Penelope announces the contest and retrieves Odysseus' great backsprung bow from a secret storeroom deep in the palace. For sport, Telemachus attempts to string the bow and fails three times. He is about to succeed on his fourth try when Odysseus privately signals him to back off. The suitors then take their turns, their early efforts failing dismally. As the suitors contend, Odysseus meets outside with Eumaeus and Philoetius, his faithful servants and reveals to them his true identity and enlists their support in his plan.
Meanwhile, the suitors continue to struggle with the bow. Antinous suggests that the contest be postponed until the next day, but then Odysseus asks if he might give the bow a try, an idea that Penelope strongly supports. Odysseus easily strings the weapon and fires an arrow straight through the axes; then he and Telemachus stand together to face the suitors.
Penelope's choice of contest — one that only Odysseus could win — supports the suspicion that she is aware of the beggar/Odysseus's real identity. When the beggar/Odysseus asks for an unofficial chance at the bow, Penelope immediately counters Antinous' objection. Dismissing the idea that the guest would claim her as his bride, she responds that by giving the wandering stranger a shot she is simply being hospitable. Of course, the beggar would not claim her for his bride; Odysseus would not have to.
Scholars have long pondered the details of the contest itself, the most debatable point being what shooting an arrow through a dozen axes actually means. Fagles and Knox offer this solution (p. 515): Each ax has its handle attached. Each handle probably has a metal ring on the end opposite the blade so that it can easily be hung on a wall peg. That ring is what Odysseus shoots his arrow through. Twelve in a row is an amazing but conceivable feat, and because he is sitting on a stool at the time, he is at about the right height for such a shot.
Several folklore motifs appear in this section of the epic. Most prominent is a contest involving a mystical weapon that only the hero can wield. In Beowulf, for example, the hero (Beowulf) strikes down his foe's (Grendel's) mother with a mystical sword inscribed with runic symbols. In the Arthurian legend, only Arthur, the true king, is able to pull the sword Excalibur from the stone. The difference here is that the challenge in The Odyssey requires less magic and more skill and physical strength. Other motifs are the disguise of the hero, the battle for the bride, revenge upon interlopers, maturation of the heir apparent, and restoration of a king to his rightful reign.
Telemachus' role at the contest is secondary but significant. His attempt at stringing the bow symbolically illustrates that, although he isn't quite yet ready to assume the burden of leadership from Odysseus, he is, indeed, the destined heir to Odysseus' legacy. Some critics also complain that Telemachus is unduly rude when he sends his mother to her quarters as Odysseus is about to string the bow; other suggest that he is angry. Neither is the case. In fact, Telemachus is accomplishing two important tasks. He is asserting his own position in the household, and he is removing his mother from harm's way. She may suspect that the beggar is her husband, but Telemachus knows that a battle is about to take place and that his place is at the side of the king.
The structure of the contest section is especially effective. First Penelope introduces the idea, which is news to the suitors. Antinous immediately feels threatened. He attacks his underlings, Eumaeus and Philoetius, a safe way for him to let out aggression. Then he hypocritically praises Odysseus, the king he otherwise mocks and hopes to replace. The purpose of this passage is not just to advance the plot. Here, the reader is given important insights into the characters by virtue of Homer's arrangement of the events. Homer shifts the reader's focus as a film director might.
After the contest gets underway, Homer cleverly takes the reader outside the great hall to a scene in which Odysseus identifies himself and shows his famous scar to his loyal servants, Eumaeus and Philoetius. Then he asks the former to get the maidservants out of the hall and the latter to bolt the courtyard's outer gate. In addition to enabling Odysseus to recruit the help of two faithful servants, this passage also spares the reader the boring task of watching suitor after suitor fail to string the bow.
The whole energy of the section seems to be dying when Antinous successfully requests a postponement of the contest, but Odysseus revitalizes it by asking for a chance at the bow. Antinous immediately objects. Penelope counters. Telemachus intercedes and takes over. Just as the action hits this staccato beat, Odysseus slows it down, teases the onlookers by toying with the bow, and then . . . and then . . . easily strings it and casually shoots the arrow through the axes. Zeus accentuates the action with a thunderbolt, in essence indicating that something important has just been accomplished and something more important is about to take place.
Messene a city in Menelaus' kingdom of Lacedaemon in the southern Peloponnesus.
Mycenae Agamemnon's capital city.
Centaur a mythological creature that is part man, part horse.