I end my version of the Odyssey with a song called “Water” in which I repeat the following line three times:
You have brought me here to…
This reprises the end of Song 13, “I Can Feel You,” which marks the halfway point of my piece.
Song 13 also ends with an ellipsis but leads right into Song 14, “Home,” the implication being that Song 14 finishes the thought from the end of song 13.
“Water” has no such song following it and so my piece ends in some ways unresolved.
When this comes up in discussion as it often does I’m happy to point out that Homer himself relied on one of the hackiest of literary techniques, the deus ex machina, to end his Odyssey and many readers throughout history have found his ending fundamentally unsatisfying.
Some believe that Homer’s version at one point ended in book 23, with Odysseus and Penelope falling asleep together for the first time in 20 years after making love and talking all night.
But as clunky as book 24 is, I think it is important that the poet shows us a glimpse of what life might look like as Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus try to piece back together a family that has been broken for 20 years, has really never been whole given that Telemachus was an infant when Odysseus left.
For one, there’s no “happily ever after.” Odysseus’ homecoming and the choices he has made in how to approach it have consequences that rear their heads immediately. The slaughter of the Suitors and the slave girls generates a new kind of strife to be dealt with, and I’d imagine there would be other ripples in the social order that would come with a long-absent king reinserting himself into the social fabric of a populace.
Following my performance at Catholic Memorial High School in Boston, the question of my ending and what happens next came up and I talked around these points for a bit. The show was excellent: about 80 kids in the Scholars Program and their teachers. The discussion with the kids was great and there was an added additional feedback session with just the teachers, which was really engaging and a nice bonus.
A nor’easter storm was brewing outside as I hurried to my car and tried to get back to my hotel before the weather turned really nasty.
There’s often one question that sticks with me a little louder after a performance and I couldn’t stop thinking about some of the indications that Odysseus' reintegration into Ithaca is going to be challenging.
One outlier would be what happens to Agamemnon when he gets home: his wife and her lover conspire to kill him. We can rule that out for Odysseus but it’s a definite warning that making it home does not insure a happy life.
A more apt comparison might be what we see going on with Helen and Menelaus in book 4: Menelaus is the second to last Greek hero to make it home (having been home only about 2 years) and what are he and Helen doing? Bickering in front of company to the point where they have to literally take drugs to stop their bickering.
Another challenge would likely be the mindset of a coming-of-age Telemachus. We see him pine to know of his father but when his father shows up, their interactions hint that maybe Telemachus won’t be immediately comfortable with a stranger suddenly being present as an authority in his life. Witness the difference in how Telemachus interacts with Eumaeus (who has likely filled the role of father for Telemachus in Odysseus’ absence) in contrast with his interactions with Odysseus. It will take some time before father and son have anything approaching a normal relationship. (In Daniel Mendelsohn’s wonderful An Odyssey memoir, he and his students do a beautiful job dissecting the Odysseus-Telemachus father-son dynamic.)
And that’s to say nothing of what Odysseus and Penelope’s relationship will look like. Will Odysseus’ infidelities come to full light? There are traditions that have him fathering a number of children during his travels who figure into his future. Penelope was probably around 14 when he left and is therefore 34 when he returns. Her child-bearing years are well over and by Ancient Greek standards she is well past her prime.
It’s a beautiful and powerful gesture that the poet has the reunited Odysseus and Penelope make love that first night. It suggests I think that whatever changes both of them have undergone over 20 years, and whatever issues there will be in putting their relationship back together, there is still a strong connection.
I pulled back into my hotel just as the first snowflakes started to fall.
I thought about home and the challenges of coming home after even just a week of being away in a time when communication is as easy as looking at a device in your hand.
I thought about Penelope’s response to Odysseus telling her that he would eventually have to leave again to fulfill the prophecy told by Tiresias in the Underworld. She says (essentially)"Then there's hope that someday you'll find peace," a jaw-dropping and beautiful sentiment from a woman who just suffered two decades on her own.
I heard that last line in my head:
You have brought me here to…
I finished it with:
"The Ramada Inn in south Boston," smiled to myself, and hustled through the snow to the warm hotel.