The Odyssey


Books 10–11

Summary Books 10–11

Analysis: Books 10–11

The mortal tendency to succumb to temptation manifests itself throughout Book 10. Just as Odysseus taunts the blinded Polyphemus in book 9 by boasting about his defeat of the Cyclops, the members of his crew prove unable to resist looking into Aeolus’s bag, and their greed ends up complicating their nostos, or homeward voyage. As important and illustrative of weak-mindedness, however, is that Odysseus lets a year waste away in the arms of the goddess Circe. While his crew certainly seems not to mind the respite, Odysseus particularly enjoys it, even though his wife is waiting for him. The drunk Elpenor’s death as the men are about to depart from home constitutes another instance of overindulgence in personal appetite.

Only when his crew “prod[s]” him and calls his delays “madness” is Odysseus persuaded to leave Circe’s realm (10.519520). The crew members’ lukewarm feelings for the place are understandable—after all, they have to suffer the humiliation of being transformed, initially, into pigs and receive no recompense comparable to the love of a goddess. Indeed, in Book 10, for the first time we hear the crew criticize its leader. Refusing repeatedly to return to Circe’s halls after the other scouts are transformed into pigs, the crew member Eurylochus issues an especially stinging reproach of Odysseus for foolishly leading his crew to its destruction. He presents the death of their comrades at the hands of Polyphemus as evidence of Odysseus’s imprudence: “thanks to [Odysseus’s] rashness they died too!” (10.482). Though Odysseus checks his anger and restores calm, the unrest illustrates the holes in his authority.

With the appearance of the various heroes and lesser divinities, Book 11 gives the modern reader an extraordinary anthology of mythological lives. Homer’s audience would already have been familiar with the stories of such figures as Heracles, Minos, Achilles, Agamemnon, Sisyphus, and Tantalus, and people turned to them for authoritative versions of the Greek myths even in the later ancient period. For the modern reader, they provide invaluable insight into early Greek mythology. Again, by juxtaposing Odysseus’s wanderings to the woes of these legendary figures, Homer both broadens the scope of his poem and further entrenches his hero in his culture’s mythology. In even being allowed to enter Hades, Odysseus attains a privileged, transcendent status.

Odysseus’s conversation with Achilles reveals a nuanced view of warfare and kleos, or glory, which is harder to find in the Iliad. Achilles’ declaration, “I’d rather slave on earth for another man / . . . / than rule down here over all the breathless dead,” alludes to his dilemma, depicted in the Iliad, of choosing between earning glory on the battlefield but dying young and living out a long, uneventful life (11.556558). Whereas the Iliad, which celebrates the glory of warfare, wholeheartedly endorses Achilles’ choice of glory over long life, Achilles’ lament in Book 11 of the Odyssey issues a strong caveat to this ethic of kleos. This change in Achilles’ sentiment from one poem to the next is understandable, given that, as we have seen with Odysseus, the Odyssey tends to focus on characters’ inner lives. Yet Achilles doesn’t wholly shun the idea of kleos. Though he turns away somewhat from his warrior ethos, he still rejoices to hear that his son has become a great warrior. Kleos has thus evolved from an accepted cultural value into a more complex and somewhat problematic principle.

Positioned near the very heart of the epic, the underworld segment ties together the poem’s various settings. Anticleia recalls those pining away for Odysseus in Ithaca. Agamemnon and Achilles shift our thoughts back to Troy. Elpenor ties in the near past on Circe’s island and the present responsibilities that Odysseus has to his crew. Finally, the interruption in Odysseus’s account reminds us of where he is now—in the palace of the Phaeacians. The interruption seems to have no other function, and it doesn’t make much sense within the context of the plot. It is hard to believe, for instance, that Odysseus would want to go to sleep before describing the most important conversations he had in Hades, and, in fact, he doesn’t go to sleep—the history of his wanderings goes on for another book and a half. The interruption is transparently used to break the long first-person narrative into smaller, more manageable chunks.