Telemachus’ journey serves, in some ways, as a framing device for the overall story of The Odyssey: Odysseus’ adventures in his quest to return home. Telemachus’ journey, however, is important in its own right: it marks his transition from a youth to a man. Although it is in many ways much easier than Odysseus’ journey, inasmuch as Telemachus faces no monsters or angry gods and is actually guided, encouraged, and helped by Athena every step of the way, nonetheless Telemachus’ journey is significant because of what it makes of him. Having grown up without his father, the youth must learn, with help from Athena, to mold his character to that of a higher level: he must cease to be a boy and finally become a man. In so doing, Telemachus becomes a hero in his own right.
Telemachus’ journey is, in many ways, a coming of age story. It is the story of how a boy became a man, and it is a heroic tale in its own right (Said 132-133). At the beginning of the story, the youth Telemachus is despondent, sulking over the state to which his father’s palace has been reduced by the suitors who are wooing his mother (MacDonald 213, Said 133). He is, unquestionably, melancholic, insecure, and full of doubt and woe (Clarke 32). However, in Telemachus’ defense, it must be emphasized that he has grown up without a father, since Odysseus has been away, first fighting the Trojan War and then trying to get home, for most of Telemachus’ life (MacDonald 213).
And yet, Telemachus is not without redeeming traits as a character. As befits a character with an important role to imply in such a literary masterpiece, Telemachus has a compelling conflict: he seeks to find a way to rid himself and his mother of the suitors, although he is largely caught up in despair, and pins what feeble hope he has on the prospect of his father’s return (Clarke 32, MacDonald 213). But as Said points out, his true redeeming characteristic right at the outset is his willingness to be a good host to the goddess Athena, in disguise as Mentes, an old friend of Odysseus: he shows nothing but the greatest of courtesies to his guest, establishing his essentially generous and noble nature (134).
Much as Athena has aided Odysseus on many an occasion, so now she aids Telemachus, encouraging him and giving him advice. As Rojcewicz explains, Athena essentially acts as Telemachus’ therapist: she listens to him, gives him advice, and encourages him with news of his father, whom she explains is actually still alive, contrary to Telemachus’ rather understandable fears that Odysseus was dead (99-100). This is Telemachus’ call to adventure, an adventure that will entail him becoming a man (100-101).
By this point alone, many of the parallels between the stories of Telemachus and Odysseus are rather obvious, as are many of the differences. Telemachus is trying to find Odysseus; Odysseus is trying to return home. Thus, the goals of both are clearly convergent, in a sense: they involve the family being reunited. However, a key and obvious difference is the starting point: Odysseus has been away from home and is seeking to return, while Telemachus needs to leave home. There is an important symbolic dimension to this as well, of course: Telemachus needs to become a man; thus, his heroic quest must involve him leaving home to do something important. Odysseus is a seasoned hero and wanderer, who is trying to bring his long journeys to an end and return to his wife, son, and kingdom.
In book II, the goddess Athena, now in another guise, makes it explicitly clear why Telemachus is going on this journey: the purpose of the journey is a test of whether or not Telemachus has his father’s menos, his combative spirit, and his mētis, his resourcefulness (Said 138). Thus, Telemachus’ quest is very much a means for him to prove himself, a task he completes admirably well in his journeys from Ithaca to Pylos to Sparta and beyond (139). Telemachus’ quest is a quest for identity, in many ways: a test to figure out what he is truly made of, what he can do; whether he is or is not his father’s son (Clarke 32). That is what he will spend his adventures figuring out, with the help and guidance of Athena (32).
There is a parallel here with Odysseus, and indeed with most heroic quests, in that Odysseus too was tested and had to use his resourcefulness and native wit to overcome many obstacles and extricate himself from many mishaps. However, again, Odysseus was already a well accomplished and established man when he set out for the Trojan War, to say nothing of his adventures attempting to get home. Odysseus has plenty of reason to be confident in his own resourcefulness and ability, although these are tested to their utmost. Telemachus needs to figure out that he can be resourceful and capable, just like his father. Since he has grown up without his father, this is no light task, and achieving it is something of absolutely profound personal significance to Telemachus.
The character of the journeys is profoundly different as well, speaking in terms of what Telemachus and Odysseus, respectively, meet with. Telemachus’ journey is, in many ways, much the easier one. It takes place firmly anchored in the geography of the real world, while Odysseus’ journeys have a much more mythic quality about them (Said 139). Odysseus meets with the Cyclops Polyphemus, summons the shades of the underworld, encounters sirens, and meets with powerful beings, such as the wind-keeping thaumaturge Aeolus and the goddess Calypso (139). Telemachus’ encounters are not only much more mundane in that sense, but also far more hospitable: he is well received by none other than Menelaus and the now-returned Helen, among other hosts (139).
Much to his credit, Telemachus does show evidence of maturation over the course of his journey. Rojcewicz notes that when he first comes to Menelaus’ palace, he is absolutely wonderstruck, “comparing the palace to the halls of Zeus (IV, 74)” (101). By the time he leaves, however, he is clearly not overawed any longer: he has become that much more mature, and “demonstrates the ability to think for himself” (101).
Telemachus’ relationship with the goddess Athena is also far more pleasant and much less ambivalent than Odysseus’ (Said 139-140). Athena functions as his mentor and even patron, encouraging him, supporting him, and often protecting him in ways that she seldom did for Odysseus (139). Indeed, Odysseus is largely on his own: although Athena’s reasons are somewhat opaque, Odysseus was on his own since he left Troy (Deneen 64). Moreover, Athena finally intervenes with Zeus on Odysseus’ behalf after Odysseus has been marooned on Calypso’s isle for a full seven years (64). The reason Athena gives for waiting so long is the wrath of Poseidon against Odysseus (for blinding Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus), but there is actually a case that Athena herself was angry not only with Odysseus, but with all the Greeks, and this is why she was absent since the end of the Trojan War (Clay 45-46). Thus, Odysseus has a much more troubled relationship, not only with Athena but also with other members of the divine pantheon, than does Telemachus.
Finally, the stories of Telemachus and his father Odysseus converge, as they both return to Ithaca and, working together, take on and massacre the suitors (Clarke 39-40). Telemachus has come of age, and Odysseus has come home. The complementarity of these stories is enhanced by their differences: the fact that two such different heroes have two such different journeys, but end up in the same place geographically though a different place thematically, enhances the overall power of The Odyssey. Telemachus’ journey is a journey in its own right, though it is also a kind of subplot in The Odyssey, since it does testify to Odysseus’ greatness as a hero and connect to his overall quest.
Although Telemachus’ journey was much the easier of the two, it is still very clear that his journey has changed him, and he will never be the same. No longer the callow youth who spent his woebegone days in misery, he has become mature, confident, and able to help exact retribution on the suitors who once ran amok in his father’s palace. He has become his father’s son in spirit and in ability as well as by blood, and he has been reunited with his father. His journey may not feature the monsters, angry gods, and other colorful elements that Odysseus dealt with, but Telemachus’ journey has been just as meaningful for him. In a word, Telemachus has become a man, and it is this accession to a higher level of character and maturity that makes his journey so profound and timeless.
Telemachus and Odysseus are very different heroes on very different journeys. Odysseus’ journey is a quest to return home; along the way, he must use all of his resourcefulness and cunning to plan and connive his way out of, over, or around any number of obstacles. He loses everything, and ends up marooned on Calypso’s isle for seven years. But Odysseus is a seasoned hero by this point, one who has already achieved many things, including renown. His son Telemachus is but a youth, a youth who has grown up without his father and is utterly at a loss as to what to do about the suitors who have effectively come to rule the roost in Odysseus’ absence. Still, he has the redeeming characteristic of a generous heart for hospitality, and this enables him to be open to what the goddess Athena, in disguise, tells him. Mentored by Athena, Telemachus can finally become what he needs to be: a man, and his father’s son at that. His story is a subplot in The Odyssey, easily overshadowed by his father’s far more exciting adventures; nonetheless, Telemachus’ journey is no less a journey of the soul, and a significant character transformation.
Clarke, Howard W. The Art of the Odyssey. 1967. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1989. Print.
Clay, Jenny S. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey. 1983. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997. Print.
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MacDonald, Dennis R. Christianizing Homer: The Odyssey, Plato, and the Acts of Andrew. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.
Rojcewicz, Stephen. “Psychotherapy in the Odyssey.” Journal of Poetry Therapy 22.2 (2009): 99-103. EBSCOhost. Web. 16 Nov. 2012.
Said, Suzanne. Homer and the Odyssey. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.