The Odyssey


Books 1–2

Summary Books 1–2

Like Homer’s other epic, the Iliad, the Odyssey begins in medias res, or in the middle of things. Rather than open the story with the culmination of the Trojan War, Homer begins midway through Odysseus’s wanderings. This presentation of events out of chronological sequence achieves several different goals: it immediately engages the interest of an audience already familiar with the details of Odysseus’s journey; it provides narrative space for a long and evocative flashback later in the text (Books 912), in which Odysseus recounts his earlier travels; and it gives the story a satisfying unity when it ends where it began, at the house of Odysseus, in Book 24.

Most important, the in medias res opening infuses the foreground of the story with a sense of urgency. Were the narrative to begin with the happy victory over Troy and the beginning of Odysseus’s trip back to Greece (a journey the Greeks would have expected to be brief at the time), the story would start at a high point and gradually descend as Odysseus’s misfortunes increased. By commencing with a brief synopsis of Odysseus’s whereabouts and then focusing on Telemachus’s swift maturation, the narrator highlights the tension between Telemachus and the opportunistic suitors as it reaches a climax. Spurred on by the gods, Telemachus must confront the suitors to honor his father.

Telemachus has already begun his own psychological journey by the end of Book 1. Homer highlights his progress by showing how astounded the suitors are to be told so abruptly that they will have to leave the palace after the next day’s assembly. Indeed, calling the assembly is itself a sign of Telemachus’s awakening manhood, as Aegyptius notes at the beginning of Book 2. But even before his confrontation with the suitors, the confrontation between him and his mother reveals his new, surprisingly commanding outlook. When Penelope becomes upset at the bard’s song, Telemachus chooses not to console her but rather to scold her. His unsympathetic treatment of her and his stiff reminder that Odysseus was not the only one who perished are stereotypically masculine responses to tragedy that suit him to the demands of running his father’s household. He supplements these behavioral indications of manhood with the overt declaration, “I hold the reins of power in this house” (1.414).