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Homer’s epic, the Odyssey, is a heroic narrative that follows the adventures of Odysseus, the powerful King of Ithaca. The main story involves Odysseus’s return journey to his homeland after the Trojan War. However, Homer skips around in the action periodically to give the reader a better understanding and interest in what is going on in the epic. Homer takes his audience from the present action involving Telemakhos’ search for news of his father’s return, to the past where Odysseus tells the Phaiakians of his tragic journey home after the war. The events in Homer’s epic are not in order but still prove more effective at guiding the reader through the narrative. Although the events in the Odyssey are not in chronological order, the story line is enriched by Homer’s use of the in media res method because it introduces characters that were not involved in Odysseus’ adventure, because it shows the urgency of Odysseus’ return to his kingdom, and because it allows the reader to become more interested in the opening chapters without having to wait for a climax in the action.
In media res is Latin for “in the middle of the race” which is a style used by Homer in the Odyssey when he begins the story in the middle of the action. In this way Homer is able to introduce major characters that would otherwise not be included in the narrative until the end of the epic. Three major characters introduced by this method are Telemakhos,
Odysseus’ son; Penelope, Odysseus’ wife; and the suitors, prominent young men of Ithaca who attempt to marry Penelope. Telemakhos is the first of these characters to be introduced. In lines 1-14 of book II he is introduced as a prominent young man as he enters the assembly “spear in hand, with two quick hounds at heel; Athena lavished on him a sunlit grace that held the eye of the multitude. Old men made way for him as he took his father’s chair.” Despite Telemakhos’ prominent figure in the opening lines of this book, it soon becomes obvious that he is not an extremely powerful figure. Telemakhos intends to expel the suitors from his home but he is not strong enough to fight them. It is important that the reader meets Telemakhos in the beginning because he is the main character in the Ithaca plot and also he must overcome obstacles at home foreshadowing the obstacles his father faces later in the epic.
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Homer also leaves the proper order of time in the Odyssey to show Odysseus’ urgency to return home to his beloved wife and kingdom. Odysseus faces many hardships on his journey home and could have easily given up. However, Odysseus overcomes the adversities because he is a true hero and must return home to restore his kingdom under his rule. In book V the story changes its focus on Telemakhos to a focus on the adventures of Odysseus. After being held captive by Calypso and treated like a god for several years Odysseus is still determined to return home. When she asks him why it is so important for him to return to his wife and kingdom and risk more hardships by returning he answers in lines 224-233 in book V: ‘My lady goddess, here is no cause for anger. My quiet Penelope- how well I know- would seem a shade before your majesty, death and old age being unknown to you, while she must die. Yet, it is true, each day I long for home, long for the sight of home.
If any god has marked me out again for shipwreck, my tough heart can undergo it. What hardship have I not long since endured at sea, in battle! Let the trial come.”
In this statement Odysseus has explained that he has endured many years without his wife and homeland. He misses Ithaca so much that he welcomes any obstacles he must overcome to return home.
As part of the in media res method an author must fill in the missing details of a story by inserting flashbacks and taking the story temporally out of chronological order. Homer uses Odysseus’s flashback to tell the story of his adventure home to the
Phaiakians. When Odysseus arrives at the island of the Phaiakians he begs them to bring him home to Ithaca. Odysseus then explains his journey that brought him to their island and all of the hardships he has overcome. He flashbacks his story starting with The Trojan War then goes into the rest of his hardships including Ismarus, the Land of the Lotus-eaters, Land of Cyclops, The bag of winds from Aeolia, the Land of the
Laestrygonians, the witch Circe, the Siren’s enchanting song, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sun god’s Island, Calypso’s Island and finally the Island of the Phaiakians. The fact that Odysseus is still determined to get home after all of these impediments is incredible. Odysseus’ extreme will power shows the urgency behind his return.
Homer’s most important reason for using the en media res method and taking the epic out of chronological order is that it draws the reader into the story right away instead of having the reader wait for a climax in the action. By using this method the reader feels more involved in Odysseus’ journey because the reader knows he must return home to solve the problems of his kingdom. The audience already knows that Odysseus’ ultimate goal is to return home and expel the suitors from his house even before Odysseus knows his fate. In a way the reader goes through the narrative to make sure that this happens. The clear example of the reader understanding Odysseus’ destiny comes in book II in lines 49-85 during Telemakhos’ speech during the assembly that begins the action in the epic. Telemakhos explains that it is not courteous for the suitors to plunder his home and riches and that the suitors have no indignation or shame about the foul acts that they commit. Later on in the assembly Telemakhos begs that Zeus come so that the suitors “shall get what you deserve: a slaughter here, and nothing paid for it!” (Lines 153- 154). After that statement Zeus sends a sign to the Greeks:
Now Zeus who views the wide world sent a sign to him, launching a pair of eagles from a mountain crest in gliding flight down the soft blowing wind, wing-tip to wing-tip quivering taut, companions, till high above the assembly of many voices they wheeled, their dense wings beating, and in havoc dropped on the heads of the crowd- a deathly omen- wielding their talons, tearing cheeks and throats; then veered away on the right hand through the city. Astonished, gaping after the birds, the men felt their hearts flood, foreboding things to come.(Lines 155-165, book II.)
This sign acknowledges Telemakhos’ bid for divine intervention and serves as an omen to all that Odysseus will return and kill the suitors. The reader has now become drawn into the story and they are now aware of Odysseus’ ultimate task.
The Odyssey is a timeless work because of the creative style Homer used to pique the audience’s interest. The narrative style allows the reader to relate with Odysseus more than anyone else because most of the Odyssey is told like a story. Homer’s use of in media res really holds the reader’s attention throughout the narrative. It is perhaps still so greatly appreciated today because a hero figure is so greatly desired in all cultures. Odysseus’ ability to overcome so many obstacles to reach his goal is what really captivates readers. Many readers could only imagine what it would take to accomplish Odysseus’ feats but most readers would be able to apply his virtue of never giving up to their own lives.