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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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BOOK 5: SWEET NYMPH AND OPEN SEA

Scene one of Book 5 is set back on Mount Olympos. You get a brief recap of Athena telling Zeus that Odysseus needs to be allowed to go home. Athena adds that now, to complicate matters, the suitors are lying in ambush for Telemakhos. Zeus foretells Odysseus' future and sends Hermes to Kalypso's island. Watch to see if what Zeus says comes true, or if Odysseus manages to do some things his own way.

NOTE: A storyteller draws you into the situations he describes by appealing to your senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing. The description of Kalypso's cave in scene two is full of sensory details. It's also a strange mix of the exotic and familiar. Notice that hospitality is offered even by a nymph to the messenger of the gods-nectar and ambrosia, the gods' special drink and food.

At last you meet Odysseus, when Kalypso comes to tell him to build a raft because he is free to go. Later Odysseus and Kalypso share a meal. In an amusing scene, he eats people food and she eats goddess food. "Then each one's hands went out on each one's feast." Perhaps his mortality and her immortality is the reason why these two cannot stay together.



NOTE: Kalypso offers Odysseus immortality if he will stay. Would you turn down eternal youth and life? What can you tell about Odysseus because of his rejection of her offer?

Kalypso is certainly appealing. She is "divinely made," which means she has the figure of a goddess. She has pretty braids, a warm, sweet voice, seductive ways. Odysseus continues to make love to her each night even though, you are told, he has grown tired of her and yearns for home. She teases Hermes when she says Odysseus is free to go but she, who has no ships, cannot "send" him. Obviously she wants him to stay. Notice especially her speech to Odysseus when she asks how he can prefer Penelope to her. This is their parting after eight years. Does she sound hurt and angry? Is he cruel? In modern terms, this is a moment of divorce, but a somewhat bittersweet parting, with little or no anger on either side.

The personal part of this book is followed by an adventurous part. Notice what Odysseus builds and how long it takes him. Again, you are not in the realm of realism but in the world of an idealized epic hero. Kalypso helps him, bearing no grudge.

Then for seventeen days Odysseus sails freely until Poseidon arrives on the scene. Observe Odysseus' reaction to Ino's advice to let go of what's left of his ship and swim for it, using her veil for protection. He rarely accepts what he's told without weighing it carefully first. Is that "wisdom"?

He swims for two days. An epic simile describes how he feels when he finally sees land: the sight is as dear to him as a sick father's return to health is to his children. Yet he is at something of a loss when he encounters the steep cliffs and rocky shore.

NOTE: Homer was no landlubber: he knew surf, rocks, currents, undertow, tides. Athena helps Odysseus find the river's mouth, but Odysseus is the one who thinks to pray to the river. Nature in this world is respected as man's equal or superior.

Odysseus swims to shore during the still water, a short period between the ebb and flow of the tide. He returns Ino's veil. Homer does a good job of making you feel how worn out and water-logged he is. He could easily die, even now that he's reached the "safety" of land, of exhaustion and exposure, but his "tough heart" can endure still more and his clever brain finds a protected place for him to sleep. It is a relief for the reader, too, when he finally crawls into his bed of leaves and falls asleep.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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