Sunday, June 22, 2014

The textual intimacy of Penelope

Ovid begins his book of love letters with Penelope, writing to her husband whose fate is unknown. As she explains, she heard much of the tale of Troy from her son, Telemachus, who got it from Nestor. She got some information from Menalaos as well. Ovid, then, is grounding his poem in Homer -- the news of the war that is the Iliad, and fragments of the fate of Ulysses after Troy fell, which set the scene in the early books of the Odyssey.

So Penelope's letter is full of references to the two epics, and we could do worse than refresh our memory of some of the key characters and scenes that she mentions, as here:
And he told of Rhesus and Dolon dead by your sword,
so that one was betrayed by sleep, the other by guile.
It was brave, oh you, who are more and more forgetful of your own,
to enter the Thracian camp, with night’s deception,
and kill so many men, with the help of one!
Then you were truly cautious, and thinking first of me!
My heart shook all the time, with fear, while my dear hero
was depicted, riding through the army on Ismarus’s horses.
The tale of Rhesus and Dolon (known as the Doloneia) takes place in book 10 of the Iliad, and concerns a night raid that Diomedes and Odysseus carry out. They capture and interrogate Dolon, a  Trojan spy (dressed as a wolf), then use his information to kill Rhesus, a rich king newly arrived to the war. It's a terrific episode of guile, Odyssean quick wittedness, and double-dealing. Apart from its value in the epic, we might think about why Penelope includes it in her letter.

Penelope also mentions minor characters, like Tlepolemos, a son of Herakles who dies at the hands of Sarpedon, and Antilochus, the youngest son of Nestor, whose best known feat, dying to save his father's life, isn't in the Iliad, but is remembered in Pindar's 6th Pythian:
Long ago, too, powerful Antilochus showed that he had this way of thinking; [30] he died for his father's sake, by awaiting the man-slaying commander of the Ethiopians, Memnon. For the horse kept Nestor's chariot from moving, since it had been wounded by Paris' arrows; and Memnon was aiming his strong spear. [35] The old man of Messene, his mind reeling, shouted to his son; the cry he hurled did not fall to the ground; his god-like son stayed on the spot and paid for his father's rescue with his own life, [40] and because he accomplished this tremendous deed he seemed to the younger men to be the greatest man of his time in excellence towards his parents.
It seems that Penelope was acquainted with the fates of characters even Homer doesn't include in his narrative!

Also, Penelope's letter is not celebrating the heroic life, as Pindar does in his Odes. If anything, as she weaves her web alone, far from the action, she speaks as the end term, the destination, of Ulysses. She is what was there before he left to help take Helen back, and she'll be there to hear the stories upon his return. But is she simply an auditor, waiting for the heroic song to arrive?

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