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BOOK SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
The Odyssey opens with the traditional invocation to the Muse of poetry, in which the poet asks for her assistance in telling his story and presents the theme of his poem, which is about a man who suffers through years of wandering before he is able to return home.
At the beginning of the story, Odysseus is being held prisoner on the island of Ogygia by the nymph Calypso, who wishes to marry him. At a council of the gods on Mt. Olympus, in which Poseidon, who is angry at Odysseus, is absent, Athena appeals for Odysseus' release. She then flies down to assist Telemachus, Odysseus' son. At Odysseus' house in Ithaca, the scene is chaos. His wife, Penelope, is being courted by suitors who, believing him to be dead, have taken over his house and lounge about wasting his wealth on endless feasts, which Telemachus is unable to stop.
Athena, disguised in human shape as Odysseus' friend Mentes, ruler of the Taphians, greets Telemachus, who apologizes for the condition of the house and asks for news of his father. Athena assures him that Odysseus is alive and advises him to go to Pylos and Sparta in search of news of his fate. She also asks him to call the Ithacan lords to an assembly in which he must ask Penelope's wooers to return to their own homes.
After Athena leaves, Penelope enters the hall, where a bard is singing about the pitiful return of the Achaeans (the ancient Greeks name for themselves) from Troy. She asks him to stop, as it reminds her of Odysseus. But Telemachus sends her back to her chamber and himself addresses the suitors, asking them to attend an assembly the next day in which he might ask them to leave his house. Eurymachus, one of the suitors, asks him who the visitor was. Telemachus replies that the guest was Mentes, though he knows in his heart that it was really Athena in disguise. Telemachus is unable to sleep that night and keeps thinking of Athena's advice of a journey in search of news of Odysseus.
The Odyssey, like The Iliad and other ancient Greek poems, begins with an invocation to the Muse. The opening lines here, however, are much less descriptive than those of The Iliad. The fantastic adventures of Odysseus are inadequately suggested in the reference to his encountering various cities and minds. The Cyclops and other monsters do not really have minds, and the only city seen by Odysseus is the capital of Phaecia. The poet emphasizes Odysseus' brave struggle to survive, but underplays Odysseus' failure to secure the return of his men. While Odysseus does look after them, he also takes risks with their lives and is often responsible for their deaths. Finally, the suitors and Odysseus' ultimate vengeance on them are not mentioned. The lapse is odd, as this conflict provides a central theme and occupies more than half of the poem.
Ancient epics traditionally began "in media res" - in the middle of things. Thus, it may seem that Books 1- 4 could have been omitted by bards who wished to begin the tale with the more thrilling adventures of Odysseus. But the opening Books do serve a dramatic purpose. They show the general state of Ithaca and the plight of Penelope in the absence of Odysseus. This is important to any understanding of his difficulties on his return and of the necessity for him to extract vengeance on the suitors. These Books also show how little is known of Odysseus' fate and how anticipation of his return varies. This creates the suspense at which Homer excels. The other characters with which Odysseus will be associated are also introduced in these Books, adding to the epic's range and richness and helping to set its plot to work.
Book 1 prepares the way for much that comes later. It introduces the theme of the role of fate and the gods in human destiny through the decision of the gods to allow Odysseus to return home and Athena's helping of Telemachus. It also anticipates the dual nature of The Odyssey, in which elements of domestic comedy and elements of fable and fancy are combined into a unified whole.
Telemachus' development also begins here. Cast for a large part and unready for it, he begins to face his responsibilities and even to test his powers after being visited by Athena. His courage takes the suitors by surprise, and before long they are sufficiently afraid of him to plot his death. He, therefore, becomes an important participant in the action and later helps his father in slaying the suitors.