The Odyssey By Homer Summary and Analysis Book 17 - Stranger at the Gate

Summary

Odysseus walks to town the next morning, joined by Eumaeus, who still thinks he is accompanying an old beggar. Telemachus precedes them, cheering his mother with his presence and the stories of his trip. With the prince is a seer, Theoclymenus, who tells Penelope that Odysseus is on Ithaca now, gathering information. The queen wishes that she could believe him, but she cannot.

During the trip to town, Odysseus and his swineherd cross paths with a bully, the goatherd Melanthius, but avoid a fight. In one famously poignant moment, Odysseus and his dying old dog, Argos, quietly recognize each other. In the banquet hall, Antinous bullies the ragged beggar/Odysseus and even throws a footstool at him. Exercising considerable restraint, both the king and his son manage to postpone revenge.

Analysis

Judgment and prudence are the dominating heroic characteristics developed in this chapter. When Telemachus visits his mother, he very much wants to put her mind at ease; but he dares not reveal that his father has, in fact, returned. He details the encouraging news from Menelaus, King of Sparta, that Odysseus was captive but alive on Calypso's island. He encourages Theoclymenus' report that the king lives and is now on Ithaca. At this point, though, prudence stops him from revealing to anyone — including his mother — that Odysseus is home and preparing to strike. Penelope, who has heard rumors and listened to prophecies for years, would like to believe Theoclymenus, but prudence does not allow her to.

Odysseus must exercise restraint on several occasions. On their way to town, he and Eumaeus are confronted by Melanthius, a bully and braggart who is in Odysseus' employ as a goatherd. The bully verbally assaults the two travelers and even kicks Odysseus as he passes. Odysseus is tempted to split the lout's head on a rock but controls himself. Eumaeus steps in and defends the beggar/Odysseus. This faithful swineherd is the antithesis of Melanthius. Where one is considerate, kind, refined, and loyal, the other is impudent, cruel, crude, and appeasing toward the suitors. Odysseus exercises the judgment of a sage when he refrains from dispatching Melanthius on the spot.

A more subtle restraint is necessary soon after that confrontation. As Odysseus and his swineherd approach the palace, they spot a pathetic, old, tick-infested dog, "half-dead from neglect" (17.328), lying on a dung pile. It is Argos, the king's pet as a pup, now some 20 years old. The dog recognizes his master, thumps his tail, but is too weak to move toward him. Odysseus, too, recognizes his dog but knows he cannot show it. He turns away to hide a tear as the old dog dies.

At the great hall of the palace, Odysseus has more need for judgment, prudence, and restraint. The suitors are feasting well on the best of Odysseus' sheep, hogs, fatted goats, and cattle. Telemachus, aided by Athena (who is always near during this crucial period), encourages the beggar/Odysseus to make the rounds of the young noblemen and ask for handouts. Most of the suitors give him something, a scrap or crust. But Antinous, reminiscent of the ill-mannered goatherd on the road into town, verbally assaults Eumaeus and sardonically challenges the swineherd's decision to bring such a despicable old vagabond (Odysseus) to interrupt his dining. Eumaeus risks his own life by talking back to Antinous, but Telemachus wisely intercedes and directs the debate toward himself.

The truth is, of course, that the food is Odysseus' to begin with. More than a little perturbed, but staying in character as an old beggar, he pointedly asks Antinous for a "crust" in words that have double meaning; they sound flattering but are actually insulting. He jabs at the reason for Antinous' presence by saying, "You look like a king to me!" (17.460) Odysseus doesn't slacken his caustic remarks, and Antinous becomes increasingly angry, finally hurling a footstool at the beggar and striking him in the back.

Odysseus foreshadows the showdown in Book 22 by wishing that Antinous might "meet his death before he meets his bride!" (17.525), but he does not strike back. Prudence prevails. The king and his son stop short of violence, although it is especially difficult for Telemachus to see his father treated so. The feast resumes, but Antinous has sealed his fate with his rude arrogance. The suitors will be given more opportunities to atone for their actions, but Athena (17.399) has already decided to kill them all.

Penelope notices the beggar/Odysseus and asks Eumaeus about him. The swineherd tells how impressed he was during his three days with the visitor, and Penelope requests that the guest speak with her. Feigning anxiety about the suitors, Odysseus says he will meet with her but prefers to wait until later.

The tone here is threatening and ominous. There is a dramatic increase of tension from the time that Odysseus arrives at the palace until the showdown in Book 22. Like the goatherd on the road, the suitors doom themselves with their crude arrogance. Even those who seem not particularly disagreeable, like Amphinomus, are guilty by their complicity and acquiescence. They will have their opportunities to leave but will choose to stay. That's enough for Athena. Dusk is falling fast on the suitors.

Glossary

Apollo god of archery and patron of the arts.

Nile a major river in Egypt, extending into other parts of eastern Africa.

Cyprus an island in the Mediterranean off southern Turkey.

Thesprotia a region in northwestern Greece.

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