Books 8–11 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1261
King Alcinous throws a great feast for Odysseus, who has not yet revealed his identity. At the feast, the bard Demodocus sings the tale of the infamous quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles, which took place during the Trojan War. Odysseus weeps to hear this, but only King Alcinous notices.
To provide entertainment, the young men of Scheria engage in athletic competitions such as foot-racing and wrestling in the meeting grounds. Laodomas, son of King Alcinous, invites Odysseus to compete in the discus-throwing competition. When Odysseus declines, the athlete Euryalus insults his manliness and skills in combat. Odysseus takes offense at this and joins the competition, throwing his discus much farther than anyone else.
Once more, the bard Demodocus entertains the feasting party. He sings the tale of the god Hephaestus, who finds out that his wife, Aphrodite, is having an affair with Ares and so crafts a net to ensnare the two, thus humiliating them in the sight of the other gods of Olympus. Next, Odysseus asks Demodocus to tell the tale of the Achaeans and the Trojan horse. Odysseus then weeps again, prompting King Alcinous to ask him to reveal his identity and why he seems so saddened by tales of the Trojan War.
Odysseus reveals that he is Odysseus of Ithaca, son of Laertes and hero of the Trojan War, famous among gods and men for his cunning. He then begins to recount his travails after the Achaean victory at Troy.
After the war, Odysseus and his twelve ships sailed to Ismarus, the city of the Cicones, where his men viciously raided and pillaged against his orders. When the Ciconian forces retaliated, Odysseus lost many men. Next, Odysseus and his ships were blown off course to the land of the Lotus-Eaters. There, some of his men ate the enchanted lotus plants and lost all desire to return home. They had to be dragged and forced back onto the ships.
Odysseus and his ships then came upon the land of the Cyclops, a race of giants. Odysseus took twelve of his men and entered the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus, where Odysseus decided they should wait to see if Polyphemus would give them gifts. Polyphemus, however, imprisoned them there and devoured some of Odysseus’s men. Eventually, Odysseus devised a plan and escaped with his surviving men, blinding Polyphemus in the process. As they sailed away from the island, Odysseus shouted to Polyphemus that it was he, Odysseus of Ithaca, who had outwitted him. Polyphemus then implored his father, Poseidon, to curse Odysseus and his journey homeward.
Odysseus and his men landed on the island of Aeolus, master of the winds. After entertaining Odysseus and his men for a month, Aeolus gifted Odysseus with an ox-skin pouch of winds in order to speed his journey homeward. However, Odysseus’s men suspected that there were hidden riches inside the pouch and opened it while Odysseus was sleeping, releasing all the winds at once. Thus Odysseus’s ships were blown backward, undoing all the progress they had made.
Next, they encountered the cannibalistic giants the Laestrygonians, who brutally attacked and devoured Odysseus’s men. Odysseus’s ship was the only one to escape and landed on the island of Aeaea, home of the goddess Circe. When some of Odysseus’s men stumbled into Circe’s palace, Circe gave them an enchanted draught which erased their memories. She then transformed them into swine. Odysseus was visited by Hermes, who warned him about Circe and gave him moly, a the magical plant, for protection. Because of the moly, Odysseus remained immune to Circe’s enchanted draught, and at his request, Circe transformed his crew back into men.
Circe entertained Odysseus and his men for almost a year until Odysseus finally asked her permission to leave. Circe granted Odysseus’s request but informed him that he must first travel to the Land of the Dead and speak with the blind prophet Tiresias before journeying homeward.
Before they left for the Land of the Dead, one of Odysseus’s men, Elpenor, drunkenly fell from Circe’s roof and died, unbeknownst to his shipmates.
Odysseus and his men reach the entrance to the Land of the Dead. Following Circe’s instructions, Odysseus sacrifices an animal in order to summon the spirits of the dead. The first spirit to approach him is that of Elpenor, who implores Odysseus to give his body the proper burial rites when they return to Aeaea. Next, Odysseus speaks with the spirit of the prophet Tiresias, who informs him that he has been cursed by Poseidon for blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus. Tiresias also warns Odysseus of the trials to come, which include the island of the sun god Helios and what awaits him on Ithaca.
After speaking with Tiresias, Odysseus converses with many other spirits, including his mother, Anticleaia; King Agamemnon; and Achilles.
Although told in retrospect, the events of books 9 to 12 are the most widely known in The Odyssey. This includes Odysseus’s encounter with the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops Polyphemus, and the goddess Circe, who transforms his men into swine.
In Book 9, Odysseus recounts his first misfortune after leaving Troy. On Ismarus, Odysseus’s men disobey him and aggressively plunder the Ciconian people, marking the first of many instances in which the disobedience of Odysseus’s men impedes their journey homeward. The second instance is when his men open Aeolus’s ox-skin pouch, undoing the great distance Odysseus’s ships were able to cover because of it. In both instances, Odysseus’s men are motivated by greed. Greed, in The Odyssey, is consistently portrayed as a moral defect which leads to sorrow and misfortune. In fact, the main conflict of the epic is how Odysseus must reckon with the greedy and ignoble suitors who have overrun his estate in his absence. Odysseus himself exhibits greed in book 9, as he ventures into Polyphemuss’ cave with his men in search of food or treasure. He also does this out of curiosity, and it is this greed for knowledge which leads to the death of some of his men at the hands of Polyphemus.
The land of the Cyclops serves as foil to Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians. In contrast to the hospitable, pleasure-loving Phaeacians, the Cyclops are depicted as heathens who have no respect for the laws of gods and men. When Odysseus asks Polyphemus to show him and his men hospitality, as is customary, the Cyclops scoffs at the notion. Polyphemus is a perversion of the hospitality so venerated in Homer’s universe, as instead of feeding his guests, he feeds on them.
Odysseus defeats Polyphemus with his cunning, disguising himself as “nobody.” This is one of the many deceptions Odysseus successfully carries out. In fact, deception and dissimulation are his main strengths, and he uses precisely these two to defeat Penelope’s suitors toward the end of The Odyssey.
In book 10, Odysseus is compelled to woo and make love to Circe in order for the goddess to show him and his men hospitality. This emphasizes the portrayal of hospitality as possessing a dual nature, as Odysseus is as much a hostage as he is a guest.
Finally, many of the events of book 11 serve to tie up the loose ends of The Iliad, as Odysseus meets with heroes from the Trojan War such as King Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax. King Agamemnon’s unfortunate demise at the hands of his unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra, is also recounted once more, mirroring Odysseus’s doubts concerning his own wife, Penelope.