Friday, 4 November 2011

(Epos) Nekerdes: Part II

Just to follow up on and flesh out some of the ideas from yesterday's inaugural post.  First, this video which depicts some of the horror of losing treasure (κέρδεα) that you have hoarded:

Second, to develop a bit more fully the contrast between Iliadic notions of action and Odyssean notions of crafty speech.  This is obviously a huge topic, but I want to approach it briefly, in keeping with the theme of the video, through the prism of the sons of the two poems' respective heroes: Neoptolemus (son of Achilles) and Telemachus (son of Odysseus).  I'll just point out in passing (although I am a big believer in noms parlants, especially in Homer) the differences between the meanings of the two names: Neoptolemus meaning "New War", just what is not needed after the horror of the expedition to Troy; while Telemachus means "Far From Battle".  Neoptolemus is the one who kills Astyanax, Hector's infant son (at least, that is his most defenceless and innocent victim), whereas until Athene comes to rouse him, Telemachus does little but sit at home biting his nails over his absent father.

Both are, for one reason or another and to some extent, fatherless.  Neoptolemus' father is off hunting a glory that will never fade, in the knowledge that this will result in his death and, consequently, never seeing his son again.  Achilles' extreme nonchalance when it comes to fatherhood is demonstrated most starkly by his off-hand comment when speaking about his grief at Patroclus' death, in the Iliad at 19.327: "If, I suppose, godlike Neoptolemus is even still alive." (εἴ που ἔτι ζώει γε Νεοπτόλεμος θεοειδής).  This is ironically preceded by his referring to his son as "φίλος υἱός", "beloved/dear son" - the absurdity of this designation is driven home by a comparison to the truly loving attitude of Hector in Book 6 in the Iliad towards his son Astyanax (whom, let us not forget, Neoptolemus will kill).

The line in which Neoptolemus' name is used for the only time in the entire Iliad is particularly emphatic because of its particles: "που", "perhaps, I suppose", is a sort of verbal shrug, an explicit declamation of ignorance; "γε", "at least, at any rate", emphasises the word that precedes it, marks that word as the stressed point of the sentence.  It is a sorely overlooked particle, often misunderstood or brushed aside as being "merely for the metre".  (In fact, I might start a little sub-blog here devoted to this overlooked and under-appreciated particle - Ge And Proud?)  This is a good example of the word's usage to accentuate the tone of the line - in this case indifference, complacency, disinterest - by underlining that the father does not even know if his son is alive or dead; it simultaneously links the sentiment to the ephemeralness (it's in the OED...) of Achilles' own life.

Telemachus receives a lot more attention, in both poems; in the Iliad, Odysseus even refers to himself, in a reversal of the traditional patronymic mode, as the "father of Telemachus" (Τηλεμάχοιο πατὴρ 2.260).  Whereas fatherless Neoptolemus tries to emulate his father with extreme violence and blood-thirst, misunderstanding the point of fighting due to his lack of fatherly guidance (see Iliad Book 9 for evidence of Achilles' sensitivity and thoughtfulness), Telemachus fails to grasp the notion of Odyssean cunning and restraint, going to the opposite extreme to Neoptolemus and indulging in inertia and passivity - however, due to the return of his father, by the end of the Odyssey he has learned about subtlety and caution, proving himself a man by refraining from stringing his father's bow, even though he is able to do so, and lying to cover it up (Od. 21.125-135).

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