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BOOK 6: THE PRINCESS AT THE RIVER
Book 6 is many people's favorite. The Princess Nausikaa is delightful, and her meeting with the grizzled, naked "war veteran" is funny and charming.
Homer begins with a brief history of the Phaiakians, then shifts to a scene of Nausikaa asleep in her bed, a tender way of starting off. Athena, in yet another disguise, comes to Nausikaa in a dream, in the form of one of her girl friends. That's how Nausikaa gets the idea of washing the marriage linen. When she asks her father to give her a cart and mules for this project, she sounds sweetly self-important, bustling, housewifely. Notice her blush. She has marriage on her mind-preparing the linen is not just a service she's doing for her brothers or the family in general. She is obviously a much loved and indulged daughter. She is equipped with mules and cart, her maids to help her, and a picnic lunch. They even take olive oil for rubbing onto their skins after bathing. This trip to wash the linen is more than just doing the laundry.
The freshness of detail is what makes the outing so appealing. The sheets are washed and spread on the beach to dry. The girls swim, rub themselves with oil, eat the food, and play ball. Does this feel like 750 B.C.? Yes, they washed the clothes in the river, but the tone makes it seem very recent. All the girls need is a Frisbee instead of a ball. Girls playing catch today might shriek if one of them threw the ball into the river by mistake. Having Odysseus awaken to that shout is much more interesting and dramatic than if he woke just because the sun came up or because he was hungry.
NOTE: Try to visualize the meeting that results. Put yourself in Nausikaa's shoes, or put yourself in Odysseus' (of course he isn't wearing any, or anything else for that matter, which is part of what makes the encounter so entertaining). Up until now you've heard of Odysseus in war situations, watched him with a lover, Kalypso, seen him as a man of action battling the sea. What do you think of his behavior toward Nausikaa, the decisions he makes as to how to approach her, the words he chooses? If you and your friends were playing ball in a remote area and a bearded, rough-looking, naked man suddenly came out of the bushes, how would you respond?
Observe Nausikaa's behavior and her words to Odysseus. The hospitality theme occurs again: "Strangers and beggars come from Zeus." Observe, too, Odysseus' delicacy of feeling in declining to bathe naked before these young girls. He knows how to behave with women (remember his tact with Kalypso). He impresses Nausikaa so much that she says, "I wish my husband could be as fine as he." Homer hints deliciously at the possibility of a match between these two, which makes the story more fun. You know he will return to his wife, but you can still imagine that he will fall in love with Nausikaa. It's not an appropriate match, though. Nausikaa is young enough to be Odysseus' daughter, and he has lived too long and been through too much to find lasting appeal in youthful innocence. An affair with Nausikaa is out of the question. But Homer lets us flirt with the idea by showing that romance is on Nausikaa's mind. That may be why she tells Odysseus to come to her father's palace alone to avoid gossip. There's nothing to gossip about, except perhaps in her own mind!
The book ends with Odysseus praying to Athena for love and mercy from these people. His praying is an example of proper behavior. Epic hero though he is, he must not swagger into the court of Alkinoos expecting to be treated royally. He is a stranger and alone. One of his attractive qualities is his vulnerability despite his enormous strength. He also knows that no matter how wealthy or powerful a man is, he is still mortal and must never forget that fate is in the hands of the gods. Athena hears his prayer.