The Odyssey By Homer Summary and Analysis Book 4 - The King and Queen of Sparta

Summary

When they arrive at Sparta, Telemachus and Pisistratus are warmly welcomed. Telemachus is moved to tears by Menelaus' recollections of his friend Odysseus. The king and queen recall some of Odysseus' exploits at Troy but postpone serious talk until the next day. In the morning, Menelaus expresses outrage at the behavior of Penelope's suitors and encourages Telemachus by telling him that Odysseus is alive and a captive of Calypso.

Back in Ithaca, the suitors have discovered that Telemachus is gone and plan to ambush his ship on its return. Penelope is distraught to learn of her son's trip and the planned assassination but is soothed by a vision sent by Athena. Homer leaves the plot of Telemachus dangling as selected suitors board a vessel to set up the surprise attack.

Analysis

Menelaus' queen is the same Helen whose abduction from Sparta caused the Trojan War. Foreshadowing Odysseus' disguise when he returns to Ithaca, Helen recalls how he scarred his body and donned slave's clothing in order to slip into Troy under the guise of a beggar. Still with the Trojans at that time, she alone suspected that the beggar was a spy; but she protected his secret until he was safely gone. Menelaus recalls the crafty Odysseus' legendary ruse of the Trojan horse that led to the defeat of Troy.

Although thrilled to hear these stories, Telemachus is more encouraged by Menelaus' revelation, the next day, that Odysseus may yet live. In order to learn his own way home to Sparta, Menelaus, marooned in Egypt, had to trap Proteus, Poseidon's servant and a shape-shifter who can instantly turn himself into a serpent, panther, boar, tree, or even a torrent of water. Proteus' daughter, a sea-nymph, told Menelaus how to catch her father and get the truth from him. In addition to learning his own way home, Menelaus also learned that Odysseus was alive and a captive of Calypso on Ogygia.

Over the centuries, some scholars have asserted that no one poet could have presented the world of The Iliad and that of The Odyssey. In The Iliad, many of the same characters as those found in The Odyssey are filled with the vigor of youth and devoted to the honors of war or the thrills of lust. Helen is an example. She was, as Christopher Marlowe would write more than 2,000 years after the creation of The Odyssey," . . . the face that launched a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium" (The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, 1604) — the woman whose abduction was the catalyst for the Trojan War.

Although she is still quite striking (4.136) in The Odyssey, she is a matronly, middle-aged hostess, far different from the Helen who drove men to such desire that they were willing to go to war for her. However, the disparity between her portrayal in The Iliad and that in The Odyssey need not be interpreted as evidence against a single author. Instead, it merely marks the passage of time — approximately 20 years. Helen, like all the principals from the Trojan War who are still alive, is simply older. The amazing thing about Odysseus is that, despite the passage of years, he will be able rise to the insult of the suitors and once more take arms as he did in his prime.

Glossary

Zeus king of the gods in ancient Greek mythology.

Olympus highest mountain in Greece and legendary home of the gods.

Aphrodite goddess of love and beauty, daughter of Zeus.

Pharos island near the mouth of Egypt's Nile river.

Proteus the "Old Man of the Sea," a sea god and servant of Poseidon known for his ability to change shape.

Ajax (4.560) the Greek warrior whose offense at Athena's temple resulted in Odysseus' wanderings; not to be confused with the Great Ajax, whom Odysseus defeated in the contest for Achilles' armor.

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