Homer's Odyssey, Condensed by Prof. William Fenwick Harris 1920
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IT is the tenth year since Troy has fallen. Though the "Iliad" did not go beyond the death of Hector at Achilles's hands, other stories carried on the tale through the death of Achilles, the capture of Troy by the Greeks by means of the stratagem of the wooden horse, the sacking and burning of the city, the death of Priam and his queen, the slavery of Andromache which Hector had foreseen, the slaughter of the little son he loved so dearly, the escape of AEneas with his aged father.
After the booty had been divided, the Greek chiefs took leisurely courses to their homes. The great King Agamemnon sent his dramatic night letter, announcing to his queen at home by the light of flames leaping from hilltop to hilltop across the sea that Troy had fallen; for his pains he met the dramatic death at the hand of Queen Klytaimnestra which AEschylus has made forever famous in his great play, "Agamemnon"; the latter has in it the beginning of the story of Orestes, the close Greek counterpart of Hamlet. The king's brother, Menelaus, had better fortune; he had journeyed homeward with his erstwhile Queen Helen, as if the great Trojan episode had never been, and was reigning again in peace and quiet with The World's Desire by his side at Sparta, with no dread of a marauding Paris sent on the quest of beauty by Aphrodite. And so, too, the other princes had returned with varying fortunes.
But not so the Great Adventurer. Troy had taken ten years to capture; ten years more still found the wily Odysseus detained in the Isle of Ogygia by the fair Calypso. Meanwhile the patient Penelope bides at home, beset by the riotous suitors who make Liberty Hall of the absent king's palace and would force the queen to wed one of them. She, ever as alert and resourceful as her wandering lord, puts off her promise till she has woven a web of which she each night unravels what she has done during the day.
This first great story of wandering adventure has a much more perfect unity than the "Iliad." It centers closely about the person of Odysseus, and divides itself into three parts, the adventures of Telemachus in quest of Odysseus, the wanderings of the hero, and his return home, where with the few still faithful to him he makes himself his own detective, lays the scene for the destruction of the villains, and finally brings about the happy ending which has so constantly distressed critics of the novel and the theater since man began to write and ordinary folk to listen or to read.
In the first chapter, which comprises the first four "books" of the "Odyssey," young Telemachus, amidst the mockery of the suitors, starts in quest of his father and makes the rounds of the courts of our old friend Nestor, King of Pylos, and of Menelaus and Helen at Sparta, where he learns the whereabouts of his father, and then starts homeward.
At this moment it is at last made possible for Odysseus to start on his way home. But the sea, ever his enemy, again plays him false, and he is wrecked once more, though he is cast ashore on the land of the Phaeacians. There begins in the land of this fabulous folk one of the most marvelous adventures of the man of marvels. Probably the scene that remains in the minds of the great majority of readers of Greek literature as the fairest bit of idealized beauty in it all is the picture of the young Princess Nausicaa. She had gone down to the river mouth with her handmaidens to wash linen; their work done, they fell to playing ball upon the shore, where Odysseus, beneath the shade of the bushes, was sleeping off the weary travail of his long swim. "Then having bathed and anointed themselves sleekly with olive-oil, they took their meal by the banks of the river and waited for the clothes to dry in the bright rays of the sun. And when they had cheered
themselves with food, maids and mistress alike, they began to play at ball, casting aside their veils. And for them fair-armed Nausicaa began the song. As Artemis the archer-goddess goeth down from a mountain, either lofty Taygetus or Erymanthus, taking her sport with boars and swift deer, and with her the wood-nymphs sport, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus, and Leto rejoiceth in heart, and over all she holdeth head and brows, and easy to mark is she, though all be fair so was the unwed maid conspicuous among her attendants."
The day's work and the sport were over; they were about to depart and leave the weary sleeper under the bushes when one last throw sent the ball spinning into the water. Instant and unanimous scream from princess and from maids!
So Odysseus was introduced to Phaeacia, and the introduction proved well that the hero knew not only the ways of men, but of maids as well. Of the many pleasing things he said to the princess to win her favor, one stands out conspicuous his comparison of her perfect youth to the young shoot of a palm-tree he had seen in Delos. Whoever has a gardener's eye knows instantly the perfect tribute.
Then followed the presentation of the royal wanderer at the court of King Alcinous and Queen Arete and the tale of his adventures since leaving Calypso's isle. The king is moved and promises to help the stranger on his way. A feast is held; the court bard sings of Troy the stranger weeps; the king presses him to tell his story. It was a wondrous tale he had to tell, the like of which was never heard before or since. Beginning with the fall of Troy, he had made his course to Thrace, to the Lotus-eaters, to the land of the Cyclops, when befell the adventure with Polyphemus, whose one eye he put out; next the trying experience with the perverse winds of AEolus, with the Laestrygonians, and with the enchantress Circe, who turned her visitors into swine. Then came the descent to Hades, which set the fashion for Virgil and for Dante and all the others who have essayed that great adventure. The sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, and other adventures brought the tale up to Calypso once more.
Alcinous and the Phaeacians sent Odysseus on his way to his home at Ithaca. But his old enemy, Poseidon, turned the ship to stone, and the wanderer reached home alone, in the guise of an old beggarman, where he arrived as his son Telemachus was returning from his travels.
Then began the thrilling tale of the wiles and guiles to win his own from the suitors who had taken his place, the harbor of refuge with faithful old Eumaeus, the swineherd, the recognition by Telemachus, the death of the true old dog Argos on sight of his long-absent master, the interview with Penelope, the recognition by his old nurse who knows him by a scar upon his leg, the final great trial of strength between the old beggarman and the suitors; they cannot even bend the famous bow of Eurytus; he, however, strings it with ease and sends an arrow singing through the holes of twelve battle-axes, set up one behind another.
At that instant the beggarman throws off his disguise and, with Telemachus and only two faithful followers, slays the evil suitors, wins back his true wife who has waited patiently all these long years, and hastens to greet his old father Laertes.
Impossible romance? I dare say. Yet one of the most human stories ever told.
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