HOMER: The Odyssey [Book XXI]

In Book XXI of Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope informs the suitors that she will marry the man who can string Odysseus’ old bow and shoot an arrow through the ringlets of 12 axes. Many of the suitors attempt to string the bow, but all fail. One of the suitors suggests that they wait until the following morning to try again. The rest agree, and they fall to feasting.

Meanwhile, Odysseus reveals himself to his faithful swineherd, Eumaeus, and his loyal goatherd, Philoetius. He orders Eumaeus to bring him the bow and he commands Philoetius to ensure all the women will not exit their rooms when they hear commotion. The two servants are ecstatic at the sight of their master and they promise to fulfill his commands.

When the suitors see Eumaeus bringing the bow to Odysseus, they become furious. They are not concerned that Odysseus will marry Penelope, for they believe that he is merely a beggar, incapable of providing for a wife. But they are concerned that Odysseus will string the bow and thus dishonor them in the eyes of the other citizens. “We are afraid lest some of the baser sort, men or women among the Achaeans, should go gossiping about and say, ‘These suitors are a feeble folk; they are paying court to the wife of a brave man whose bow not one of them was able to string, and yet a beggarly tramp who came to the house strung it at once and sent an arrow through the iron.'”

Nevertheless, Eumaeus puts the bow in Odysseus’ hands. He easily strings it and shoots an arrow through the ringlets of all 12 axes. At the same moment, Jove sends thunder through the skies. Odysseus smiles at the favorable omen and makes a sign to his son, Telemachus, that the fatal time has come when they will kill the suitors.

The pace of Book XXI is much faster than that of the previous books. There are less digressions, there is less narration, and there is more action. This increased pace heightens the excitement and anticipation that the audience feels. Throughout the entire epic, Homer has masterfully built suspense over the moment when Odysseus confronts the suitors. Now, that moment has come. “Odysseus made a sign with his eyebrows, and Telemachus girded on his sword, grasped his spear, and stood armed beside his father’s seat.”

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