Why did Homer start the book with Telemachus instead of Odysseus?
I was wondering why he couldn't just start the story with Odysseus. Did he do it cause he felt like it or is there some kind of meaning behind it?
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Homer starts both his poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, in medias res. This is a Latin term which means, literally, "in the middle of things." In The Iliad Homer begins things in the tenth year of the Trojan War, when a lot of things have already happened (the abduction of Helen, the mustering of the Achaians, the launching of the ships, the first nine years of the war). He begins it with a relatively minor coastal raid, which ends up in a major dispute between the army's commander, Agammemnon, and the army's greatest hero Achilles. Homer does this for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the main reason is that it is a very effective dramatic technique. The story doesn't have to begin with the interesting (but, one could say, relatively less exciting) story of Paris seducing Helen away from Menelaus in Sparta, and bringing her back to Troy, but instead the heightened drama of the end of a long war which is coming to a major crisis. All the other stories which set up the actual beginning of the poem are told in flashback. Part of this was poetic technique; part of this was Homer understanding his audience. The majority of Greek hearers of this poem would have known all the stories leading up to the Trojan War in complete detail -- there was no need to explain things to this audience, merely to entertain them.
But what does this have to do with beginning The Odyssey with four books (called The Telemacheia by scholars) about the title character's son, Telemachus? We come upon Telemachus and his mother Penelope in a time of deepening crisis, much like Agammemnon and Achilles' feud in The Iliad. The main problem for Telemachus has already happened when the book starts; he is plagued by suitors invading his house, pestering his mother to choose a husband, and eating up all his food and drinking his wine. When we find Telemachus things are only getting worse, however, with no solution to the problem in sight. The suitors have become restive, and it has been twenty years since Odysseus has left his kingdom of Ithaca. Telemachus is now a man, and can feel his pride hurt by the suitor's arrogance. For a very long time there has been no news of his father, so Telemachus resolves to set out to find out if there is any chance that his father is still alive. All the rest of what came before (the Trojan War, the Greeks' victory, Odysseus' departure from Troy and his many subsequent adventures) is told as something that happened in the past, further revealing the critical nature of what is happening right now. It is an extremely effect dramatic way of storytelling, and has been imitated many times in the centuries since Homer wrote. It also puts before the reader the goal for Odysseus: his home and his family. Therefore the tribulations of Odysseus on his journey home become all the more dramatic and meaningful for the readers, for they know that not only has Odysseus something good to come home to, but he also needs to come quickly to write some horrible wrongs going in Ithaca. Beginning at Odysseus' home, with a story about his family, creates the dramatic tension which binds the whole poem together.
Source: Homer, The Odyssey. Rodney Merrill, trans. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2006.
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