Summary: Book 3

At Pylos, Telemachus and Mentor (Athena in disguise) witness an impressive religious ceremony in which dozens of bulls are sacrificed to Poseidon, the god of the sea. Although Telemachus has little experience with public speaking, Mentor gives him the encouragement that he needs to approach Nestor, the city’s king, and ask him about Odysseus. Nestor, however, has no information about the Greek hero. He recounts that after the fall of Troy a falling-out occurred between Agamemnon and Menelaus, the two Greek brothers who had led the expedition. Menelaus set sail for Greece immediately, while Agamemnon decided to wait a day and continue sacrificing on the shores of Troy. Nestor went with Menelaus, while Odysseus stayed with Agamemnon, and he has heard no news of Odysseus. He says that he can only pray that Athena will show Telemachus the kindness that she showed Odysseus. He adds that he has heard that suitors have taken over the prince’s house in Ithaca and that he hopes that Telemachus will achieve the renown in defense of his father that Orestes, son of Agamemnon, won in defense of his father.

Telemachus then asks Nestor about Agamemnon’s fate. Nestor explains that Agamemnon returned from Troy to find that Aegisthus, a base coward who remained behind while the Greeks fought in Troy, had seduced and married his wife, Clytemnestra. With her approval, Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon. He would have then taken over Agamemnon’s kingdom had not Orestes, who was in exile in Athens, returned and killed Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Nestor holds the courage of Orestes up as an example for Telemachus. He sends his own son Pisistratus along to accompany Telemachus to Sparta, and the two set out by land the next day. Athena, who reveals her divinity by shedding the form of Mentor and changing into an eagle before the entire court of Pylos, stays behind to protect Telemachus’s ship and its crew.

Summary: Book 4

In Sparta, the king and queen, Menelaus and Helen, are celebrating the separate marriages of their son and daughter. They happily greet Pisistratus and Telemachus, the latter of whom they soon recognize as the son of Odysseus because of the clear family resemblance. As they all feast, the king and queen recount with melancholy the many examples of Odysseus’s cunning at Troy. Helen recalls how Odysseus dressed as a beggar to infiltrate the city’s walls. Menelaus tells the famous story of the Trojan horse, Odysseus’s masterful gambit that allowed the Greeks to sneak into Troy and slaughter the Trojans. The following day, Menelaus recounts his own return from Troy. He says that, stranded in Egypt, he was forced to capture Proteus, the divine Old Man of the Sea. Proteus told him the way back to Sparta and then informed him of the fates of Agamemnon and Ajax, another Greek hero, who survived Troy only to perish back in Greece. Proteus also told him news of Odysseus—that he was still alive but was imprisoned by Calypso on her island. Buoyed by this report, Telemachus and Pisistratus return to Pylos to set sail for Ithaca.

Meanwhile, the suitors at Odysseus’s house learn of Telemachus’s voyage and prepare to ambush him upon his return. The herald Medon overhears their plans and reports them to Penelope. She becomes distraught when she reflects that she may soon lose her son in addition to her husband, but Athena sends a phantom in the form of Penelope’s sister, Iphthime, to reassure her. Iphthime tells her not to worry, for the goddess will protect Telemachus.

Analysis: Books 3–4

The setting broadens in Books 3 and 4 as Telemachus sets out on his own brief odyssey around southern Greece to learn of his father’s fate. Fittingly, this expansion in setting prompts an expansion in the story itself, as each of Telemachus’s hosts adds his own story to The Odyssey. Here, as throughout the poem, storytelling serves the important function of supplying both the reader and the characters with key details about Odysseus’s travails. Additionally, Nestor’s, Menelaus’s, and Helen’s recountings of various episodes related to the Trojan War tie the Odyssey to cultural legends with which Homer’s audience would have been extremely familiar.

The stories that Telemachus now hears may have once coexisted with The Iliad and The Odyssey in the constellation of oral poetry that existed before either poem became a written work. A bard, much like the one depicted in Odysseus’s palace, might sing of the exploits of Odysseus, Ajax, Agamemnon, or any of the other heroes whose stories circulated through early Greek culture in the form of oral poems. Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, some of these poems may even have been written down at some point, though, if they were, they obviously didn’t survive as long as Homer’s two great epics. Still, Greek audiences would have been familiar with these stories, which were perhaps not just smaller stories embedded within The Odyssey but rather epics of their own. In any case, these stories were immediately and powerfully evocative, and by rehashing them Homer tethers his written rendition of The Odyssey to the tradition of epic narratives from which his work draws its inspiration.

Not surprisingly, the story that both Nestor and Menelaus recount—the cycle of murder in which Aegisthus killed Agamemnon and then Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, killed Aegisthus—is clearly relevant to Telemachus. Just as Aegisthus took advantage of Agamemnon’s absence to consort with his wife, so too have Penelope’s suitors exploited Odysseus’s presumed death to gorge themselves on his provisions and pursue his grieving wife. Telemachus’s mission thus parallels that of Orestes: he must avenge his father by driving out the interlopers who have taken over his father’s house. Nestor finds in the story of Agamemnon’s fate a warning for Telemachus—that he shouldn’t leave his home unguarded for too long, lest he return to find it stolen from him. The discovery, at the end of Book 4, that the suitors are plotting against Telemachus bears this lesson out.

Telemachus’s meetings with the two kings also allow Homer to explore the idea of xenia, or hospitality. The social code of ancient Greece demanded that one show kindness to strangers in unfamiliar regions by welcoming them into one’s home. This social expectation of hospitality was so culturally important that it was believed to be enforced by Zeus, the king of the gods. Here, both Nestor and Menelaus offer their guest a warm welcome even before they learn Telemachus’s identity. Homer also emphasizes how impressed Menelaus is with his guest’s discretion and tact (“Not even an older man could speak and do as well” [4.228]). This piety and respect for the social norms enforced by the gods contrasts sharply with the suitors’ careless plundering of Telemachus’s home in Ithaca in Books 1 and 2. While Telemachus strictly observes every divine law, the suitors carouse with wanton abandon, uninvited, in his home. While Telemachus impresses his hosts, the suitors plot to murder theirs. This exploration of the idea of hospitality thus provides a background against which the contrast between the suitors and Telemachus is sharpened, a contrast already emphasized by the frequent repetition of the story of Agamemnon.