SparkNotes Blog

Blogging The Odyssey: Part 1 (The One Where Athena Is Already Fed Up With Poseidon’s Crap)

Greetings, fellow journeymen on the road of life! For the uninitiated, I am Elodie. I’m one of the people on this hallowed site who blogs things. In the past, I have plodded through the terrible decisions and abrupt dictatorships of Lord of the Flies; I have trudged through the bizarre foreshadowing and unmistakable homoeroticism of The Great Gatsby (only to be disappointed by the utter and egregious lack of endgame Natsby). Now I’m back (after a brief hiatus) to blog THE ODYSSEY.

I did not make this decision lightly. I thought about doing Of Mice and Men, or Catch-22, or maybe Moby Dick, but then I didn’t, mostly because Elaine yoinked that last one after beating me in the bi-weekly SparkNotes battle melee, and she is too hilarious by half. No, I went with The Odyssey because it is my own personal Everest. They all said it couldn’t be done, by which I mean I informed my boss of this decision, and she said, “Cool,” and I said, “DON’T TRY TO TALK ME OUT OF IT.”

Besides, The Odyssey has everything I look for in a book, including but not limited to:

  1. Wacky sea monsters
  2. A wily protagonist
  3. Sirens luring weak-willed men to their untimely deaths
  4. Zeus doing the stupid things

And speaking of which!

BOOK 1: Athena Inspires the Prince

The narrator invokes the Muse for inspiration and then unleashes a wealth of verse to get us up to speed (which is not unlike Aaron Burr dropping some sweet expositional rhymes about a certain bastard, orphan, son of a whore). We’re told that our hero, Odysseus, never came home from the war, that he was hindered on this quest because Poseidon hates him, that everyone back home believes him to be dead, and that his wife Penelope is currently being pestered by wannabe sex-havers since she is now technically on the market.

Whoa! That’s a ton of information! If it seems like we’re being dropped in the middle of this whole deal, that’s because we are. The story begins in media res, which your teachers will tell you is a narrative technique meaning the story begins in the middle of the action and which I will tell you is a term you already know. Think, if you will, of:

  • Inception, which begins with Cobb washing ashore in dream purgatory
  • Deadpool, which begins with Deadpool hopping in a taxi mid-revenge plot
  • Anything J.J. Abrams has ever directed in his entire life, probably. Admittedly, I have not seen everything J.J. has directed, but I am willing to stake my honor as a woman on this claim.

Anyway. The gods get together on Mount Olympus to discuss the humans, with their silly wars and their dumb feelings and whatever the hell else is going on down there. Specifically, they’re here to address the Odysseus Situation. Or rather, Athena is here to address the Odysseus Situation; her father, Zeus, was thinking this would be more of a general b*tch-fest.

The great Trojan War has already happened. People died, Troy burned, and Odysseus was supposed to be home by now, only he was beset by loads of really unlikely catastrophes on his journey, including “angry Cyclops” and “island witch who’s obsessed with him.” This has been going on for ten years, ever since the war ended. Ten years! And the war itself was ten years long, so Odysseus has actually been gone for twenty. We’ll hear more about all of this later, but for now Zeus agrees that it sucks and someone who’s not him should do something about it.

Turns out Odysseus is not just unlucky. He blinded Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops, so Poseidon has been manipulating things to keep Odysseus from ever getting home. Real talk: “the gods treating us mortals like disposable pieces in the Monopoly game of life” is one of my favorite tropes, second only to “cliched sports victories” and “someone’s been possessed by the devil.”

Zeus suggests they all put their heads together to think of ways to stop Poseidon from being such a tool. Athena, meanwhile, heads on over to the land of Ithaca, where Odysseus is/was the king. Here she’s able to really size up the decade-long episode of The Bachelorette that is Penelope’s life, which I think we can all agree is no life at all. The suitors clamoring for her hand in marriage have really trashed the place. They’re eating all her food, drinking all her wine, and basically just hanging around waiting for her to pick a new husband.

Athena, disguised as some regular boring Greek dude, approaches Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who is just kind of sitting there. She informs him that his father is still alive, probably, I mean how would she know, she’s not a GODDESS or anything, she just has a feeling about this. She tells him he should sail to Sparta to ask around about Odysseus, find out what happened to him, and confirm that he’s not dead. This would mean that Penelope is not actually a widow, and it would give Telemachus reason enough to kick everyone out of his house.

Telemachus, emboldened, takes this advice to heart. He announces to the suitors that tomorrow he’s leaving on a seafaring voyage, and that if they’re still here when he returns, they’ll be very sorry indeed. It’s a very character-building moment for him; up ’til now, he’s been kind of a doormat. Now he’s standing up for himself! He’s giving speeches! He’s taking back the kingdom! The suitors, however, are less than impressed, so the whole thing is like:

They’ve been waiting ten years for the chance to marry Penelope, which is ten years longer than I’ve ever waited for anything. They’re not going anywhere. They boo. They jeer. They laugh right in his face. I have a feeling these guys are going to meet a grisly fate at the business end of a spear, so I’m not getting too attached, but a couple of them are like, “Telemachus, wake up and smell the regicide. Your dad is dead as hell.”

Telemachus just says, “We’ll see.”

BOOK TWO: Telemachus Sets Sail

Before he leaves, Telemachus calls for an assembly and tells the dudes currently lusting after his mother that if they were dudes of honor, they would have gone straight to Penelope’s father and asked for her hand in marriage instead of spending ten years freeloading off the family’s riches. One of the suitors whines that it’s Penelope’s fault. He calls her a “matchless queen of cunning” because she once told everyone she would pick a husband after she finished weaving her shroud, but at the end of each day she’d always go back upstairs and undo all her progress, which is a ruse that fooled these idiots for THREE WHOLE YEARS. Matchless queen of cunning indeed.

Telemachus sort of shrugs and says, “Well, that sounds like a you problem.” He refuses to force his mother’s hand. Right at that moment a pair of eagles appears overhead, locked in combat. One of the suitors, a soothsayer named Halitherses, claims this is a sign that Odysseus will return and massacre them all. His fellow lust-monsters aren’t interested in anything that doesn’t involve having naked fun with Penelope, though, so they ignore this very obvious portent of doom and continue feasting gluttonously like a bunch of fools who are about 300 pages away from getting the crap massacred out of them.

Telemachus exits the room. An old nurse who’s close to Telemachus begs him not to leave. She says he may drown at sea, or else the suitors will murder him the second he returns. Telemachus, who has by now figured out that it wasn’t just some regular boring Greek dude who was doling out ancient wisdom earlier, tells the nurse he’ll be fine; he has a goddess on his side. He asks her not to tell his mother he’s leaving, though; he doesn’t want to worry her.

The next morning, Athena disguises herself as Telemachus and spends the wee hours of the morning assembling a motley crew. She then disguises herself as a man named Mentor and puts the suitors to sleep with magic so that she and Telemachus can set sail unimpeded. Together, the two take to the sea. Elsewhere, presumably, Zeus is having sex with someone he shouldn’t be.

Discussion questions:

  1. What’s your favorite trope in fiction, if not “cliched sports victories” or “someone’s been possessed by the devil”? Because those are the best.
  2. I’m given to understand, thanks to The Great Gatsby, that everything has homoerotic subtext if you’re willing to look hard enough. Will this hold true? Achilles and Patroclus are already dead, so my hopes are not high.
  3. Honestly, what is Poseidon’s GLITCH? Please discuss.

Image credit: 30 Rock/NBC

Looking for the rest of our Blogging the Classics series? Check it out here! For all of Blogging The Odyssey, click here!