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Oh Husband, where art thou?

What follows is a blatant advert for Odysseus.

Goddesses desired him, yet he did everything to return to his middle-aged wife, Penelope, the mother of his only child. How that warms my heart! And how I hope and believe that Penelope was a superb woman, wearing her age well, as Greek women do, and still wooed by 108 suitors, the flower of the islands round Ithaca in birth and age (though not in manners).

Thoughtless critics dismiss Penelope as an old bag, worn and shrivelled from her twenty-year wait. But this would make nonsense of the poem. The poem is a love-story with a twist – the lovers are not young – but they are lovers, and the climax of the poem is when finally they:

Gladly went together to bed and to their old ritual.

To them it was worth it all to find each other again. Homer saves Penelope for the end of his story: we don’t really get to know her till about Book 17. Then she comes into her own as a fitting partner for Odysseus, not just faithful and a fine weaver as all wives should be, but a resourceful schemer and up to tricking the king of tricksters, Odysseus himself. We see Penelope interview Odysseus when he is still infallibly disguised by Athene’s magical aging process. Penelope begins to melt under the beloved influence, even though she has no idea who the ‘stranger’ is. But all the more, she steels herself against making a fatal mistake, horribly haunted by the example of her two cousins, Helen of Troy, and Clytemnestra (who murdered her own husband, Agamemnon, in favour of a lover).

Finally, Penelope tests her husband’s identity and he falls for the trick. But before this desirable outcome, there are many beautiful passages illustrating their interaction in a veiled way: for example the night-sequence where each senses the other in dreams, on the night before the final show-down.

Penelope is not silly. She knows that she is free to marry again, once Telemachus their only son has come of age (as he does in Book 1). But her intense appreciation of Odysseus and his uniqueness helps us to value him all the more. Equally, Odysseus’ faithfulness to her reflects well on both of them. He tactfully fields the goddess Calypso’s offer of immortality and marriage:

Circumspect Penelope
Can never match the impression you make for beauty and stature.
She is mortal after all, and you are immortal and ageless.

Perhaps a more tempting offer is that of the blossoming princess, Nausikaa who saves his life. To her he wishes “a husband”

… and sweet agreement in all things, for nothing is better than this …
than when two people, a man and his wife, keep a harmonious
household…

To some readers, this is the antithesis of romance. But not to me.

Mary Emerson

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