“The Red-Haired King and His Lady” is the fourth book in Homer’s The Odyssey. In this book, Telemachus meets the King and Queen of Sparta (Menelaus and Helen) to learn more about the whereabouts of his father Odysseus.
This part of the epic holds many similarities to modern culture; mainly our internal conflicts as a aggressive species, the pain and sorrow inflicted by war, greed, and the fact that enemies do not always reside on the other side of the battle line. Men and women both weep for fallen brothers in arms as the Trojan War is recounted, and this mirrors the grief that people hold today for loved ones who have been lost in modern wars. When the King of Sparta speaks of Troy, he does so at first without realizing that Telemachus is the son of Odysseus, and Odysseus cries in response to it – “They stirred Telemachus to weep. And so he let a tear fall from his eyelids to the ground on hearing of his father; but his hands held up his purple cloak before his eyes.” (p. 66).
The need to gain more wealth and more power, and to do better than your fellow man, is also presented in this book, and this again accords with modern culture. Melenaus holds the same pragmatism that helps to make many people rich, and yet, describes how wealth is not necessarily the key to happiness. Melenaus states that there may be others to match him in his wealth, or there may not, but regardless it has cost him “many wanderings and many griefs to bring these treasures here” (p.65). His wealth brings him little comfort and no delight – in a very similar way to modern society, it can be a difficult thing to acquire wealth, but there is never any guarantee that it will bring joy to those who possess it.
The sorrow of the people at the Spartan Court contrasts with Helen’s apparent pride over elements of the situation – most noticeably the courage of Odysseus. Helen talks about Odysseus’ entry into Troy, where he disguised himself as a beggar, and even scratched and bruised himself to make the disguise appear real before infiltrating the city. She does not speak about the war at large, but the actions of Odysseus and his courage, and this is met with a positive response. Helen provides a drug to help the men cope with their grief and forget. “Whoever drinks of this, once it is mixed within his bowl, forgets. On that day he will never let a tear fall down his cheek, not even if his mother and father die, not even if his brother or son is killed by bronze before his eyes” (p. 70). This act is very significant, as it goes some way to describe the role of women in this culture. Their job is to support and comfort men who are dealing with the grief and sorrow of war, and to help them forget what has been lost.
The world that Homer describes in The Odyssey is a world of threat and violence, and it is no surprise to see the wives concoct remedies and potions to help the men and the warriors forget the strife of war and the pain of loss. The saga is set after the siege of Troy, and the murder of Agamemnon, the plot to kill Telemachus and the many different threats experienced by Odysseus on his return voyage each paints a world of suffering and violence, and this is heightening by Odysseus’s longing to return home. Such suffering and violence is a way of life for many in this culture, and central characters such as Helen of Troy show that the women accept this as much as the men – “And after he had slaughtered many Trojans with his sharp bronze, he went back to the Danaans with much that he had learned in Troy. The women of Troy were wailing loud, but I was glad” (p. 71).
This is one area where things are less similar when compared to modern society, but still quite similar. Courage in the face of mortal danger is exemplified as a heroic quality in this work, though in the modern world a willingness to do battle is not viewed in quite the same way. While it may still be heroic on an individual level to go into battle and protect the freedom and interests of oneself and one’s nation, the situation is much different on a national and political level. The need for war is something that must always be closely studied and analyzed, and going to war for the wrong reasons or without properly considering the consequences (mainly the loss of life of both combatants and civilians) is not heroic. It can be argued that the sense of pride and unity that underpins conflict in Homer’s works is very much complicated and diminished in the modern world, and for very good reasons.
Odysseus’ presentation as a hero is unquestionable. He is seen by his contemporaries as noble, virtuous, courageous and cunning, and this is exemplified by Helen’s account of his daring feat in the siege of Troy. The heroism and cunning of his actions is explained in this and many other stories shared by Menelaus and the other members of the Spartan Court. The character of Telemachus is in many ways different to the character of Odysseus. While Telemachus is younger and his character perhaps not yet fully formed, it cannot be denied that he is of a fainter heart, and not a fearless warrior. He is described by others in the court as shy and discreet in his hesitancy to speak to the court. His character is in many ways a contrast to his father’s, though much of it is relative; it would never be easy for a son like Telemachus to live up to the status of his heroic father.
In Book IV of The Odyssey, the main themes of the entire saga are presented and mixed together. There is the pervasiveness of violence, which we can see running right into the heart of the Spartan Court as a plan is conspired to kill Telemachus, and also the lack of female control but the presence of female strength and ingenuity.
The Odyssey of Homer. A New Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum. Bantam Books: London, 1990, 536p