his father, Telemakhos weeps. The full range of emotions is open to both sexes in this world, and the losses of this war are as real as losses of friends in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam.

It is Helen who notices Telemakhos' tears and says he looks like Odysseus. Peisistratos says it is Telemakhos, and the extent of their friendship is shown when he adds "but he is gentle, and would be ashamed to clamor for attention before your grace."

Menelaos, of course, is overjoyed. He was so close to Odysseus that he had hoped to convince him to move near to him. "I could have cleaned out one of my towns to be his new domain," he says. This remark shows not only his extravagant nature, but gives you an idea of the power kings of this rank wielded. But Menelaos' love for Odysseus is deep, and his words and his pain at the loss of his friend bring grief to everyone. Husband, wife, and guests all cry, for Peisistratos, too, lost a brother at Troy.

Peisistratos calls the group out of its sorrow, for the hour is late. Menelaos compliments him on his wisdom. Supper is eaten, and Helen drugs the wine with a potion to induce forgetfulness and drive away sadness. Over supper she tells Telemakhos how Odysseus sneaked into Troy during the siege, disguised as a beggar, but that she recognized him. Another story, in which you learn about our hero before you meet him, is told by Menelaos. While the Greeks hid inside the Trojan horse, Helen walked around it, patting it and calling out, making her voice sound like the voices of the wives the Greeks had left behind. One of the Greek soldiers was about to call out when Odysseus clapped his hand over the man's mouth. This story makes us realize that Menelaos and Odysseus are really fox-hole buddies, men who've been through life-and-death situations together and who have a special kind of love. The party breaks up on a happier note and everyone retires for the night.

Dawn again. It gets to be a cliche after a while, but the "finger tips of rose" serve as a time marker for the listener who has to keep track of everything by memory. Now King Menelaos comes to Telemakhos, and in an honest display of affection asks him why he's come. "I came to hear what news you had of Father," Telemakhos says simply. He explains the situation at home. Menelaos' angry reaction must be satisfying to Telemakhos.

NOTE: Menelaos' reaction also contains the first epic simile you have heard so far, eight lines comparing the suitors to soft, weak fawns in a lion's den. The lion will return to bring them doom.

Menelaos' news comes from a reliable source, Proteus, the "Ancient of the Sea" who has the gift of prophecy. Proteus told him that Aias bragged he had beaten the gods and the sea-and was drowned. Agamemnon was murdered (Menelaos cried at the news). And Odysseus was held on Kalypso's island. Menelaos continues his story with an invitation to Telemakhos to stay, and an offer of almost embarrassingly rich gifts: a chariot, three horses, and a hammered cup. Telemakhos refuses gracefully.

NOTE: You may think it strange that Homer doesn't interrupt Menelaos to give us Telemakhos' reaction to this news that his father is alive. This is the first solid information he's gotten; you would think we'd see Telemakhos' response. Scholars have said that sometimes "Homer nods," that is, nods off to sleep. Perhaps this is one of the places where the poet dozes.

Telemakhos accepts a silver wine bowl and the long scene ends with preparations for yet another feast.

Meanwhile, back in Ithaka the suitors amuse themselves throwing a discus and javelins. They learn from the man who lent Telemakhos his ship that Telemakhos has gone. They feel Telemakhos has defied them and plan an ambush at sea on his return.

Medon, the crier, tells Penelope of their plan, an act that may save his life later on. Penelope is upset and angry, frustrated and helpless. We know Athena will save Telemakhos, but Penelope needs to know that as well. So Athena sends her a comforting dream. The book ends with a cliff-hanger, as Antinoos launches his ship for the ambush. Thus ends the opening section, which focuses on the secondary hero, Telemakhos.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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