K ing Nestor
The Wine Red Sea: Journeys of Odysseus
© Copyright 2014 -2020 by Peter J Ponzio

Interview with the Queen - Book XIX

A number of critics have called book XIX flawed, and have commented that the interview is clumsy or poorly constructed. Indeed, Odysseus’ response to Penelope’s questions seems strange at first. Why would he compare her to a king? Why would he defer her questions about his origin? Looked at against the backdrop of Agamemnon’s fate, and remembering that Athena herself told Odysseus to be circumspect, the dialogue become more understandable. Odysseus’ response to Penelope is unlike that of the suitors. Rather than try to take from her and diminish her importance as the suitors have done, Odysseus praises her and compares her to a good king who tends to his people. For twenty years, Penelope has managed the affairs on Ithaca, tending to her household and the people living on the island. He doe snot provide a direct answer to her questions about his origin, but rather says that he is a man who “has had his share of sorrows.” This response is a code: his name means “man of sorrow or man of hate.” Penelope answers Odysseus in code as well, when she says: No, no stranger. . . whatever form and feature I had, what praise I’d won, the deathless gods destroyed the day the Achaeans sailed away to Troy, my husband in their ships, Odysseus-if he could return to tend my life the renown I had would only grow in glory. (XIX 137-142) This is a complex game they are playing. Husband and wife engage in an interview while the handmaidens listen to the wordplay between them, unaware of the true meaning of their words. Unable to reveal himself, Odysseus lets Penelope know who he is through hints about his name, and she acknowledges his return in code. She then tells him about her weaving, a weaving that is literal as well as figurative, allowing her to postpone a marriage to one of the suitors as she waited for Odysseus against hope. But the formalities of the interview must be respected, and Penelope again asks Odysseus who he is, where he comes from, saying: “Where do you come from? You’ve hardly sprung/from a rock or oak like some old man of legend” (XIX 183-184). Even now, as she questions him according to the formula, she acknowledges who he really is; for Odysseus is an “old man of legend” and as king, he does in a sense, spring from an oak, for the oak is a symbol of the king. Odysseus, acknowledging his duty as guest, complied with Penelope’s request, and proceeded to tell is story about coming from Crete, where he met Odysseus years before, when the hero sailed for Troy. Penelope, playing to the crowd of women, asked the stranger to describe Odysseus’ appearance as he set out for Troy. He replied as follows: King Odysseus. . . he was wearing a heavy woolen cape, sea-purple in double folds, with a golden brooch to clasp it, twin sheaths for the pins, on the face a work of art: a hound clenching a dappled fawn in its front paws, slashing it as it writhed. All marveled to see it, solid gold as it was, the hound slashing, throttling the fawn in its death-throes, hoofs failing to break free. (XIX 259-266) Penelope, weeping at the tale told by the stranger, acknowledged that she gave Odysseus the clothes he wore on his way to Troy. For his part, the man of sorrows comforted the queen as best he could without acknowledging his presence saying: “But dry your tears and take my words to heart./ I will tell you the whole truth and hide nothing: /I have heard that Odysseus now, at last, is on his way” (XIX 308-310). He then described his adventures in detail, and swore an oath by Zeus that what he said was true.