BMCR 2024.03.15

Arete and the Odyssey’s poetics of interrogation: the queen and her question

, Arete and the Odyssey's poetics of interrogation: the queen and her question. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 384. ISBN 9780192847805.



In this work, Justin Arft places Arete at the heart of the Scherian books ‘and, to a degree, the epic itself’ (p. 2); her questioning of Odysseus confirms his kleos and sets the stage for his nostos, thus signalling a fundamental shift in the way he is represented in the poem’s narrative. Recognising the ‘old problem’ that her importance to Odysseus’ nostos as heralded by both Athene and Nausicaa is not obviously played out in the subsequent narrative, Arft sets himself the task of making poetic sense of her appearance. The key is her use of the ‘stranger’s interrogation’ narrative pattern. Part I (chs. 1–2) analyses the pattern within early Greek epic and beyond, while Part II (chs. 3–6) applies these findings to the Phaeacian episode. The result is an intelligent exploration of the ways in which both generic and specific referentiality lie at the heart of an informed reading of Homeric poetry; if this reviewer didn’t follow Arft all the way, especially when it comes to the analysis of Alcinoos’ behaviour, the book nonetheless constantly prompts interesting questions.

Chapter 1 establishes the valence of the stranger’s interrogation, but it doesn’t start with evidence of the Odyssey; instead, we begin with the Iliad and a variety of other (and later) texts, including funerary epigram, Orphic lamellae, and even Sanskrit and Avestan compositions. The discussion establishes the threatening sense of the idiom, and its deployment in contexts marked by strong hierarchical difference between the interrogator and the addressee and argues that in all these differing contexts ‘it creates kleos through performance’ (p. 45). It is sensible to establish the idiomatic value of the sequence on as wide an evidentiary base as possible, but the Odyssean examples could have been deployed earlier, even if only briefly, to aid the clarity of the argument. The further issue is that referential significance has tended in the past to be limited to the epic texts, but there is no reason in principle why it shouldn’t be found elsewhere, though the tragic evidence is only partially examined: Helen 83 and 86 are invoked (p. 48), but Ion 258 (258a = Hel. 83a) is not; neither is Cyclops 275–6, which does look to be interacting specifically with the Odyssey’s formula (perhaps unsurprisingly); cf. also Soph. Phil. 56 (which would be a particularly important case for Arft’s thesis).

Chapter 2 turns to the Odyssey and places the stranger’s interrogation at the heart of recognition and identification, subsuming these latter themes within the whole ‘interrogation sequence’. The purpose of this sequence is to select memories of Odysseus, and they culminate in the memorable scenes involving Penelope and Laertes, where Arft seeks to set the whole background of the poem’s deployment of interrogation before addressing Arete herself. Arft stresses the interrelationship of advancing the nostos, alliance, and social connection in those scenes where Odysseus is successfully identified, and their interpretation is often illuminating, e.g. in Telemachos’ delay of his response to the ‘who’ element of Nestor’s question in Book 3 and its reframing in terms of the search for his father (pp. 65–6). Arft well elucidates the potential hostility behind ‘truncated’ examples, sequences not surrounded by the social relationships which betoken a safe environment, though more could have been made of Helen’s rather hostile questioning of the disguised Odysseus in her tale told to Telemachos at Od. 4.250–1, since Menelaos’ following tale undermines the image of herself which Helen is trying to give (it’s not just the stranger who is revealed, in other words). The first two usages of the full formula to be examined are those not involving Odysseus directly (Athene and Telemachos in Book 1, Theoclymenos and Telemachos in Book 15), and the chapter closes with the remaining sequences (with Telemachos, Philoitios, Eumaios, and Eurykleia) which identify Odysseus in the role most appropriate for those characters – ‘an avenger who restores the household’ (p. 82). The episodes with Penelope and Laertes are important as two figures extraneous to the (in Arft’s view, problematic) mnesterophonia, and who settle the poem’s wider image of Odysseus as the returned hero. There are lots of interesting observations here, but I felt the absence of a better link with the forms or facts of the questions involved.

Opening Part 2 (titled ‘The Queen’), the third chapter concerns itself with the Phaeacians as the background to Arete’s interrogation. For Arft, they are ‘multivalent’, shaped according to the poet’s needs and exist in a tension between traditionality and specificity, hostility and friendliness – a ‘shifting portrayal of a complex people’ (p. 107). Arft locates this portrait within a discussion of their closeness to the gods, their eschatological properties, and their association with katabasis (esp. seeing Arete as reflecting an underworld goddess). Characterised by an endogamy that reflects hostility toward outsiders, the Phaeacians comprise a potentially unstable society, a conclusion centred in later chapters on a very ungenerous assessment of Alcinoos, especially in his inability to see ‘the fullness of Athene’s influence over the situation’ (p. 120, resumed on pp. 161–2). This gave this reader pause: mortal characters are generally unable to do this, and neither Arete nor Nausicaa are explicitly said by the poet to perceive that deity’s intentions, though their actions end up in consonance with her wishes (as do his!). The marriageability of Nausicaa is clearly of central importance, and Arft sees her as a more resolute and active character (pp. 118–30), examining wider Phaeacian history as a template of possible social discord. The ground is set for Arft to suggest that Alcinoos’ late reaction to Odysseus is thus configured as an act of opposition to the poetics of interrogation, viz in this case the suppliancy, but the categories overlap (indeed, Priam might have been useful here), and it is not clear that xenia necessarily involves the risk of detention where suppliancy wouldn’t (Lycaon suggests himself as a useful test case). The closing analysis of Arete’s question is excellent, though Alcinoos’ behaviour throughout the scene might be imagined not (or not only) as a failure to understand Phaeacian social customs, but within the context of the host role, which is often seen as protective of its standing and ability to shield its guests.

Chapter 4 gives Alcinoos a pretty thorough castigation. What previous scholars have interpreted as signs of hospitality and growing ease with his role as provider of Odysseus’ return, Arft sees as a further attempt to detain Odysseus and mischaracterise him as a martial hero, turning the poem away from the requirements of nostos. This seems debatable: nostos in this case will require considerable martial skill, and so e.g. Laodamas’ later challenge is not, as Arft has it, ‘a step backwards in Odysseus’ itinerary’ (p. 174) rather than an essential demonstration of the physical and diplomatic skills Odysseus will need on Ithaca. Alcinoos’ errors, according to Arft, begin with his sudden announcement of a feast in his house in Book 8 (though perhaps here we could remember that he is, like Nausicaa and Arete, unwittingly acting in concert with Athene’s purposes, as the poet gives them at 8.21–3) and continue through Demodocos’ first song, the purpose of which is to initiate a sequence of ‘agonism’ between Odysseus and Alcinoos, where the former tries to shut down and/or direct stories about himself, and the latter misunderstands those reactions and pulls in an opposite direction. The close analysis of several scenes is rewarding, since Arft has an excellent eye for details, but not in the end compelling. After all, it is Odysseus who demands the audience hear a tale about his signal martial achievement in Troy; that is not, once more, a ‘turning away’ from nostos, but its vital precondition, summarising and enshrining the qualities (intellect and planning, Athene’s support, combat ability) that will be vital on Ithaca. That Alcinoos might on some level want to keep Odysseus in Scheria is suggestive, but it sits at a creative disjunction with his several explicit statements that he is determined to send Odysseus home, and perhaps the multivalency which characterises this group also characterises its king (it is also a consistent theme with other hosts earlier in the epic; Homeric basilees are consistently self-interested). Much, furthermore, is made of Nausicaa’s role in correcting the preceding image of Odysseus (pp. 182–4), but one wonders how transformative the episode is within the context of the wider poem, since he/the poet makes no mention of her during the recapitulation of his adventures to Penelope in Book 23 (338–41; cf. Arft’s assertion that ‘a recapitulation without the Nausicaa we know in our epic would be incomplete and a violation of this sacred agreement’ [p. 184]; a similar claim is made at p. 223 about Arete, but Odysseus/the poet again does not mention the queen in his recapitulation, and the book’s conclusion contains on pp. 275–6 some quite misleading impressions of this passage). The chapter concludes with an examination of Alcinoos’ question as to Odysseus’ identity at the end of Book 9, once more arguing that it reveals several deficiencies in his understanding.

The fifth chapter turns its attention to the Apologoi, with the same contrast between a backward-looking Alcinoos and a forward-looking Arete, where the stories of the tale help to complete the formation of Odysseus’ kleos by shifting away from the Trojan War and turning toward the fact of nostos. Arft argues that the Polyphemos episode is a specific response to Alcinoos (pp. 2015–16), who resembles the Cyclops in more ways than one, while other parts of the tale (especially Book 11) are directed toward Arete’s earlier, unanswered question about his identity, and the completion of the stranger’s interrogation sequence. Again, this reviewer felt too strong a separation between Odysseus’ past and his future (esp. with regard to Polyphemos and Circe), but there is a lot of good and interesting analysis in here. Arft argues that Odysseus combines two generic modes, the (heroine) catalogue form and the story of descent, to appeal to Arete, with the former especially fitting the interests and experience of its main addressee; several interesting links are made between the individual entries and the dialogic purpose of the Apologoi, before Arete herself in the famous intermezzo ‘shifts Odysseus’ kleos into the modality of nostos’ (p. 228). By confirming his status, Arft argues, she confirms the future of his tale and thus the version of him the Odyssey represents.

The final chapter returns to Alcinoos, and his speech after Arete’s in the intermezzo, to characterise it once more as an attempt on his part to turn the kleos back. So, e.g., his praise for Odysseus’ qualities is a sign that he has grasped just one element of his guest’s performance, its entertainment value, having regard only for the speaker’s physical appearance. Much here depends on agreeing with Arft’s earlier analysis of the expression εἰδός τε μέγεθός τε in Arete’s evaluation of Odysseus at 11.337 (pp. 228–9) as revealing her understanding of his ‘inner and outer state’, but we might note in any case that Alcinoos also expresses a judgement about Odysseus’ prudence in terms of his phrenes which seems rather reminiscent of his wife’s comment about his φρένας ἔνδον ἐίσας (337; cf. 367 φρένες ἐσθλαί). Similarly, Arft argues that Alcinoos’ request for more bardic material from his guest is out of place, but Odysseus’ audiences are often charmed by his abilities as a storyteller (cf., e.g., 17.513–21), while the swapping of tales is the general currency of heroic intercourse. Even if ‘Alkinoos (sc. thinks he) has a new bard’ (p. 247), he’s surely not suggesting a permanent detention on Scheria. The analysis of the following encounters proposes that they are not ‘designed to bring glory … but (sc. to show the Trojan War is) a conflict more explicitly designed to separate mortals from immortals by eradicating the heroes who are part of a failed era’ (p. 253). It would have been desirable to engage more closely with the actual speeches, esp. in the case of Agamemnon, since his story is in fact a failed nostos – not, therefore, obviously a generically better option than a Trojan War tale – and of programmatic importance for Odysseus’ story in the Odyssey.

Summarising Arete’s role in the poem and linking her to Penelope, the conclusion draws the argument together. The recapitulation of Book 23 plays an important role in this (esp. pp. 275–6), but Arft seems to think that both Nausicaa and Arete feature prominently in it, and that Odysseus related to his wife their importance to his nostos. This is simply not the case, nor e.g. is it true that ‘a song that would appeal to Arete would appeal to Penelope’, for the frankness of the sexual encounter with Circe (from which Odysseus had to be turned by his men, after a year-long dalliance) would hardly play well on Ithaca, and the poet is careful to confine his summary of that episode to καὶ Κίρκης κατέλεξε δόλον πολυμηχανίην τε (23.321). The passage gives us no warrant to read it as the confirmation of Arete’s importance in the Odyssey (and of Arft’s thesis).

In sum, there is much to profit from in Arft’s work, and something to question; he reads closely and widely, and the way he redefines the role of recognition in the Odyssey to include a widespread pattern of interrogation is new and fruitful, as is the identification and introduction of the interrogation sequence itself. Yet the oppositional treatment of Odysseus’ past and present, and the way that mirrors a similar combativeness in the relationship between Alcinoos and Arete, is too stark to be convincing (perhaps the former is more of a concern for this reviewer than for the majority of readers), while the conclusion appears almost to desiderate a poem other than the one we have. Nonetheless, this reviewer was forced to revisit assumptions and understandings in precisely the way interesting and intelligent analysis should prompt. All Homerists will want to read this book.