Telemachos in “The Odyssey”: the Original Coming-of-Age Story

7 09 2010

In today’s Socratic Circles, consider the following questions:

1) What does the phrase “coming of age” mean in both the ancient and the modern context? What does it entail to “come of age”?

2) Recall and discuss coming-of-age stories in fiction, non-fiction and film.

3) Read the article, “Telemachos in The Odyssey: the Original Coming-of-Age Story” below. Identify ideas you may agree or disagree with.

4) Construct a big idea for the Socratic Circle discussion.

Telemachos in The Odyssey: the Original Coming-of-Age Story”

In Homer’s epic masterpiece, The Odyssey, many aspects of human life are examined, but, perhaps, the most closely inspected aspect is the personal journey. The hero of the story, Odysseus, and his son, Telemachos, are focused on especially in this regard, with the first four books concerning Telemachos’ journey, and the remaining depicting Odysseus’. However, if examined closely, it is obvious that the two journeys are parallel. This being the case, one could infer that Telemachos’ journey, a journey to his coming of age, is so closely paralleled with Odysseus’ heroic journey, so as to have enough of the heroic in it to establish Telemachos as the mini-hero of one of, if not the, Western world’s first coming of age stories.

In order to make this argument, however, a person must first establish some basic facts: first, that Odysseus is the hero of the story, for if he is not the hero, then his parallel to Telemachos actually hurts Telemachos’s character rather than helping him. Second, that the two journeys of father and son are clearly paralleled, and that as such both are heroic. Then with these two facts established, one must only prove that Telemachos’ journey is actually a type of coming of age story and a sort of predecessor, or even father to, the modern, Western, coming of age novels and stories. Thus, to begin, one should discuss the idea of Odysseus being the hero, since it is the basis of the rest of the argument. That being said, one should ask oneself the question, is Odysseus the hero of the poem?

Of course many might take this for a given, however, it should not necessarily be taken as such. For example, there are many legitimate and well-grounded arguments that point to Penelope as the real hero of the story. After all, does she not suffer as much as Odysseus or Telemachos? Does she not prove herself by beating Odysseus at the end of the poem at his own mental games? In fact, she does do all of these things, and is clearly a hero in her own respects; however, I would argue she is not the main hero of the poem, if for no other reason, than that for the most part the poem centers around Odysseus and not Penelope. Further, the poem even begins with Homer invoking the Muse to sing to him “of the man of many ways”(p27, line 1) who was “struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions” (p27, line 5). Right away Homer sets him up as the traditional Greek hero. Odysseus is a very remarkable man who is looking out for the good of his fellow men and looking for the hero’s homecoming, and the end to his heroic journey. So, it is clear that the poem focus’ on Odysseus as the main hero of the story, although, that point on its own does not actually do much good for the argument of Telemachos as a heroic character until it is combined with the next point, that is that Odysseus is a positive hero and not a anti-hero of sorts.

The idea of Odysseus as a positive hero should be one easy to prove. For, although, Odysseus has his faults, and almost gives in to temptation a few times, he always ends up coming through his trails without tainting his heroic image. He is the traditional Greek hero, which is a positive hero. He sought out reason and order, he was resourceful, mentally superior to everyone in the poem, with the possible exception of Penelope, and he was constantly referred to as “god-like Odysseus,” all of which are traditional Greek heroic qualities. Further, his main goal was to achieve his homecoming, the ultimate realization for a Greek hero who has been away on his journey. It also speaks to Odysseus’ positive hero status that he alone of the three main Greek heroes of Troy, unlike Achilles or Agamemnon, makes it back to his home (p79, lines 529-537). Thus, when, at long last Odysseus’ makes his homecoming, he becomes the lone Greek hero from the Trojan War to complete the hero’s journey, which has in it the aspect of return to the hero’s people and home. Odysseus’ is clearly then not only a positive hero, but one whom, perhaps, even surpasses the other heroes he battled with in the Trojan War.

Now, since the points have been made that Odysseus is not only the main hero of the poem, but also an extremely positive one, it becomes time to turn the attention more towards Telemachos’ journey and the many parallels that Homer gives us between this coming of age journey and Odysseus’ heroic journey. Perhaps the easiest place to begin here would be at Telemachos’ decision to finally leave his house and go out to ask about his father so that “he might come back/ and all throughout the house might cause the suitors to scatter, / and hold his rightful place and be lord of his own possessions” (p30, lines 115-117). This decision marks the beginning of Telemachos’ journey, as well as the beginning of all heroic journeys, that is by leaving the comfort of home to search out adventure, or metaphorically, leaving the comfort of the mother and the womb, to go seek out the father.

Along these same lines, comes our first parallel: the power of both Telemachos and Odysseus to overcome the temptation to remain in a comfortable world where there is no risk. Telemachos overcomes this temptation, as mentioned before, by deciding to go out and search out his father. Odysseus in a parallel manner faces this temptation on both Kalypso’s island and the land of the Phaiakians. Most likely, the clearest parallel is actually between Telemachos’ decision to leave the house where his mother is and Odysseus’ decision to finally leave Kalypso’s island, a place where the sensual life is overemphasized and Odysseus’ lives a sort of childlike sensual life within the “womb” that is the motherly Kalypso’s cavern (p90-95). Both then also take the initiative to do it their own way with Telemachos calling an assembly (p39, lines 6-14), and Odysseus insisting on building his own raft rather than having Kalypso use her powers to make one for him (p94-95, lines 225-261).

This same type of parallel is again shown between Odysseus’ resisting the temptation to stay in the land of the Phaiakians and Telemachos’ resisting the temptation to stay in the house of Menelaos. For Odysseus, the land of the Phaiakians, unlike the sensual land of Kalypso, represents a land of order that appeals to his Greek sense of reason and intellect. It is presented as a very lovely and orderly place where the “fruit trees are grown tall and flourishing” (p114, line 114) and even “there at the bottom strip of the field are growing orderly/ rows of greens, all kinds, and these are lush through the seasons” (p114, lines 127). In much the same way, in the house of Menelaos, Telemachos experiences his first truly fantastic and orderly household and is offered the opportunity to stay. Menelaos tells him, “Come, now, stay here with me in my palace/ until it is the eleventh day and even the twelfth day,/ and then I will send you well on your way, and give you glorious/ gifts…” (p80, lines 587-590). Again however, both of our heroes are able to resist the temptation to stay in a world of comfort and instead choose to continue with their respective journeys.

The final parallel shows then when both end up making their homecoming, as heroes, and father and son restore order to their household by together running out the suitors and taking their proper roles as king and prince. Thus, it becomes clear the parallels that Homer uses to connect Odysseus’ heroic journey to Telemachos’ coming of age journey. Since Homer makes this so clear for us, it is easy to infer that, since Telemachos’ coming of age journey is so closely related to Odysseus’ heroic journey, Telemachos’ journey to becoming a man, is, at least for Homer and the Greeks, a type of heroic journey in itself, and Telemachos therefore the mini-hero of at least the first four books of the poem.

The preceding points being brought to light, it remains only to be proven that Telemachos’ heroic coming of age journey, is actually a coming of age story. This argument also becomes obvious with a small amount of analysis of the first four books of the poem, which contain the largest part of Telemachos’ journey. To begin, one should first define what one means by coming of age story and then compare Telemachos’ story to that definition. A traditional coming of age story or

Bildungsroman would be as defined by the 9th edition of Princeton Hall’s A Handbook to Literature as “A novel that deals with the development of a young person, usually from adolescence to maturity.” In other words a story mainly concerned with an at least somewhat heroic character who grows up, that is goes from innocence to experience, and learns to live in the world and society he was born into in the best way that he can. If this definition is applied to Telemachos, it shows that Telemachos’ story is actually one of coming of age and a predecessor to many of the later Western coming of age novels. The sole difference is that the definition states that it is a “novel,” but there is no reason to think that a coming of age story could not be told in another form, especially in a time when the epic poem was the standard form of literature and the novel had not yet been invented. The rest of the definition is an accurate portrayal of what happens to Telemachos in The Odyssey. He leaves during the late years of his adolescence from the home of his mother to go out into the world. He then goes “asking after his father” and in the process learns from the houses he visits the way a great household should be conducted and how one should conduct oneself around company. Basically, his coming of age journey, teaches him how to live in the society he was born into properly, something he would not be able to do from the haphazard household that was his own with the suitors. Finally in the end, after he and Odysseus have both returned he is described as a man and a future king helping his father restore order to his household, for he is no longer a boy.

So, finally, one can see that due to the parallels Homer makes between Telemachos and Odysseus and their respective journeys, and the fact that this then shows Telemachos to be a hero in his own right, that, the first four books at least, are a heroic journey turned coming of age story with Telemachos as the hero. Further, since Telemachos is the main focus of these four books, and we have been shown his positive qualities through his parallels with his father, we can look at the definition of a modern Bildungsroman to show that Telemachos’ story is quite simply put, a predecessor and maybe even father to the modern coming of age novels of today like Catcher in the Rye and Great Expectations. For although the form may very well be different, and epic poem rather than a novel, the content is there, and Homer has added one more accomplishment to his achievements, the first Western coming of age story.

Works Cited

Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 9th edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Lattimore, Richard, trans. The Odyssey of Homer. New York: Harper, 1999.

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