Saturday, July 10, 2010

Locus Focus - A Family Home

Link up at with Locus Focus at Shredded Cheddar. Locus Focus is a book-related meme in which you post about settings in books. This weekend's Locus Focus is themed: A Family Home. While the meme continues every weekend, there will now be a chosen theme once a month. For the theme of A Family Home I chose Homer's The Odyssey.

One is only really introduced to the house of Odysseus as the story winds closer and closer to him slaughtering the freeloaders that occupy it. One gets acquainted in more detail with the hall, the courtyard, pets, the maids and nurses, latches and bedrooms and storerooms. The Odyssey is in many ways the journey into the heart of a house, without which the heart of man is sick.

Odysseus is changed in his outward appearance by Athena to an old, weather-beaten begging man, dressed in rags; and he comes to his own home, after many years, by way of the swine-holding. It is inevitable he will beg scraps from the hands of the shameless pseudo-suitors he will later be killing.

But even after he has killed these men and has had their blood and guts cleaned up, and the floor washed down and the hall purified with sulphur, it is almost as if the man is still distant from his own home. He has yet to face his wife, in his own appearance.

It is then that the movements of the journey, the fates, the intervening and meddling of the gods, they come to a kind of halt and hush as Odysseus and his wife face each other in their own house. Penelopeia is wary of trusting that her hsuband is actually her husband, for she is numb after all the years of mourning; she thinks it might be a trick of the gods.

So she tries him with a secret that only her true husband would know. And it is here - a secret about their marriage bed, the bed where conception takes place, the physical place of generating the family of a family home - that the tenderest part of Odysseus is revealed:

"Wife, that has cut me to the heart! Who has moved my bed? That would be a difficult job for the best workman, unless God himself should come down and move it. It would be easy for God, but no man could easily prize it up, not the strongest man living! There is a great secret in that bed. I made it myself, and no one else touched it. There was a strong young olive tree in full leaf growing in an enclosure, the trunk as thick as a pillar. Round this I built our bridal chamber; I did the whole thing myself, laid the stones and built a good roof over it, jointed the doors and fitted them in their places. After that I cut off the branches and trimmed the trunk from the root up, smoothed it carefully with the adze and made it straight to the line. This tree I made the bedpost. That was the beginning of my bed; I bored holes through it, and fitted the other posts about it, and inlaid the framework with gold and silver and ivory, and I ran through it leather straps coloured purple. Now I have told you my secret. And I don't know if it is still there, wife, or if some one has cut the olive at the root and moved my bed!"
And it is here that Odysseus becomes for the reader a real man. That is not meant in some chauvinistic sense, but in the mere sense of flesh and blood; he is not a god. Nor for that matter is he really a world-worn traveller; for it is here he becomes the true man he is - in the family home.


Enbrethiliel said...


It's easy to forget that Odysseus is a family man, isn't it? He could have settled down with Calypso or Nausicaa and tried to make a new life with either of them; but like the olive tree, he is rooted in the land where he made his home.

The first word The Odyssey is MAN, and this moment, one of the last scenes, gives us the epic's best insight into the human heart.

(Paul, you're the second person to write about a home that has a meaningful tree. Now I really wish I had done Wendy's little house in Neverland for this week. How many other family homes have a tree growing in the middle of the main room?)

Paul Stilwell said...

I like your analogy with the olive tree. I wonder if that is what makes him such a good adventurer - that he is a family man.

Ah, three would have been the charm! I look forward to a future Locus Focus post from you about Wendy's Neverland tree house (and I don't think I'm being too presumptuous in thinking you will be posting about it). :)

We have a tree in the front hall of our house. It's a "fig", but it's not a true fig. I'm not sure what kind it is.

Belfry Bat said...

Goodness me! Now, why did that man want to hear the Sirens? As it happens, I'd be more surprised if he didn't look beggarly after all his meandering travels, but Odysseus will be as Homer rhapsodizes. This little vignette didn't make it into my HS greek mythology redux; I'm glad to have read it, now.

Enbrethiliel said...


A family man as the best adventurer? Hmmmmm . . . Now I want to do a proper "review of related literature"!

But the only one who comes to mind as the moment is Lemuel Gulliver, who is kind of the anti-Odysseus. We don't really think of him as a family man until the end of the novel, when he returns to his family after he let himself be brainwashed by Houhynhymns. (I'm not checking my spelling on that one!) Well, okay, I think his family is mentioned once or twice in other parts of the text; but this is the only time we really see him with them . . . and we see him preferring to sleep in the stables because he has become too cool for his family.

And that is the difference between a true adventurer (unwitting though he may be) and a vehicle for satire.

Paul Stilwell said...

Bat, I agree, Odysseus, and everyone else for that matter, are very much as Homer rhapsodizes, being at his helm. Maybe a little too much at times. The excerpt quoted wasn't in the redux?

Enbrethiliel, is that Gulliver's Travels? I haven't read that yet. Preferring to sleep in the stables; what a bastard.

Wait, I seem to recall somethig about Gulliver's Travels on the sidebar at Sancta Sanctus, something about it being anti-Catholic, if I remember right.

Tonight I think I'm going to go read that.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, my shady past . . . That post you remember is just about the Big Endians and Little Endians of Lilliput and the Struldbruggs of I forget where.

Which is to say, yes, I mean Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. =P

Now I wonder whether Swift was deliberately drawing that contrast between Odysseus and Gulliver.