Book I Summary:
The narrator calls upon the Muse to help him tell the story of Odysseus. We pick up ten years after the fall of Troy in the Trojan War (the subject of The Iliad). In trying to return home, Odysseus and his shipmates had numerous adventures, but now Odysseus has been left alone on the island of Ogygia for the last eight years, captive of the beautiful goddess Calypso. We are told that Poseidon, god of the sea, will make Odysseus' journey home to Ithaca even more difficult (he is angry that Odysseus has blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus), and trouble awaits the conquering hero back in Ithaca, too.
In the hall of Zeus on Mount Olympos, all the gods but Poseidon gather and listen as Zeus reflects upon the moral failings of mortal men. He brings up the example of Aigisthos, who killed Agamemnon and stole his wife, though the gods warned him that Agamemnon's son, Orestes, would someday retaliate - which he justly did. Athena speaks on behalf of Odysseus, pleading with Zeus to free him from Calypso's grasp. He agrees, and the god Hermes will be sent to Calypso to ask her to free Odysseus.
In disguise as an old friend of Odysseus', Athena travels to his manor in Ithaca, now overrun with noisy, lustful suitors intent on marrying Odysseus' wife, Penelope. Odysseus' son, Telemachus, unhappy among the suitors, greets Athena warmly as a stranger and invites her to their feast. As the suitors devour Odysseus' oxen, Telemachus says he believes his father - whom he does not know at all - is dead. Athena introduces herself as Odysseus' old friend Mentes and predicts that he will be home soon. He does not hold out any hope, however, and he and his mother remain helpless against the arrogant suitors. Athena instructs him to call an assembly of the islanders and order the suitors away; then he must sail away to find news of his father at Pylos and Sparta. After this, he must kill the suitors, as Orestes did. Inspired, Telemachus thanks her for her advice, and she leaves.
The beautiful Penelope joins the suitors and asks the minstrel to stop singing the song of the homecoming of the Achaeans (Greeks) after the Trojan War, as it reminds her of her husband's absence. But Telemachus reminds her that many others did not return from the war. She returns to her room and weeps for Odysseus. Telemachus tells the suitors that at daybreak he will call an assembly and banish them from his estate. Two of the suitors ask about the identity of the man Telemachus was speaking to; though he knows the visitor was immortal, Telemachus tells them it was a family friend.
The story of The Odyssey starts "in medias res" ("in the middle of things"), relating in brief exposition the background before jumping into the present narrative. Homer's contemporary audience would have already been familiar with the story of The Iliad, whose events precede The Odyssey, so there is no need to waste time reminding them of it. Remember that the poem was delivered orally, so an audience member could not skip through the opening pages at his leisure.
More importantly, Homer kick-starts the narrative engine, and already in Book I we see various plot machinations at work and an emphasis placed on internal stories, which often have a thematic impact on the major story. For instance, the story of Agamemnon parallels that of Odysseus. Odysseus, too, has a wife besieged by suitors and a son who, logically, dislikes them. But Agamemnon's story turned negative: the suitor killed him and married his wife, though his son, Orestes, avenged his death. The story, then, raises questions for The Odyssey: will Penelope remain faithful or marry the suitors? Will the suitors kill Odysseus, or will he murder them? And will Telemachus challenge and kill the suitors, as Athena has instructed, or meekly let them run riot in his father's house?
This last question is especially pertinent to the opening books, as we see Telemachus mature from a callow, helpless youth into a stronger, more confident man. Just as Odysseus' story is about returning home to his old identity, Telemachus' is about forging a new one; as Athena tells him, "you are a child no longer" (344).
Themes prevalent in the rest of the poem show up here. Athena enters the manor in disguise, and the cunning Odysseus, especially, uses disguises or false identities throughout The Odyssey to achieve his goals. And though Penelope is presented as a faithful wife, women in The Odyssey, such as Calypso, are often fearsome and predatory, their wiles typically enhanced by their stunning beauty.
Book II Summary:
At daybreak, Telemachus calls an assembly of the suitors and other islanders. He tells them of the suitors' disgraceful behavior and angrily tries to shame them into leaving. But Antinous puts the blame on Penelope, who has been teasing and deceiving the suitors for years, as when she promised to marry after she wove a shroud for her dead husband's father, Laertes. The cunning Penelope unwove each day's progress at night for three years (her trick was eventually discovered, and she had to finish the shroud). Antinous, one of the suitors, gives Telemachus a choice: evict his mother, or make her marry one of them. Telemachus rejects his offer, telling the suitors to leave and begging aid from Zeus.
Zeus quickly sends down two eagles to attack the suitors - an omen of death - but the suitors deny the sign and insist things will remain as they are; they have been waiting too long for the prize of Penelope. Telemachus changes his tack, requesting a ship and crew for him to find news of his father at Pylos and Sparta; if he finds out he is dead, he will allow his mother to remarry. Before the assembly breaks, it is decreed that Odysseus' old friends, Mentor and Halitherses, will help him obtain the ship and crew.
Telemachus calls upon the god who helped him yesterday. Athena returns to him in the form of Mentor, praises his abilities derived from his father, and assures him that his voyage will be successful. She promises to find him a ship and crew and help him sail, and tells him to get provisions ready at home. There, Antinous tries to make amends and offers to help him get a ship and crew, but Telemachus coldly rejects him. The suitors mock him while he readies himself for the trip, careful not to let his mother know about his plans.
Meanwhile, Athena walks around town disguised as Telemachus, inviting men to meet up at nightfall at a ship she has borrowed. At night, Athena makes the suitors fall asleep and, in the form of Mentor, informs Telemachus of the arrival of his crew. She leads him to his ship, his crew packs up their provisions, and they disembark with Athena on board. They drink to the gods, especially Athena.
This brief book continues Telemachus' development from youth to man. Inspired by Athena, especially her favorable comparisons between him and his father, he stands up against the suitors in his assembly. Though they do not heed his - or Zeus' - warnings, he has at least given them something to think about, and there will clearly be a reckoning once he returns.
To drum home the point of his maturation, Homer frequently refers to Telemachus as his father's son, as in "Odysseus' true son" (2) or the "son of Odysseus" (36). He has assumed the forceful identity and leadership of his father, as Athena maintains, and is no longer a mere child.
In fact, this tag of "son of Odysseus" nearly becomes what is known as the "Homeric epithet" for Telemachus. Homer frequently precedes someone's name with the same short phrase, such as "grey-eyed daughter of Zeus" for Athena.
Note that the Homeric epithet is different from Homer's unparalleled use of simile, the most famous and recurring example being a variation on (in the opening of Book II, for example) "When primal Dawn spread on the eastern sky / her fingers of pink light" (1-2). Aside from the beautiful language and rhythm, evident even in translation, Homer personifies Dawn ("her fingers") and adds breathing vitality even to forces of nature - unsurprising for a story that often pivots around natural (or supernatural) disaster.
We see more use of disguise in Athena's multiple visits, and Penelope is also identified as being cunning. Though this should be a compliment, the suitors try to cast Penelope's cunning as deception, reinforcing the theme of women as predatory.
Book III Summary:
Telemachus and his crew arrive at Pylos, where a sacrifice to Poseidon of dozens of bulls is taking place. Athena encourages the shy Telemachus to seek out old Nestor. He and his men are invited to feast and pay tribute to Poseidon. Athena prays to Poseidon for the success of their mission. After they eat, Telemachus tells Nestor, who fought alongside and was a great friend to Odysseus during the Trojan War, that he is seeking information about his father. Nestor does not know what befell Odysseus; after Ilion (Troy) fell, Athena provoked a fight between the brothers Menelaos and Agamemnon and divided the Achaeans into two camps; those under command of the former left, while the latter stayed. Odysseus left, but he and his crew soon returned to please Agamemnon. Nestor and his crew made it back home, as did a few other groups, but many did not.
Telemachus laments his situation with the suitors, and Nestor suggests Odysseus may return, or perhaps Athena will help him, as she used to do with his father. Telemachus does not believe the gods will aid him, and even if they did it would be to no avail; Athena disagrees. Telemachus asks Nestor how Aigisthos managed to kill Agamemnon. Nestor says that while Agamemnon and Menelaos were away fighting, Aigisthos eventually won over Agamemnon's queen, Klytaimnestra. He ruled over Agamemnon's kingdom as a tyrant for seven years before Orestes killed him and Klytaimnestra.
Nestor warns Telemachus not to make the same mistake and stay away from home too long. He urges him to find Menelaos for more news, and offers to provide him with horses, a chariot, and his sons for company. Athena praises this idea, and then disappears as a sea hawk. The men are stunned, and the proof that the gods are on Telemachus' side inspires Nestor, who pledges a sacrifice to Athena. In the morning, he and his sons make the sacrifice of a golden-horned heifer, and his son, Peisistratos, accompanies Telemachus in a chariot. They arrive at Pherai at night, then Lakedaimon the next day, and continue to their final destination of Sparta.
The ancient Greeks' reverence for the gods is abundantly evident here - not one, but two sacrifices are made to Poseidon and Athena, respectively. Fortunately for historians, Homer details the actions and reactions of the ritual sacrifice of the heifer. The Fitzgerald translation cleverly suggests, through internal rhyme, the cause-and-effect of the sacrifice after the heifer's neck is cut: "The heifer's spirit failed. / Then all the women gave a wail of joy" (438-9). The conjunction of "failed" and "wail" reveals the deep emotional nature of the sacrifice; as the animal is brutally killed for the gods, the humans temporarily feel god-like ecstasy.
Sacrifices also are pivotal to the plot of The Odyssey, for punishment awaits he who does not pay proper respect to the gods; we already know that Poseidon has wreaked havoc on Odysseus for blinding his son, Polyphemus. Athena reminds Telemachus of the power of the gods, and it is impossible to underestimate the influence of the gods in Greek culture and mythology: the Greeks believed everything was fated by the gods, so it is vital to be on their good side.
But the ancient Greeks - and most modern ones, too - are equally hospitable to mortal strangers. Telemachus is kindly taken in and provided for by Nestor's family, and such hospitality from hosts, and gratefulness from guests, is demonstrated throughout The Odyssey. Of course, the inverted image of such hospitality is taking place in Telemachus' home; he gives everything to the suitors, and they repay him with sneers and murderous plans.
Indeed, the suitors remain on Telemachus' mind, which is clearly why he asks about Orestes and his mission of vengeance. Telemachus is slowly picking up the knowledge and courage necessary to tackle his enemies.
Book IV Summary:
Telemachus and Peisistratos arrive at Menelaos' opulent mansion in Lakedaimon. Menelaos welcomes them to the double wedding feast taking place for both his son and daughter. After the travelers are bathed and fed, Menelaos tells them of his grief for his mates who died at Troy - especially Odysseus. Helen, wife of Menelaos, emerges from her chamber and says their visitor must be Telemachus. Peisistratos confirms this, and says that Nestor sent them for help from Menelaos. Menelaos gives a moving speech about his feelings for Odysseus, inspiring tears in them all; Peisistratos is particularly affected, remembering his brother Antilokhos who died at Troy. Helen puts a magical libation in the wine bowl that prevents the drinker from crying that day. She encourages everyone to cheer up, and tells a story about Odysseus' disguising himself as a beggar during the war. Menelaos recounts the famous anecdote of how Odysseus hid himself and his men inside a wooden horse to invade Troy. Everyone retires to bed.
The next morning, Telemachus tells Menelaos about his problems with the suitors and asks if he has news of Odysseus. The king is indignant at the behavior of the suitors and hopes Odysseus can mete out their punishment. He tells of how, on his return from Troy, his men were stranded on an island without any wind. They managed to capture Proteus, the Ancient of the Sea. Proteus told them that if they made a sacrifice to the gods, they could continue home. He also told him about Agamemnon's murder, and that Odysseus is a prisoner on Calypso's island.
Telemachus and Peisistratos return to Pylos to sail for Ithaca. Meanwhile, in Ithaca, the suitors find out about Telemachus' journey to Pylos and plan to ambush him on his way home. Penelope learns of their plans and Telemachus' journey, and grieves. She calls for help from Athena, who visits her in a dream as Penelope's sister. She assures Penelope she will protect Telemachus, though she cannot tell her anything about Odysseus.
A formal device used throughout The Odyssey, the story-within-a-story, grows even more complicated in this book. At one point we receive a story-within-a-story-within-a-story as Homer tells us a story about Menelaos' story about Proteus' story. The Russian-doll authorship is, firstly, an innovative way to repeat expositional information the audience already knows but another character does not; we have already heard about Agamemnon's murder at the hands of Aigisthos, and we know about Odysseus' imprisonment on Calypso's island. Second, The Odyssey gains what literary criticism refers to as "intertextuality"; it becomes connected to other stories with which the Greek audience was quite familiar, and assumes a life of its own. But couching the information in multiple layers also keeps the story fresh, and points to the overall importance of storytelling in Greek culture - Telemachus tells Menelaos he could listen to his fascinating tales forever.
Even more important to Greek culture is the custom of hospitality, or "xenia" (Zeus was the god of xenia). As others have done before, Menelaos takes in his visitors without even questioning them, and his generosity outdoes the hospitality of Nestor in Book III. Once again, we are meant to focus on the differences of hospitality between Telemachus and the suitors. While Telemachus is always grateful to his hosts, the suitors abuse his hospitality, and now plan to kill him.
The repeated mention of Orestes' murder of his father's usurper is another reminder that Telemachus is in a similar situation. While he was ill equipped to confront the suitors at the beginning of the poem, his own mini-odyssey to Pylos and beyond has transformed him. As he has learned about his unknown father's courage, it seems to have rubbed off on him.
His father was more than merely courageous, we keep learning. Odysseus' cleverness is illustrated in two stories, and both revolve around the idea of costumes or disguise (the Trojan Horse can be considered a kind of costume). Moreover, the story of his disguise as a beggar foreshadows the end of the story.