ENG 208—Baker

Outline / Summary



Book I

After the traditional invocation to the Muse and a brief prologue highlighting the most important themes and actions, the poet describes a counsel on Mount Olympus in which Athena begs her father Zeus to soften the wrath of Poseidon and Helios and allow Odysseus to return home after a 20 year absence.  The loving father grants his assent and with his permission, she descends to meet Telemachus in disguise and exhort him to rebuke the suitors and seek out his father.


Book II

Telemachus, emboldened by Athena’s words of wisdom, confronts the suitors for consuming his inheritance and abusing the hospitality of the palace at Ithaca.  They respond with taunts and insults, some directed at Penelope, but mostly at the youth they see before them.  With the help of the palace nurse and his divine protector, he embarks on a journey, ostensibly to learn the fate of his father, but more so to prove himself a worthy son and heir.


Book III

Telemachus arrives on Pylos, the island of Nestor, who served as chief counsel to Agamemnon in the war against Troy.  In his traditional role of aged adviser, Nestor explains how the Atrides had angered the gods on those faraway beaches, why so many returning warriors faced dangers on the voyage, and the fates of those he knows.  Sadly, he has heard nothing of Telemachus’ father.  He sends his son Pisistratus along with him for his inland journey to Sparta, after they have made appropriate sacrifice to the immortal deities as their elders should have done.


Book IV

Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive at the palace of the Spartan king and queen during a wedding feast but are perhaps all the more warmly welcomed for that.  Menelaus and Helen make their guests comfortable and reminisce about those glorious days in Troy, during which his father Odysseus comported himself with his legendary combination of cunning and strength.  Menelaus too knows a bit about the returns of the other warriors, but nothing of Odysseus.  Sensing that the stories may have saddened rather than gladdened the neglected son of the Trojan war hero, Helen mixes her guest a sleeping draught. In a shift not typical of Homeric storytelling, the reader is transported back to Ithaca to witness a beleaguered Penelope as she faces angry suitors who are plotting to murder Telemachus on his return.


Book V

After her sojourn with Telemachus, Athena has returned to Mount Olympus, and she now reminds Zeus of his promise to aid Odysseus.  Zeus complies, sending Hermes to instruct Calypso that she must now let her captive mortal go.  She obeys reluctantly, supervising Odysseus in the construction of a boat, but Poseidon calls up a sudden squall to make life difficult.  He is pitied by a minor goddess Ino and with the help of her veil makes it safely to the shore of the Phaeacians.


Book VI

Nausicaa, princess of the Phaeacian people, is encouraged by Athena to do her laundry the next day.  She asks permission from her father and takes a bevy of young girls with her to the riverside where they wash clothes, play catch, and discover the (very nude) Odysseus asleep on the beach.  He approaches the princess and she offers him the hospitality of her people on the understanding that he will not expose her to ridicule.


Book VII

Athena guides Odysseus to the palace where he begs Queen Arete for refuge.  Her husband Alcinous grants it and Odysseus tells the queen a small segment of his distressing voyages. 



Alcinous orders his people to make a ship ready for our traveler and loads it with many gifts, a traditional sign of friendship and respect.  The Phaeacians begin a course of games, but are interrupted when a loud boaster challenges Odysseus to compete.  Our hero responds admirably and they all settle down to an evening of wine and song, which is unfortunately interrupted by the weeping hero himself, who consents to tell his own tale.


Book IX

Odysseus reveals his identity and tells of his adventures after leaving Troy.  After a losing battle with the Cicones, he and his crew lose their way and find themselves among the Lotus-Eaters where indolence threatens to hold them all captive.  At the exhortations of their commander, the crew disembarks only to land on the island of the Cyclopes.  Looking for hospitality (with its traditional gifts), Odysseus and his men instead discover a cannibalistic beast without a single human trait.  He cleverly outwits the monster, but brings the wrath of Poseidon down on his head in so doing. 


Book X

Landing on the island of Aeolus, keeper of the winds, Odysseus and his men are treated much more kindly and even given the precious gift of wind.  Unfortunately, his wanton men open the bag holding the gift, thinking their commander is keeping something from them and they are blown back to Aeolus’ harbor.  The lord of wind refuses them further aid convinced that Odysseus is being punished by the gods.  After a violent encounter with the Laestrygonians, they arrive at the island of the witch Circe.  The crew sent to discover the island’s inhabitants are soon transformed by her wiles into base animals and must be rescued by Odysseus, but only with the assistance of Hermes and his moly.  She informs him that he must visit the underworld before he will be allowed to return home and sends him on his way, but not before one of his men dies an untimely death and is left unburied.


Book XI

Odysseus travels as instructed to the realm of Hades and his wife Persephone to learn his fate from Teiresias, the blind prophet.  After following Circe’s gruesome instructions, he first encounters his dead comrade, then Teiresias who explains to him his possible fates.  He speaks next with his mother, then is privileged to see a procession of legendary Greek women.  After a brief interruption by his listeners, Odysseus goes on to describe his meetings with the heroes of the Trojan War:  Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax, and then finally several mythical heroes, finishing with Heracles (Hercules). 


Book XII

Odysseus and his men return to Circe’s island from their underworld voyage where he receives slightly fuller instructions for his voyage.  Odysseus survives his encounter with the Sirens, most of the crew make it through the dangerous strait of Scylla and Charybdis, but his men are not wise enough to heed his instructions on Helios’ island.  They slaughter the sacred animals of the sun god and Odysseus is forced to continue on alone to the island of Calypso, from whence he was released earlier in our own narrative.



The Phaeacian people return Odysseus to his homeland and are poorly repaid by Poseidon for their graciousness.  Odysseus awakes in confusion and fear and is welcomed home by his protector Athena who warns him to be on his guard and return on the sly. 


Book XIV

Odysseus follows the guidance of his guardian and approaches the hut of his swineherd Eumaeus.  From him, Odysseus learns the current state of affairs in the palace and that his servant has been loyal to his master.  He, however, refuses to share his own identity and tells another of the invented tales we have already seen him wield with Athena. 


Book XV

Concurrent with the action of Book XIV, Athena visits Telemachus at Menelaus’ palace, where we left him in Book IV.  She encourages him to return, but instructs him, like Odysseus, to return in secret.  Helen grants the boy a wedding present of his own and augurs a triumphant return for both he and his father.  As he travels home, Odysseus wiles away the time with Eumaeus’s storytelling until they are joined by the young man.


Book XVI

Telemachus’ entrance to the swineherd’s hut is treated in some detail.  Eumaeus encourages him to treat the beggar kindly, but Telemachus fears the gluttony and avarice of the suitors will not allow him to do so.  After telling his father of his origins and travails, an incredulous Telemachus listens to his father’s revelation that he is indeed Odysseus.  The two are reunited in a moving scene and plot how to reclaim their palace.



Telemachus takes his father to the palace as a beggar and tells his mother what little he was able to learn on his journey.  The suitors further sully their souls by ridiculing the beggar they believe Odysseus to be and refusing to even give him scraps from their usurped table.  The beggar is, however, recognized by his faithful dog Argos, who dies soon after greeting him. 



The suitors continue their ill treatment of Odysseus, who gains some revenge from beating one of them to a pulp.  At the reprimand of Telemachus, they retire for the evening.


Book XIX

Our hero and his son lay the groundwork for their siege of the suitors while the “old beggar” converses with Penelope.  Whether she knows his identity or not, it is obvious that she mourns the absence of her husband and, at wit’s end, is about to devise another test for the suitors, one that falls in well with the schemes of her husband and child.  Meanwhile, Odysseus is recognized by his former nurse whom he swears to silence. 


Book XX

Odysseus is encouraged by signs and omens from the gods, but the day is a foul one, filled with continued abuses.


Book XXI

Penelope challenges the suitor to draw the great bow of her husband and with it shoot an arrow straight through 12 axe heads.  Telemachus shows great cunning in managing the details of the test, at which the suitors predictably fail.  After ensuring the loyalty of two men servants, Odysseus suggests that he might be offered a chance to compete.  The suitors resist, are chastised by Penelope, who is then seconded and overcome by Telemachus.  The “old beggar” draws the bow with ease, shoots straight through the axe heads and prepares to slaughter the usurpers. 



In a violent and bloody debacle, Odysseus, Telemachus, and the loyal servants massacre the suitors, force the whoring maids to clean up the mess, and then hang the hapless women.  The scene closes with the ritual purification of the banquet hall.



Euryclea, Odysseus’ nurse, informs her mistress that the suitors have been slain.  With a few paltry tests of his courage and cunning now successfully overcome, Odysseus must face his last, greatest challenge:  his wife.  When Penelope suggests that this beggar who claims to be her husband should sleep in his “own” bed, moved to another chamber, he protests that the bed cannot be moved, thereby revealing the secret of their marriage and winning back her heart and her mind.  The two retire together and spend the long night making love and telling stories, to their hearts’ content.



Back in Hades, the spirits of the suitors meet many of the same shades discovered there by Odysseus, to whom these ruthless cowards cannot hold a candle.  Odysseus is reunited with his father, confronts those who would avenge the death of the suitors, and is pacified by his guardian Athena, who bids the townspeople peace.