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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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BOOK 14: HOSPITALITY IN THE FOREST

Taking a stony trail into the hills, Odysseus comes to the stone hut of Eumaios. It's timbered with wild pear wood, fenced by an oak palisade, and overlooks twelve sties containing fifty sows with piglets, and 360 boars. Four dogs guard the pigs and four boys help Eumaios as underherdsmen. Three of the boys are pasturing herds in the woods when Odysseus approaches, and the other one has been sent to town with a fat boar for the suitors. What do you think of Odysseus' sitting down and dropping his stick when attacked by the dogs? Would you have done that?

NOTE: Homer has a special tenderness for Eumaios and breaks out of the narrative voice to address him directly-"O my swineherd!"- as though the swineherd were sitting next to him or as though the memory of the swineherd overcomes him with emotion. Some people find this distracting and sentimental. Others find it touching.

The swineherd is an exaggerated example of the faithful servant. He mentions the absence of his true master in his first speech to the stranger even though his master's been away twenty years. He uses tips of fir under his own bedcovering to make Odysseus a couch. He expresses anger at the suitors and is sour about the rewards he would have gotten if his master had stayed at home. He kills and cooks two young pigs to give Odysseus food, mentioning that wandering men often get new clothes from Penelope in exchange for "news" of her missing husband.



We get a picture of Odysseus as an easy and much-loved master, for the swineherd misses him more than he misses his own parents. The irony of the scene becomes intense when the "beggar" says, "your lord is now at hand." Finally Eumaios asks who Odysseus is, and he is told a long, false story, though it does contain two factual details-going to Troy and seizing the mast in a shipwreck. Again Eumaios reveals a sour, disappointed side. He has been fooled by "news" of Odysseus before. He is sure his master died without glory at sea. Odysseus tries to lure him into a deal: Odysseus will get a new shirt and cloak if Odysseus shows up; Eumaios can have him thrown off a cliff if his story is a lie. Eumaios doesn't agree to the deal-how would it look if one day he offered the stranger hospitality, and the next day he dumped him off a cliff?

At supper Eumaios, a generous host, gives Odysseus the chine, or tenderloin. Then the "beggar" tests Eumaios' loyalty with a story of a freezing night at Troy. The "beggar" says Odysseus, through trickery, got him a cloak for the night. After hearing the story, Eumaios moves Odysseus' bed near the fire, puts more sheep and goat skins on it, and covers Odysseus with his own extra cloak. Then he wraps himself in a cloak and goes out to keep watch over his herds even though it is a rainy night. Odysseus rejoices to see Eumaios so faithful in his duties.

NOTE: In reading about Eumaios you may be reminded of some biblical themes: the faithful servant, the ideals of loyalty and obedience, the concept that there is a spiritual quality in all people, which in Homer takes the form of the idea that all must be treated well, for anyone may be a god in disguise.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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