Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.04.40

Giuseppe Lentini, Il 'padre di Telemaco': Odisseo tra Iliade e Odissea. Biblioteca di 'Materiali e discussioni per l'analisi dei testi classici', 18.   Pisa:  Giardini, 2006.  Pp. 215.  ISBN 88-427-1450-X.  €92.00.  

Reviewed by Christian Werner, Universidade de São Paulo (
Word count: 1926 words

Table of Contents

Il 'padre di Telemaco', by Giuseppe Lentini (hereafter L.), a "tesi de perfezionamento" submitted at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa in 2004, is, strictly speaking, a book addressed to readers of Homer. The author does not bother translating the Greek text or contextualizing it to someone not well acquainted with the Iliad and the Odyssey. He goes straight to what concerns him most. Nevertheless, most passages he selects to build his arguments are well known and often discussed (some cruces among them).

L.'s main interpretative presuppositions (drawn mainly from neoanalysis) could be summarized this way: a) in so far as both poems belong to the same oral tradition of epic composition, they share narrative motives (or themes); b) these motives allow the poet (or are his privileged medium) to characterize his characters; c) the tradition associates some of these motives particularly with a specific hero, and they are transmitted that way; d) in case of Odysseus, some motives associated with him broadly compose a fundamental episode, his adventure in Ithaca, which, in turn, generates "riproposizione" (re-presentations).1 So, behind the Iliadic Odysseus L. tries to identify the same main motives that had characterized this hero in the Odyssean tradition.

L. supports his reading by way of two main passages, each one composing a leitmotiv of a part of the book: Odysseus' denomination of himself as "Telemachus' father" in Iliad 4; and the conflict between Odysseus and Achilles in Iliad 19.

In his first chapter, L. argues that the νεῖκος is a motive fundamentally associated with Odysseus (another leitmotiv, but of the whole book), since it reappears many times during his return to Ithaca narrated in the Odyssey and determines also Odysseus' verbal performances in Iliad 2 and 4.

In the following chapters, L. tries to show how the narrator of the Iliad, in the books just mentioned, depicts some of his characters by means of a double but interlaced opposition: fathers and sons, older and younger men. These oppositions help to explain the authority exerted by some heroes, especially Odysseus, and so it is not by mere chance that Agamemnon and Athena, in Iliad 4 and 5 respectively, narrate to Diomedes heroic feats of his father Tydeus. According to L., these feats present some motives that in both poems are connected with Odysseus, for example, the recruitment of an army, a mission as an ambassador, a fighting of one against many. Both Odysseus and Tydeus are not only described as paradigms to their sons, but they also express a "kind of competition" (p. 62) between generations, another Odyssean motive that we may especially follow in the double defeat that Odysseus inflicts on the young suitors (bow-contest and massacre), but that is also re-presented in other episodes like the Phaeacian games.

These oppositions and motives appear also in the games in honour of Patroclos narrated in the Iliad (ch. 6). First, in the chariot-race, when Diomedes, a young man, and the values he represent gain the upper hand. But then, in the foot race, Odysseus beats the lesser Ajax, who not only had got involved before in a νεῖκος situation with Idomeneus, but now is also the target of a derisive laugh by the other Achaeans. All that sums up another series of Odyssean motives gathered together to characterize Odysseus and the kind of hero he epitomizes.

Before turning to the second part of the book, let me make some remarks about the first. L. is certainly right in his attempt to develop his analysis of a fixed text (the Iliad) by means of the reconstruction of a diachronic development (the characterization of Odysseus built inside the limits of an Odyssean tradition and so prior to its fixation in our text of the Odyssey). Nevertheless his attempt seems to be strictly bounded by (his reading of) the two texts and by Odysseus' characterization in both of them. If we had at our disposal a larger number of poems,2 or if L. tried a comparative approach as well, would it not be the case that the combination of (some) motives that L. defends to be specially pertinent to the characterization of Odysseus depicts heroic feats of other heroes as well in a more independent way than that defended by L. in his reading of Tydeus' stories? Not only does the Homeric narrator envisaged by L. turn out to be quite free to invent the biographies of his heroes, but L.'s Iliadic Odysseus has an ideological and aesthetical status he has nowhere else in Archaic and Classical poetry than in the Odyssey.3

Further, the re-presentation of this cluster of motives -- or some "extended narrative pattern"4-- through the Odyssey is not enough to prove the diachronic precedence of one bit of the story over the others. How can we possibly be so sure that the episode of the Polyphemus' cave was shaped according to the events in Ithaca and not the other way around, for example? So the expression "Telemachus' father" does not seem enough to prove that the motives of Odysseus' adventure in Ithaca as depicted in our Odyssey shaped other adventures of the hero in the Odyssey and his characterization in the Iliad.

L. very often minimizes differences and maximizes likenesses to demonstrate his readings. For instance, he never discusses the fact that Tydeus is the victim of an ambush prepared by warriors younger than him, whereas Odysseus himself prepares an ambush against the young suitors. Are we then entitled to affirm that the likenesses between both episodes are more decisive than the differences, the supremacy of strength in one case, of wiliness in the other?

Generally speaking, the bibliography of the book is quite comprehensive. However, some texts would have contributed to the discussion: D. Bouvier's Le sceptre et la lyre offers a sustained reading on the topic of filiation;5 A. Kahane "Hexameter progression and the Homeric hero's solitary state" might have modulated L.'s thesis that the motive of "one against many" is deeply linked to Odysseus;6 P. Rousseau, in "Le deuxième Atride: le type épique de Ménélas dans l'Iliade",7 shows not only that in Iliad 17 Menelaus is much more than just a non-Odysseus, as affirmed by L. (p. 53), inasmuch as he does not fight alone against many, but, by discussing Menelaus' characterization in the Iliad, Rousseau alerts us that the valour of a hero depends on the campaign as a whole and so on the traditional ideological components traceable in the epos. L.'s implicit suggestion that Odysseus is the best, because the most complete, hero represented in the Iliad seems to go too far.

In the second part of the book, comprising 8 chapters, L. develops again a set of oppositions that enhances Odysseus' singular kind of heroism. Now the starting point chosen by the author is Iliad 23: Why does Odysseus' μήτις win in the foot race if Diomedes, a substitute figure of Achilles throughout the poem, wins in the chariot-race, specially since Antilochos' μήτις is confronted with its limits?

In the first chapter, L. interprets Demodocus' first and third songs, which together would compose an Iliad seen through the lens of the Odyssey. Nevertheless, L. only superficially discusses the difficult question of the relation between the composition and/or function of an embedded story -- to use the expression established by narratologists -- in view of the knowledge of an audience. Besides, L. omits Demodocus' second song, which is essential to understanding that a) the dispute between βίη and μήτις is central in the whole Odyssey 8 and b) that such a dispute does not go without some ambiguities.8

In the next chapter, L. starts his analysis of Iliad 19, central to the following discussions. Whereas the narrator characterizes Odysseus as self-controlled and wise, Achilles is supposedly depicted as someone almost beastlike (his divine traits being downplayed by L.), a young warrior subdued by his θυμός and μένος (both seen at their most negative faces).9 Based on that frame, L. offers the most challenging section of the second part of his book, the interpretation of Odysseus' scar (ch. 4). L. argues that the story narrated in Odyssey 19 shows a moment in Odysseus' heroic path when he still behaves like an excessively self-confident young man, someone who still ignores the consequences of his actions. That amounts to saying that he acts like an Achilles, and so he would have been incapable of "restraining a potentially damaging instinct" (p. 121). The scar points to a risk that Odysseus should avoid in Ithaca, where he could unwisely launch into a direct fight against the suitors as he once did against the boar.

In the next chapter, L. does not show the same interpretative precision when he tries to demonstrate that Achilles, especially in his final Iliadic ἀριστεία, and the Odyssean Polyphemus share many and important resemblances. Here as elsewhere, L. has a clear purpose of enhancing likenesses (both do not restrain their θυμός and so do not show any τλημοσύνη) and ignoring differences. For example, nowhere does L. discuss what Achilles' exceptional (more than excessive) demonstration of mourning means. Does it really reflect a savage behaviour or does it somehow represent someone who knows (as does the external audience of the Iliad) he will shortly die? The discussion about the complex relation between the depiction of Achilles' mourning for Patroclus' death and his own following one seems to be irrelevant for L.'s reading. But does Achilles' privileged knowing not distinguish him from us, completely human beings? When Achilles resumes his fighting against the Trojans, he will not act like the young Odysseus in the hunting; he knows exactly what he will find.

Finally, in chapter 6 L. characterizes Odysseus as an hero who does not disconnect the work of a farmer (and that amounts to saying the production of food that sustains human life) from the tasks that must be performed during a war, especially by a just and reasonable king-farmer; and in chapter 7, Odysseus is depicted as the most authentic representative of the king who solves νείκη, even in the games that honour Patroclus.

In this part of his book, too, L. does not refer to some modern interpretations that could make his reading less schematic and polarized, as for example, Nicole Loraux' analysis of the insatiability of war and S. Douglas Olson's discussion about Odysseus' role as a king in the Odyssey.10 On the other hand, many quotations in the footnotes operate almost as an adornment, as testified by the reiterated use of the adjective "interessante" as the only comment on the content of a quotation.

L.'s book is well-written, with hardly any misprints and even fewer mistakes (the only one I can mention is a reference to the Goat-Island as the Cyclops' one in p. 150). Its complete index of sources is indispensable in a book that moves constantly between the Iliad and the Odyssey; there is also an small index of "words and notable things".

To sum up, I would like to emphasize that Il 'padre di Telemaco' not only presents a provoking argumentation (less by its methodology than by its theme, Odysseus' coherent characterization in both poems), but that it will be a fundamental book for discussion of some passages, like the stories of Tydeus in the Iliad and the story of Odysseus' scar in the Odyssey. Nevertheless, the book also suffers from an excess of simplifications and generalizations, signs of a search of peremptory conclusions which are often problematic in the discussion of Homer, as Ahuvia Kahane has recently shown in his Diachronic Dialogues.


1.   I should also mention that, although L. defends the idea that the Iliad and Odyssey result from different traditions (and in that context "tradition" is understood by the author basically as "story": the story of Achilles' anger and the story of Odysseus' return), he disagrees with such an interpretation as developed by Pietro Pucci in Odysseus Polutropos: Intertextual Readings in the Odyssey and the Iliad (Ithaca, 1995/1987) and The Song of the Sirens: Essays on Homer (Lanham, 1997), according to which there would be an agonistic tension between these traditions. A recent book important for that -- in my opinion inconclusive -- discussion is Ahuvia Kahane Diachronic Dialogues: Authority and Continuity in Homer and the Homeric Tradition (Lanham, 2005).
2.   And so, even coincidences in diction are hardly ever a conclusive proof of a direct relation between two or more passages, either as an allusion, or the same motive linked to a specific character (see, for example, n. 3 on p. 61 of L.'s book).
3.   Sophocles' Ajax is obviously a possible exception, and therefore the opposition between Ajax and Odysseus would be mutatis mutandis an interesting test case for L.'s reading of the Homeric poems.
4.   See Bruce Louden, The Odyssey: Structure, Narration and Meaning, Baltimore, 1999.
5.   Grenoble, 2002.
6.   In Egbert J. Bakker and Ahuvia Kahane (edd.), Written Voices, Spoken Signs: Tradition, Performance and the Epic Text, Cambridge, Mass., 1997.
7.   In ed. M.-M. Mactoux and E. Geny, Mélanges P. Lévêque 5, Paris, 1990.
8.   That is argued by Martin Steinrück in Kranz und Wirbel: Ringkompositionen in de Büchern 6-8 der Odyssee, Hildesheim, 1997.
9.   In that part of the book, structural anthropology (by means of the opposition between cooked and raw) and, specially, its use by James Redfield in Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector (London, 1994/1975) is essential for L.'s argumentation.
10.   Respectively in "L'Iliade moins les héros", in L'inactuel 1, 1994, 29-48; and Blood and Iron: Stories and Storytelling in Homer's Odyssey, Leiden, 1995.

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