A Hero and His Son:
The Relationship of Odysseus and Telemachus

Jack H. David Jr.
SWT: ENG 3341
Summer II 1997

One of the most intriguing aspects of The Odyssey by Homer is the relationship between Odysseus and Telemachus, his son. The first four books of the epic poem are actually not about Odysseus at all, but about Telemachus. We are introduced to Telemachus, and learn something about his life. At first, the only things that we know about Odysseus are those things that directly concern Telemachus and his mother Penelope. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Odysseus himself. Eventually, the family is reunited, order is restored, and the story of Odysseus is complete. When father and son finally meet, we then understand the true relationship between the hero and his son; this is the "real story" of The Odyssey.

If Odysseus had been a "dead-beat dad," who had neglected his family because of his own selfishness, this would have been a very different story. Odysseus, however, has spent ten years fighting in the Trojan War, then ten years trying to get home. He has been absent from his family, not because he wanted to be, but because of circumstances beyond his control.

Telemachus has been forced to grow up without the influence of his father. Did he naturally develop into a valiant warrior simply because he was the son of Odysseus? Today, psychologists would call this the "nature vs. nurture" debate, i.e., the question over which is most influential in the development of one's personality, the person's genetic inheritance or that person's life experiences? It is generally believed that both nature and nurture affect the development of personality. Of course, the ancient Greeks placed a great deal of importance on a person's bloodline; they believed that the characteristics of noble blood would surface despite the lack of proper guidance. This is an important premise in the character of Telemachus.

In the timeline of The Odyssey, the "real time" begins in book 1, then continues until book 4; books 5-12 are a "flashback" of the adventures of Odysseus, then in book 13, we are returned to the original timeline, which continues until the end of the epic in book 24.

The most important part of The Odyssey is told in books 1-4 and 13-24; books 5-12 are necessary to rationalize the absence of Odysseus during which Telemachus grows up without the physical presence of a father. I find books 1-4 and 13-24 to be much more meaningful than the middle section, which is simply a series of tall tales about Odysseus contending with creatures of two basic types: fierce monsters that want to eat him, and the more subtle female type that want to entice him into a "long-term relationship." I am not quite sure which of these fates would be worse. Books 5-12 could have been "surgically removed" and replaced with an infinite number of other adventure stories, and the continuity of the real story would have been preserved.

In book 1, Telemachus is visited by Athene in disguise. The very fact that Athene would even bother with Telemachus indicates that he has the potential to achieve greatness, as his father has. He shows considerable understanding when he tells the disguised Athene about his missing father and the behavior of the suitors (5-b). When Athene "flew away like a bird," and Telemachus realizes that he has been visited by a god, he knew that he was not totally powerless. He "felt the change," which meant that he now knew that he could no longer just feel sorry for himself; he had to do something (7-b).

Telemachus is only about 20 years old; he was at that crucial age where he was no longer a child, but not yet a man. This time in a young manís life is difficult in the best of situations, but Telemachus was facing grim times indeed. He had never actually known his father, but he was expected to live up to his fatherís name nonetheless. At the advice of Athene, he tells the suitors that they are no longer welcome, and that even if Odysseus is dead, they will be dealing with Telemachus, the new master of the house. He declares, "I will be chief in my own house" (9-t). This was probably the first time that Telemachus had ever stood up to anyone in such a way. It was a very brave act, considering that the suitors could have killed him on the spot. It was as if he was telling them that not if but when he defeated them, they could not say that he did not warn them.

In book 2, Telemachus continues his new resolve by calling an open assembly in Ithaca to state his position publicly. The first paragraph of book 2 tells us that he carefully dressed himself in a manner consistent with that of a man, since he expected to be taken seriously (10-m). However, after boldly declaring his position, he "dashed his staff to the ground and burst into tears," which shows us the other side of his personality. He is, after all, new at this "tough guy" stance, and he will have moments of indecision, and self-doubt.

Telemachus then travels to visit Nestor in book 3, and then Menelaus in book 4, to try to get information regarding his missing father. These books expand the character of Telemachus, somewhat, and provide a link to The Iliad, the prequel to this epic. Several people comment that Telemachus is very much like his father, adding support to the idea that Telemachus has the potential to become a great man like his father.

After the lengthy flashback chapters, we return to the timeline in book 13. Books 13 and 14 are about the return of Odysseus to Ithaca and of his gradual insinuation into his own house. Athene disguises him as an old beggar so that he can carefully evaluate the situation with the suitors (144-b). In book 15, Athene again appears to Telemachus, this time in her true form. His faith that his father is indeed still alive and that he will return to Ithaca is renewed, and he returns home to wait for him (157-t).

Finally in book 16, father and son meet for the first time. At their first meeting Odysseus is in disguise; then Athene temporarily removes the disguise and Telemachus sees his father as he really is. After the initial moment of doubt, Telemachus "threw his arms around his father and wept" (173-m).

It is significant that Odysseus has trusted his son unconditionally with his identity and his plan for revenge against the suitors. Odysseus had never met his son; how did he know that Telemachus was up to such a challenge? Telemachus could have been a sniveling coward who would faint at the sight of blood, or worse yet, a traitor who would warn the suitors of Odysseus' plans. Apparently, Odysseus believes that since Telemachus was his son, that was a good enough reason to trust him. Of course, Athene made Odysseus aware of the true nature of Telemachus.

By the time we get to book 20, Odysseus is in his own house, disguised as a beggar. When one of the suitors throws a "heifer's foot" at Odysseus, Telemachus again rebukes the suitors, this time with considerable conviction, now that he knows that his father has returned. Telemachus tells him:

It is a good thing for you that the stranger turned his head so that you missed him. If you had hit him I should have run you through with my spear, and your father would have had to see about getting you buried rather than married in this house (221-b).

Now Telemachus is really beginning to act like his father!

After the test had been set up, in which the suitors would try to string the bow of Odysseus, Telemachus tried three times, but failed. Odysseus, by subtle gesture, warned Telemachus not to try a fourth time. Odysseus believed that Telemachus might succeed if he tried again, which again indicates that Odysseus indeed had faith in the potential of his son.

Telemachus again demonstrates his manhood by standing up to his mother (231-b). Even in these male dominated times, a boy would not give his own mother orders, but a man might. Telemachus may have been concerned about his mother's sensibilities; he did not want her to have to witness the carnage that was soon to occur. On the other hand, he considered this situation to be one that the men needed to deal with without female intervention.

Odysseus strings the bow and sends the arrow through the ax handles. When I read these words:

As he [Odysseus] spoke, he made a sign with his eyebrows, and Telemachus girded on his sword, grasped his spear, and stood armed beside his father's seat (233-m).

I clinched my fist, and exclaimed aloud: Yes! Of course the people at the bus stop looked at me as if I were crazy.

Thus far, Telemachus has shown his resolve, in that he has spoken boldly to people. But now is the true test; he can talk the talk, but can he walk the walk? After Odysseus kills two of the suitors with arrows, a third charges toward Odysseus with a sword...

...but Telemachus was too quick for him, and struck him from behind; the spear caught him between the shoulders and went right through his chest, so that he fell heavily to the ground and struck the earth with his forehead (235-b).

So now Telemachus has truly proven himself worthy to be called the son of Odysseus, at least by the established standards of manhood of the times.

Of course, this is fiction, and things do not necessarily happen this way in the real world. A boy that grows up without knowing his father may or may not inherit his father's traits. For that matter, a boy who is raised by his father may be nothing at all like his father. However, The Odyssey never claimed to be about the real world, but about an ideal world where the good guys win and sons make their fathers proud.