When does a boy become a man? This rite of passage is explored in Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Odysseus (king of Ithaca) fought in the Trojan War for ten years and after the fall of Troy he spent the next ten years trying to get home. He left behind an infant son, Telemachus, and a devoted wife, Penelope. Although they longed for Odysseus’ return, Penelope and Telemachus were the perfect hosts to wayward strangers – even as their estate became overrun with arrogant suitors – men intent on marrying Penelope and taking possession of the throne. Athena, goddess and daughter of Zeus, is instrumental in encouraging Telemachus to begin his journey to adulthood saying, “You must not cling to your boyhood any longer – / it’s time you were a man.” (1, 341 – 342).
Young Telemachus first encounters Athena, disguised as Mentes, son of Anchialus, while he was sitting among the suitors, suffering from a heavy heart and daydreaming about his father. He welcomes her into his home and Athena stirs emotion within Telemachus by saying, “You’re truly Odysseus’ son? You’ve sprung up so! / Uncanny resemblance… The head, and the fine eyes – / I see him now.” (1, 240 – 242). By acknowledging his resemblance to Odysseus, Athena rouses, within Telemachus, the strong emotions for the father he barely knows, and initiates the rising of inner strength that Telemachus must develop in order to confront his impending challenges. It is clear that Telemachus responds positively to Athena’s encouragement when he instructs his astonished mother to tend to her own tasks, declaring “As for giving orders, men will see to that, but I most of all: I hold the reins of power in this house.” (1, 412 – 414).
Telemachus, now displaying the initial signs of dignity and determination and living life with purpose for the first time, orders the suitors to return to their own homes. Unfortunately, respect has not yet been earned and his words are met with tenacity as the suitors blatantly refuse to leave, citing that his mother was leading them on with false hopes of marriage. Although Telemachus is beginning to show signs of maturity as he begins to develop strength and become self-possessed, the suitors insult and taunt him. It is also interesting to point out that his devoted nurse still sees him as a child and objects to his leaving when he informs her that he is going to search for his father. In spite of their responses, Telemachus remains determined to set out on his journey. Perhaps the achievement of maturity reaps the reward of recognition and respect and it is this, in addition to finding his father, which Telemachus seeks.
Before Telemachus’ journey commences, the gods assemble in Zeus’s halls, remembering the tale of Aegisthus, who was killed by Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, and Zeus states:
“Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share.”
(1, 37 – 40)
Like a child who blames others for their faults, Telemachus lacks the wisdom that comes with experience and age and blames Zeus for the doom that man faces. This could explain why throughout The Odyssey, the gods’ involvement remains apparent with every step of Telemachus’ journey – their actions and commentary important to the development of Telemachus’ character as well as to the lifeblood of the poem. Athena for example, guides Telemachus on his journey, but Telemachus is responsible for his own actions.
It is with Athena’s support that Telemachus reaches Pylos and meets Nestor, king of the Pylians and the oldest of the Achaean chieftains. Telemachus introduces himself to Nestor as lord Odysseus’ son and begs to hear the truth about his long-lost father. Nestor initially recalls his memories and recounts the war against the Trojans, before he acknowledges the resemblance of Telemachus to his cunning father. Nestor replies; “Your way with words – it’s just like his – I’d swear / no youngster could ever speak like you, so apt, so telling.” (3, 139 – 140). At which time, Helen, daughter of Zeus and wife of Menelaus, enters the room and gazes upon her husband’s visitors, her proclamation, directed to Telemachus, confirms Nestor’s beliefs:
… “My heart tells me
to come right out and say I’ve never seen such a likeness,
neither in man nor woman – I’m amazed at the sight.
To the life he’s like the son of great Odysseus,
surely he is Telemachus! The boy that hero left
a babe in arms…”
(4, 155 – 159)
This statement is very telling as it defines not only the appearance of the great Odysseus, but also the son he left behind. Furthermore, it begins to develop a timeline of actions by announcing that Odysseus left home when Telemachus was only a baby. Nestor recognizes that Odysseus’ appearance, vivacity, and personality are apparent in his progeny, Telemachus. This is encouraging to Telemachus as he hears that he resembles the great king Odysseus. As Telemachus presses for news of what has become of his father, Telemachus learns that his father may yet be alive and held captive by a goddess-nymph named Calypso. He then glorifies the strong will of Orestes and encourages Telemachus to do the same: “And you, my friend – / how tall and handsome I see you now – be brave, you too, / so men to come will sing your praises down the years.” (3, 226 – 227).
Just as The Odyssey focuses on Odysseus as a mighty soldier it also progressively hints that Telemachus will also be a great soldier in the near future, as the suitors plot Telemachus’ death. As Telemachus hears more about how he resembles king Odysseus, Telemachus’ sense of admiration for his father intensifies and his inner strength develops, albeit unbeknownst to him. As Telemachus is maturing he openly assumes the responsibilities worthy not only of the Prince of Athens, but also of a devoted son. His concerns grow for his mother and his home: “My house is being devoured, my rich farms destroyed, / my palace crammed with enemies, slaughtering on and on / my droves of sheep and shambling longhorn cattle.” (4, 356 – 358).
Telemachus learns, through each encounter with not only the comrades of his father but also of the gods, of Odysseus’ sheer cunning and wit. Regardless of what is happening around him, Telemachus remains thoughtful and considerate of others. For example, he invites the fugitive and godlike seer, Theoclymenus, to join his ship even as he approaches the Jagged Islands, unsure if he will face death. Telemachus commands the ship, shouting out commands to his shipmates. How far he has come from the young boy who sat among the suitors, watching them recklessly devour his cattle and destroy his home!
Telemachus is fascinating as he reaches maturity amidst mounting questions regarding the gods’ interest in the mortals. Steady, poised Telemachus, the gallant son of king Odysseus, becomes a man worthy of respect and admiration. He turns out to be well-rounded and respected by his peers and servants, not to mention by his father and mother. He fought side-by-side with the hero father he helped to bring home and slaughtered the suitors who once insulted and taunted him. Well-traveled and full of life experience, Telemachus left home a boy and came home a man.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans., Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.