The Odyssey by Homer is often thought of as the heroic story of King Odysseus as he attempts to return to his homeland after the Trojan Wars. Although this journey is at the forefront of the story, there is another character going through his own hardship and transformation and this individual is the son of Odysseus, Telemachus.
When we first encounter the boy we witness that his life is infested by strange men who are trying to win his mother’s hand in marriage. As the queen makes her suitors wait, the men plague the house, eating all the food, spending the coin, drinking wine, taking for themselves what King Odysseus had left behind for his wife and infant son.
At a time like this, one would expect the King’s son to take action and bring order back into his home. However, this is not the case. Telemachus sits idle, waiting and hoping for his fathers return.
“Dear stranger, would you be shocked by what I say?
Look at them over there. Not a care in the world,
just lyres and tunes! It’s easy for them, all right,
they feed on another’s goods and go scot-free—
a man whose white bones lie strewn in the rain somewhere,
rotting away on land on rolling down the ocean’s salty swells.
But that man—if they caught sight of him home in Ithaca,
by god, they’d all pray to be faster on their feet
than richer in bars of gold and heavy robes
Telemachus is reliant on his father, as all young boys often are and additionally, Telemachus is plagued by self-pity and this poor attitude and mindset makes him inactive.
He’s left me tears and greif. Nor do I rack my heart
and greive for him alone. No longer. Now the gods
have invented other miseries to plauge me.
Often times in archetypical stories, a hero requires the aid of an outsider to push him or her into activity. One has to look no further than Tolkein’s Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf sets Bilbo and Frodo in motion. This common motif is even present in this ancient story where Telemachus finds himself conversing with an individual who is actually the Goddess Athena. Athena comes to Telemachus’ aid and provides him with sound advice for, after all, Athena is the Goddess of wisdom.
I have some good advice, if only you will accept it.
Fit out a ship with twenty oars, the best in sight,
sail in quest of news of your long-lost father.
Someone may tell you something
or you may catch a rumor straight from Zeus,
rumor that carries news to men like nothing else.
Essentially, Telemachus must act and he must move. It is simple and yet much-needed advice. Once you begin to help yourself, perhaps then others may help you.
Athena goes on to say:
You must not cling to your boyhood any longer—
it’s time you were a man.
So, Telemachus is to become a man by taking on responsibility. He is to become a man by taking ownership of his life. He is to become a man through action.
“Telemachus, you’ll lack neither courage nor sense from this day on,
not if your father’s spirit courses through your veins
now there was a man. I’d say, in words and action both!
Telemachus must cultivate his character. Although his father is a great man, this does not mean he will be great. No one is born a hero, one must mold themselves into such a being. This is why Telemachus’ journey and transformation are so important. He goes from a timid boy, who is shy and who lacks the courage to deal with individuals who are causing his mother pain. No one wishes to be like this individual. However, although Telemachus starts from this bottom position, through action and responsibility, he is able to create for himself a man who encompasses what a hero is supposed to be. This creation is aided by others but ultimately, it is Telemachus who must act.
So, it is this simple advice that Athena imparts on Telemachus. In order to grow, one must take on a burden, take on responsibility and through such actions, one is able to become the individual who is capable of handling hardship and furthermore, an individual who is able to overcome hardship.