I Telemachus—Understanding his Character
It is very hard for students to understand and to sympathize with the utter helplessness of Telemachus. They say, “Why doesn’t he just tell the suitors to go?” They find it hard to imagine a period when young men could just hang around for years and no one could do anything to stop them. Telemachus, of course, has been too young to do anything up until the time of his father’s homecoming. Now he is twenty, now he is old enough, now Athena appears to him and gives him a push. Yet Telemachus does it himself. He stands up to the suitors by himself, and tells them to leave. He calls a Council of the men of Ithaka, the first one that has been called since his father left, and asks them to help them. Both of these actions are very brave ones for this young man, so brave that the suitors get worried, and plot his death.
The odyssey of Telemachus to find news of his father is the third brave action of the young man. This marks his passage of growing up. He was a boy when he left, he is a young man when he returns.
Class discussions should bring out most of the above points. The students should be able to find evidence of changes in Telemachus as he grows up. Writing assignments would focus on personal growth. The students keep a journals and can use these as references to mark signs of change. Sixth grade is a year of change and maturing for many students. What signs can they note? What would be a personal odyssey?
II Book Six—Using the Fitzgerald Version
Nausicaa is an interesting female character, in some ways the female counterpart of Telemachus. She is young, has not grown up, and only dreams of growing up. Athena appears to her and tells her that her maidenhood must end and she must prepare for marriage by washing her clothing and linen to fill her wedding chest. She is young and untested. When she sees Odysseus, he is wild looking, but she does not run away. She is the daughter of a king and she stands her ground.
Book Six of the Robert Fitzgerald translation can be read by the students. It should be read orally and before reading the Colum version. I think the students should be able to read this with pleasure and understanding once they get the feeling of the lines. I think this should be a whole class activity, without silent reading, to ensure class concentration and comprehension.
After reading Book Six, the students should read the corresponding pages in Colum, pages 133-140. Comparisons can be made of language, description, sound, feeling and enjoyment.
Where do you sense the beauty and dignity of the young Nausicaa? Where do you see the activities of the goddess Athena? Where do you get a feeling for the emotions of a young girl, close to your age? How does she feel about Odysseus? Why? Why is she interested in Odysseus when he is obviously too old for her? How are the students like Nausicaa? Where do they see similarities? Are they, like her, afraid of what people will think? Have they ever let this feeling change their actions?
Discussions can be in small groups and whole class. Students may want to compare the growing up experiences of Telemachus, Nausicaa and themselves. With whom do they identify more? Is Telemachus more vulnerable simply because he is more helpless or is Nausicaa because she is a protected sheltered girl?
III Odysseus—Using Fitzgerald
Other passages from the Fitzgerald translation could be duplicated for the students to read, most notably Book Nine, which tells the Cyclops story and parts of Book Eleven which is the story of Odysseus’ trip to the underworld and which has been left out of the Colum book. Book Nine is always a favorite with students, because it is excitingly gory and because it shows Odysseus at his wily best. I would use at least the passages from Book Eleven where Odysseus meets his mother, who had died while he was away at the war and his friend the great Achilles, slain during the Trojan War. Achilles had opted for a short glorious life instead of a long, quiet uneventful one. Now he tells Odysseus, “Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than lord it over all the exhausted dead.” He had made the wrong decision.
Reading of any of the Fitzgerald translation, as well as some of the Colum, should always be oral to allow for explanation of particular passages as well as enjoyment of the poetry. Discussion questions on these passages could center on the use of guile to get out of trouble. Could Odysseus have thought of a better plan, one in which he didn’t have to lose more men? Why did he call himself “No man”? Why did Odysseus identify himself when he’s not away? What did that mean? How did that affect his trip? Why does Odysseus have to visit the spirits of the dead? What does it mean to him to learn of the death of his mother? How does he feel when he talks to Achilles? What do you think of Achilles’ statement? Remember Achilles as the young golden hero seen in
A Fair Wind for
. He was eager for war and for glory. How have his feelings changed?
Writing assignments could center on ideas such as—Can one be too clever? Is it good to be able to lie and disguise yourself and fool everyone? We find this admirable in Odysseus. Would people find this admirable in us, or would we in others?