August 22, 2000
“The Education of Telemachus”
Reed has begun its freshman Humanities 110 program for over 50 years with a reading of Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem about the anger of the young Greek hero Achilles, the glory and brutality of war, and ultimately the nature of life and death. It is not an easy poem to read, especially during the summer before starting college, with its seemingly endless list of oddly named Greek heroes and book after book of battle scenes. We have confidence, though, that in the first two weeks of the semester students will come to see some of its beauty and depth, and find that it serves as an effective introduction to the work of Humanities 110 during their first year, and to life and work at Reed generally. It has only been for the past three years that we have asked parents who wanted to to read Homer’s Odyssey over the summer and meet with Humanities faculty during orientation to discuss it. We have chosen the Odyssey for parent orientation for several reasons. First, we didn’t want parents and students to be fighting over the same copy of the Iliad that the Reed alumni association sent to you at the beginning of summer (!). Second, and more seriously, reading the Odyssey and attending a Hum conference to discuss it provides a good sense of the Homeric Greek world that your daughters and sons will be inhabiting this semester in Hum 110, and what their Hum conferences will be like. Third, it seems very appropriate for Orientation Week. At a time when Reed parents and their daughters and sons are marking a major transition in their lives and relationships with each other, it can have real resonance. It portrays a nineteen year old, Telemachus, becoming an adult, learning who he is, and trying to renegotiate his changing relationship with his parents Odysseus and Penelope, and with the world at large.
At the beginning of the Odyssey, the goddess Athena, disguised as a friend
of Odysseus, chides Telemachus with the following words:
“…You should not go on clinging to your childhood. You are no longer of an age to do that.”(Odyssey 1. 296-297).
These words could be a direct quotation of a mother or father dropping their hesitant son or daughter off at college, and with them Athena is giving Telemachus needed advice. Telemachus is in a tough position as the Odyssey opens, and he needs to grow up. When Athena speaks these words to Telemachus, his father Odysseus has been away for 19 years. He left when Telemachus was just a baby, and Telemachus has no memories of his father. For the last three years, the situation in their house has been desperate: 108 suitors, convinced that his father Odysseus will not return and attracted by the beauty and intelligence of his mother Penelope, have been living at the palace in a riotous three-year-long party. Violating all the accepted rules of the guest-house relationship and ancient courting practices, they have been consuming his household’s food and drink and sleeping with the female servants, trying to force Penelope to give up waiting for Odysseus and marry one of them. Athena is right. Telemachus needs to grow up quickly.
This morning in my talk on the Odyssey, I want to focus on the
problem of Telemachus and how he, at age 19, learns to give up his childhood
and become an adult
in the Homeric world. As the Odyssey opens, Telemachus is in the same position
many of us are this morning: in our late teens, needing to continue our education
and the process of coming into full adulthood. One of the main themes of the
Odyssey is the nature of heroism, and in particular what the process of education
is that one needs to go through to become an adult and a hero. The poem illustrates
this process primarily through the figure of Telemachus. What I want to argue
in my talk this morning is that the Odyssey shows through the character and
actions of Telemachus that there are in fact two types of education and two
heroism. The Odyssey represents Telemachus in the process of becoming educated
and attaining one kind of heroism: what we might call “beginning” or “nascent
heroism,” while denying him a second kind of education and heroism, “full” or “transcendent
heroism.” In my talk this morning I wanted to ask why this is and what
it might tell us about the nature of heroism and of education.
As many readers have noted, it seems strange that the Odyssey,
the story of Odysseus’ return
home after the Trojan War, should start with four books devoted to what Homeric
commentators from early on labeled “The Education of Telemachus.” Why
does Homer spend books focusing on Telemachus, when his main goal is to describe
Odysseus’ homecoming? There are probably a number of reasons, as critics
have pointed out. First, by focusing on Telemachus’ plight, we see how
much Odysseus is needed at home, and what his homecoming will mean.
Second, by beginning the epic with Telemachus, the poem makes
him, in the words of the Homeric scholar Richard Martin, “the internal focalizer of the action.” That
is, we experience the action of the first four books of the poem more or less
as Telemachus does, learning about Odysseus and his heroic qualities along with
Telemachus, before we begin spending time with Odysseus himself in Book 5. This
allows us, by experiencing events from Telemachus’ perspective, to ask
ourselves what kind of hero Odysseus is, and what it would mean for Telemachus
to emulate him. Can Telemachus become a hero like his father by the end of
the epic? These are the questions we are encouraged to think about as we meet
in Book I and watch his words and actions throughout the poem.
In the first four books, the so-called “Education of Telemachus,” we
have a chance to witness the beginning stages of the education of a Homeric hero.
At the beginning of Book I, Athena announces to Zeus that she will go to Ithaca
to visit Telemachus. She lists three reasons for her visit: to stir Telemachus
up, to put confidence in him to call an assembly and confront the suitors, and
to send him on a trip so he can find out about his father and win a good reputation
for himself. Athena, Odysseus’ patron divinity, directs Telemachus’ actions
both to help prepare a successful homecoming for Odysseus, and to help his
son gain glory and become a hero in his own right. What does the education
consist of, and how does he become a hero in the poem?
Telemachus presents nearly a textbook case of how to become a
Homeric hero. The basic ingredients for Homeric heroism are having good parents,
a good upbringing
and teachers, help from a divinity, physical strength and beauty, courage and
skill in battle, an obstacle to overcome, and some individual excellence in
the hero is preeminent. Let’s look at how these qualities apply in the
case of Telemachus.
First, good parents. One does not have to read far in the Odyssey or Iliad to recognize that Homeric society is highly stratified. The Homeric world includes an upper class of noble men and women, and great warriors, and lower classes that include ordinary soldiers, free farmers, merchants, singers, artisans, and, at the bottom, slaves. Whether one could be a hero or not was greatly affected by one’s birth, and it was assumed that people with divine or noble parents were normally stronger, smarter, better looking, tougher in battle, and more likely to turn out well. This is certainly true in Telemachus’ case. Other characters often comment on his size, good looks, and great potential as the son of Odysseus and Penelope. They expect that Telemachus, as the son of extraordinary parents, is likely to turn out the same way. Telemachus himself, though, is not so sure. In Book I when the disguised Athena asks whether he is Odysseus’ child, since he looks so much like him, Telemachus answers in a telling way (1. 214-220):
See, I will accurately answer all that you ask me.
My mother says indeed I am his. I for my part
do not know. Nobody really knows his own origin.
Growing up without any contact with his father, Telemachus at times doubts
his parentage, and thus in Homeric terms, who he is. An essential part of his
must be learning who his father is, and thus who he himself is and can become.
Telemachus, luckily, receives such an education. While his father
was away, Telemachus grew up under the care of his mother Penelope, his grandfather
friend Mentor, and the swineherd Eumaios. It is clear from Telemachus’ actions
when we first meet him in Book 1 that he has been brought up well. We don’t
see him joining in the parties and outrageous behavior of the suitors. Indeed,
when Athena in Book 1 arrives at Odysseus’ palace disguised as Mentes,
his father’s friend and leader of the Taphians, Telemachus alone of those
present treats him according to the rules of the all-important guest-host relationship.
Telemachus takes his guest by the right hand, welcomes him, seats him away
from all the hubbub of the suitors, gives him dinner, and then, and only then,
who he is and why he is there. In all of these details, Telemachus shows himself
to have been well brought up, and his further education in the poem builds
on this foundation.
As the poem progresses, we see the continuation of this education
in a number of ways. In Books 1-4, a disguised Athena gives him advice about
how to proceed,
and Telemachus learns quickly. In Book 1 he begins to assert himself by talking
back both to the suitors and his mother Penelope and calling the first assembly
in Ithaca in 19 years, and in Book 2 he speaks three times before an assembly
of the people and condemns the suitors’ actions. In Books 3 and 4 he goes
on his own “mini-Odyssey” and visits the heroes Nestor at Pylos and
Menelaos and Helen at Sparta. There he hears about his father’s heroic
character and adventures, observes further refinements of the guest-host relationship,
and experiences how royal households run when not besieged by 108 suitors.
Thanks to the education he receives in Pylos and Sparta, Telemachus returns
a more mature and self-assured person, ready to assert his rights against the
In an important sense, though, his most important teacher, indirectly
and directly, is his father Odysseus. He learns much about his father from
the stories Nestor,
Menelaos, and Helen tell him on his visit to Pylos and Sparta, and begins to
realize what being the son of Odysseus means. When Telemachos returns to Ithaca
in Book 16, he finally meets his father face-to-face. He finds his father,
disguised as an old beggar, staying in the hut of Eumaios the swineherd. Telemachus
first does not recognize that the beggar is his father, but when the swineherd
goes to town, Odysseus reveals his identity. Telemachus, true to his father’s
nature, is very wary at first. One of Odysseus’ greatest traits as a
hero is his wariness, his need to test everything for himself before believing
This is the quality that allowed him to survive his many trials, and Telemachus
also displays it in their reunion scene. Odysseus finally convinces Telemachus
that he is indeed his father, and then they embrace and weep.
For the rest of the epic, Telemachus learns directly from Odysseus’ words
and actions. Odysseus warns him to harden his heart, so that Telemachus can bear
it when he sees the suitors insult and strike Odysseus disguised as a beggar.
Telemachus learns well: he, like his father, is good at deceiving the wicked
suitors, at hiding his true feelings, and at being wary. The education he receives
equips him to grow up and become a hero in his father’s mold: brave,
strong, tricky, wary, and enduring.
Telemachus also possesses the other traits of a Homeric hero that I mentioned earlier. He has a solid relationship with a divinity, the goddess Athena, who helps him and protects him like she does his father Odysseus. Telemachus also displays beauty and strength, as many people remark when they see him, and in the final books of the poem, when they fight and kill the suitors, Telemachus puts on armor and displays admirable courage and skill in battle.
One measure of how great his strength is comes just before the
battle with the suitors. Penelope, able to stall the suitors no longer, sets
up a contest
Odysseus’ bow. Anyone, she says, who can successfully string Odysseus’ huge
bow and shoot an arrow straight through a row of ax handles will take her as
prize. Telemachus demands to try first, saying that if he succeeds, his mother
will stay at home and not remarry. In a dramatic scene, Telemachus picks up
the bow and strains three times without success to string it. But then, in
attempt, he is just about to string it when his father, still disguised as
a beggar, nods at him to fail. Though Telemachus obeys and pretends he cannot
the bow, the poem makes clear he could have, and thus shows us he is stronger
than all the suitors, who fail in their attempts. Telemachus has become almost
as strong as his father.
Finally, like other great heroes, Telemachus has significant obstacles to overcome:
the absence of his father, and the presence of the suitors who have taken over
his house. In the poem, he successfully surmounts these obstacles: his father
returns, and together they kill the suitors. By the end of the poem, Telemachus
has grown up. No longer an immature youth daydreaming about his father as he
did in Book I, he has become a Homeric hero: he has noble parents, has been
brought up well, has a solid relationship with the gods, is strong, handsome,
in battle, and has overcome difficult obstacles.
But if all this is true, why do I want to argue that he has become
a hero in one sense, but not a full, transcendent hero? Many scholars who write
Telemachus talk about the way in which the poem almost falsely raises our expectations
the first four books about how great a hero Telemachus will become. Telemachus,
they point out, begins to learn in the early books of the Odyssey how to get
along without his father and become a hero who can stand on his own, but then
when his father returns he is relegated to a secondary role and becomes his
helper. In one sense, this is not surprising, since the poem is after all the
Odyssey, not the Telemachy, and Telemachus’ role must be adjusted accordingly.
But Telemachus’ role in the poem is still important. By setting Odysseus’ heroism
alongside that of Telemachus’, the poem allows us to consider the difference
between what I have called “beginning heroism” and “transcendent
heroism.” Telemachus is not Odysseus, and the poem leaves him a nascent
hero, someone who is poised for, but never reaches, full heroism.
In what way does Telemachus fail to reach full heroism? I think
there are two main ways. First, there is one aspect of Homeric heroism that
I mentioned earlier
that I have not yet discussed in relationship to Telemachus. The greatest Homeric
heroes have some individual excellence in which they are preeminent, like Achilles
in the Iliad who excels in fighting, or Odysseus and Penelope in the Odyssey
who excel in the traits of what the Greeks called mêtis, or cunning intelligence,
and also endurance. In the Odyssey, Telemachus has a good character, but he has
not yet found what to “major in,” so to speak. He is a good host,
friend, deceiver, and fighter, but does not excel in any single quality. He has
no heroic epithets, or tags, that indicate his exceptional prowess in a particular
area, like those of other great heroes, such as “swift-footed Achilles”,
or “Odysseus of the many devises”, but only generic ones. His four
most frequent labels or epithet phrases in the poem are “godlike Telemachus,” “thoughtful
Telemachus,” “hero Telemachus,” and the “holy strength
of Telemachus.” These are non-specific epithets, and are applied to other
heroes as well as Telemachus. Telemachus, it seems, is still a hero in search
of an excellence.
Closely connected to this, Telemachus has not had time yet to
face the sort of hardships that make or break truly great heroes and help to
greatness. Examples of this type of greatness would be Achilles facing the
death of his best friend Patroklos and foreseeing his own death in the Iliad,
going through the Trojan War and then all the horrible adversities he faces
in his nine years of wandering. Without such trials, Telemachus must remain
hero”, not a transcendent one. Transcendent heroism, forged in the fire
of almost unbearable sorrow and hardship, pushes a hero to the next level of
human existence, and makes them almost divine. Though they are very different
types of heroes, both Achilles in the Iliad and Odysseus in the Odyssey learn
something transcendent from their trials. Both learn through their own suffering
about the sufferings of all humans, and learn to see their own troubles from
a new, broader, even cosmic perspective. It is such suffering and heroism that
allows Odysseus, for example, to say, when he is disguised as a beggar in his
own house (18. 130-137, 140-142),
Of all creatures that breathe and walk on the earth there is nothing
more helpless than a man is, of all that the earth fosters;
for he thinks that he will never suffer misfortune in future
days, while the gods grant him courage, and his knees have spring
in them. But when the blessed gods bring sad days upon him,
against his will he must suffer it with enduring spirit.
For the mind in men upon earth goes according to the fortunes
the Father of Gods and Men, day by day, bestows upon them…
let no man be altogether without a sense of righteousness,
but take in silence the gifts of the gods, whatever they give him.
Such a view of human life, hard won by Odysseus, allows him to understand and
endure all he has suffered for the past nineteen years without despairing,
and to see his own predicament in terms of the broader perspective of human and
nature. Odysseus has gained a deep understanding of the cycles of life, the
need to endure whatever comes, and the importance of righteousness for human
It is of course not Telemachus’ fault in the Odyssey that he does not attain such a perspective. He is young, and the role of the transcendent hero in this poem is played by his father. As readers, we might be tempted to imagine what the future holds in store for him after the Odyssey ends, but the poem gives us no clues. Some later Greek mythographers conjectured that Telemachus went off and married his father’s former mistress, the sorceress Circe, but I don’t want to believe them. It sounds too much like the plot of a bad Hollywood sequel, like “Odyssey II: Telemachus’ Revenge.” Homer, though, by setting Telemachus and Odysseus next to each other in the same poem, allows us to see two different stages in the development of heroism. Telemachus shows us ordinary or nascent heroism, rooted in good parents, good upbringing, a solid relationship with the divine, physical strength and beauty, courage, skill in battle, and obstacles. Odysseus attains a more developed transcendent heroism, which includes all of these elements but is also tested against almost insurmountable odds and brings him to a new level of human understanding. The wonderful thing about an epic like the Odyssey is that it also helps educate its readers. Even if we do not become transcendent heroes ourselves, the poem allows us to imagine what such heroism is like, and to set the joys and sorrows of our own lives in a broader context. The poem describes, through the characters of Telemachus, Odysseus, and Penelope, ways to live rich and heroic lives. It suggests we must both be educated well when we are Telemachus’ age, and prepared, as we become Odysseus’ and Penelope’s ages and older, to apply that education in our lives when the going gets rough. I wish all of our new students a wonderful and heroic four years here, and a lifetime of using and deepening their Reed education in the years after they graduate.