The Villains in Penelope’s Yard

Why we love that cast of losers, lechers and freeloaders

Unless you find some cruel delight in tormenting a poor, helpless soul, don’t come asking me to name my favorite episode of Homer’s Odyssey. Answering that question could take as long as the poor soldier’s journey home; and whatever I give for an answer today will probably change tomorrow.

My very first favorite, way back in my college days, was the Island of the Lotus-eaters (Book IX), but that’s probably because I’d just read Tennyson’s poem in another class. I hadn’t yet come to “the land of the Cyclops”, those “high and mighty, man-devouring, lawless brutes…who live in arching caverns…each one a law unto himself…” (Book IX: ll.118-128).

Robert Fagles translation of Homer’s The Odyssey Viking Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, New York, 1996

And, then again, let’s not overlook the lair of the beautiful Circe, “with the lovely braids and the awesome power” and the seductive voice that turns men into swine. She has an entire herd of them already, when Odysseus first sets foot on her island, and by the time he leaves, at the end of Book X, quite a few of his own sailors will be wallowing in the pen along with them. Circe is Homer’s embodiment of the perils of beauty skin-deep.

And do we really want to leave out the Island of the Sirens? “Those creatures who will spellbind any man alive, whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air, no sailing home

for him. No! No wife to rise to meet him, no happy children beaming up at their father’s face…” (Book XII ll. 44-49)

My latest choice might take you by surprise; and it just might be my final; it might be here to stay. I’m talking about that marvelous cast of worthless, no-good, obnoxious “suitors” who have been camping out in Penelope’s yard for months on end—or has it been years? Who knows just when it all began?

I have the wonderful Robert Fagles translation to credit for my my latest choice. His two-volume, sleeved set of the Iliad and the Odyssey is physically such a beautiful thing.1 I don’t remember, in my previous readings of older translations 2, ever being so “stirred up” by this gaggle of low-life degenerates. By the time you finish reading the suitor episodes of Fagles’ translation (Books XVII-XX), you just can’t wait for justice to come.

And let’s not call them “suitors” shall we? I know that sounds a little brazen, since Homer himself does call them that—μνηστηροι: “suitors”—over and over again. But isn’t that just for lack of a better word? Penelope wouldn’t touch these creatures with the heel of her sandal. (The story of her ingenious delaying tactic is for another post altogether; I don’t have space to get into it here)

By the way, if you want your young ones to enjoy this great classic, Fagles’ translation is the best for that. Buy them a copy and help them along. They won’t need much help; it is wonderfully readable. (So too is Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, I might add; and it grieves me to see our schools using dumbed-down, silly paraphrases when our translators have done such a marvelous job of making them perfectly readable for the young, contemporary reader).

But here is the question, and the point of my study: Why is “villainy” always such an important element in any dramatic narrative? It is an age-old phenomenon that, at the heart of almost every good drama, you will find evil-doers; and the beastly kind (cyclops, Grendels, etc) are not nearly as compelling and engaging as the human kind. Isn’t that interesting? I’d love to know why! Perhaps you can keep that in mind as I introduce you to the human ones in Penelope’s courtyard.

Just in case it’s been a while and you’ve forgotten what the “suitor” theme is all about, let me fill you in a bit…

Odysseus has been gone from his island kingdom (Ithaca) and his beautiful queen, Penelope, for twenty years now. He spent ten years fighting the Battle of Troy; and his horrific journey home has taken another ten. All the other survivors of Troy have been home for years already, so you can imagine Penelope’s grief.

Penelope and the Suitors 1912,
by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

Everyone keeps insisting to her that her husband is dead, of course; that it’s “time to move on”, time to “get over it”. (The nauseating word “closure” had not yet been invented). But—good for her!—she follows her heart and refuses to listen to any of this, because her…man…is…coming…home! Sometimes she knows it; at other times she wonders…and worries.

And so we have it that, as early as the very first chapter of Homer’s Odyssey, there is a crowd of leering, raucus, self-flattering men camping out in Penelope’s yard, hoping to impress her, hoping to “win her hand”. They heckle Penelope and terrify her young son Telemachus, threatening to use force upon both of them if she doesn’t make up her mind and give up her widowhood and choose one of the “prizes” out in the yard.

Oh, did I mention that they are also eating and drinking the poor woman out of house and home? Well, of course, they have to be fed while they camp and wallow and conduct the rigorous business of “wooing”. So they gorge themselves on Penelope’s cattle and crops and wines. There is an entire “herd” of these “swine”, 108 of them we are told, 3 and Circe has had nothing to do with it! Odysseus’ son Telemachus has been too young so far to drive them off; Penelope is not strong enough to do it, and so the once glorious House of Odysseus is verging on insolvency and falling into ruin.

To make the story even more engaging, upon his arrival in Ithaca, Odysseus takes on a disguise: “looking for all the world like an old and broken beggar, hunched on a stick, his body wrapped in shameful rags…” 4 There he meets Eumaeus—his faithful, humble old swineherd—“the finest and most loyal of all the household hands Odysseus ever had”.5 Eumaeus doesn’t recognize his master in the “beggar”, but has compassion on him and takes him in, promising to help him find a place to beg a morsel or two. In fact, he knows exactly where to go: there’s feasting every day in his mistress’ courtyard; the beggar is sure to find a scrap or two there.

Odysseus’ disguise will be a test of his wife: Does she still love him? Has she been faithful? Does she still want him back? He won’t be disappointed.

Penelope Unraveling Her Work At Night (1886)
by Dora Wheeler (1856-1940)

But Odysseus’ disguise is also a test of the suitors: what kind of people will they prove to be? How do they treat those less fortunate than themselves? Should they be punished for their indignities with his queen; and their threats upon his son? If so, how much punishment should be meted out? Needless to

say, by the time we have our fill of these men, we will all be shouting: “bring it on; and don’t hold back!”

Before they even arrive at Penelope’s home, while still on the road together, Eumaeus and the “beggar” have their first unpleasant encounter: a man named Melanthius…

Melanthius is a goat-herd who serves and cooks for all the suitors, enjoying their favor and friendship. He is always welcome at their table which, for a lowly goat-herd, is quite a credential. And, of course, since he is a goat-herd, the very sight of a swine-herd like old Eumaeus—with a filthy beggar in tow no less!—well, it just fills Melanthius with contempt:

“Look!” he sneered, “one scum nosing another scum along,
dirt finds dirt by the will of the gods, it never fails!
Wretched pig-boy, where do you take your filthy swine,
this sickening beggar who licks the pots at feasts?
Hanging round the doorposts, rubbing his back,
scavenging after scraps,
no hero’s swords and cauldrons, not for him.
Hand him over to me—I’ll teach him to work a farm,
muck out my stalls, pitch feed to the young goats,
whey to drink will put some muscle on his hams!
Oh no, he’s learned his lazy ways too well,
he’s got no itch to stick to good hard work,
he’d rather go scrounging round the countryside,
begging for crusts to stuff his greedy gut!
Let me tell you—so help me it’s the truth—
if he sets foot in King Odysseus’ royal palace,
salvos of footstools flung at his head by all the lords

will crack his ribs as he runs the line of fire through the house!” 6

Upon their arrival, when Emaeus and the “beggar” first step into the banquet hall, Antinous is the first of all the suitors to erupt:

“Your highness, swineherd—why drag this to town?
Haven’t we got our share of vagabonds to deal with,
disgusting beggars who lick the feasters’ plates?
Isn’t it quite enough, these swarming crowds
consuming your master’s bounty

must you invite this rascal in the bargain?” 7

A few minutes later, when the “beggar” gently rebukes him, Antinous explodes again and heaves a footstool into Odysseus’ back. 8

Later that afternoon, an old tramp, another favorite of the suitors, arrives to beg some scraps. Arnaeus is his name and, at first sight of Odysseus, he flies into a rage at the prospect of competition…

He…met Odysseus now with a rough, abusive burst:
“Get off the porch you old goat, before I haul you
off by the leg! Can’t you see them give me the wink,
all of them here, to drag you out—and so I would
but I’ve got some pangs of conscience. Up with you, man,
or before you know it we’ll be trading blows..

With fighting words like that, the suitors all burst into applause, howling with delight at the prospect of a fight between the two beggars.

The next suitor to mouth off is Eurymachus. He feigns an offer of work to the “beggar”, only to withdraw it later:

“Stranger, how would you like to work for me
if I took you on—I’d give you decent wages—
picking the stones to lay a tight dry wall
or planting tall trees on the edge of my estate?
I’d give you rations to last you year-round,
clothes for your body, sandals for your feet.
Oh no! You’ve learned your lazy ways too well,
you’ve got no itch to stick to good hard work,
you’d rather go scrounging round the countryside,
begging for crusts to stuff your greedy gut!”

Just a few minutes later, Eurymachus is throwing a footstool now, but this time, when Odysseus ducks it, the missile strikes down the wine steward instead; and “all the suitors break into an uproar thoughout the shadowed halls”. 11

Eurymachus has a girlfriend. Her name is Melantho and she’s a genuine piece of work. She is supposed to be one of Penelope’s servants, but she is sullen, grudging, and thoroughly disloyal. Whenever her mistress is not around, she’s just as arrogant and insolent as her man. Upon her first encounter with the “beggar” (not knowing that he’s the master of her household; not knowing that he is King of the land!) she lets loose with a string of invectives:

“Cock of the walk, did someone beat your brains out?
Why not go bed down at the blacksmith’s cozy forge?
Or a public place where tramps collect? Why here—
blithering on, nonstop, bold as brass, in the face of all these lords?
No fear in your heart? Wine got to your wits?
Or do you always play the fool and babble nonsense?”

Miss Melantho is resentful that a mere beggar has had the gall to even speak among the “lordly” suitors in Penelope’s yard; one of whom has been her lover. Later Melantho spies the “beggar” returning from his tender interview with Penelope (the beginning of Book XVIII), and she is furious to be bumping into him again:

“You still here, you pest? Slinking around the house all night,
leering up at the women?
Get out you tramp—be glad of the food you got—
or we’ll sling a torch at you, rout you out at once!”

Insolence, arrogance, invective and contempt: these seem to be rather contagious qualities here in the “suitor” episodes of Homer’s Odyssey (with striking parallels to our culture today!) Everyone even remotely related to the suitors—a goat-herd, a tramp, a girl-friend—has been infected with their “disease”.

At the end of Book XX, right before Odysseus, thankfully, “strings his bow”—everyone in this wicked crowd starts hurling their contempt toward the “beggar”. One man throws an ox-hoof at his head. (That’s Ctessipus). One man calls him “a mangy tramp, scraping for bread and wine.” “A bag of bones,” another chimes in, “not fit for good work”; and yet another refers to him as: “useless dead weight on the the land.” 14 With every derisive word, the suitors erupt with howling and laughter, all registering their concurrence; until everyone present has now become complicit in the abuses that have occured.

Amazingly, to none of them has it yet occured that the “beggar” is their king! And with that, they show themselves to be the inferiors of Argos, Odysseus’ dear old dog, who “thumped his tail” at the very first sight of his master, and almost blew his disguise. 15 It’s a shocking thought, that the man they’ve been reviling and despising all this time, is actually their returning king, and he is coming with a swift and bloody judgment in his wake! Book XXII is incredibly violent and graphic (parents, you might want to preview Book XXII before giving the book to your youngest ones), but by this time the reader can hardly expect anything else. Homer has specifically “set us up” to expect—and even endorse, by now—the violent reckoning that finally comes.

Penelope (1852)
by Thomas Seddon (1821-1856)

Which touches upon our original question: what is it about villainy and evildoing that makes it almost a requirement for any true drama? Oh, there are drama without villains, of course: catastrophe tales that have no evildoer; stories and movies about plane crashes and earthquakes and floods and hurricanes. But most would consider them somewhat inferior. “Drama of spectacle” they have been called, since the days of Aristotle who, himself, labeled them “inartistic”. 16 Their stories may be exciting, perhaps, and even heroic in their own way, but lacking the very important dimension of moral outrage and its ultimate resolution. Stories that lack that dimension are never quite as engaging.

A beautiful exception is some of the writing of Willa Cather. Her My Antonia has not a single evildoer. But Cather, I’m sure, would be the first to admit that she wasn’t trying to write a “dramatic” narrative. My Antonia is a kind of fictional “ode”, or “elegy” to the prairie life and its charming cast of characters. And even in her wonderful O Pioneers, which actually is quite dramatic, the evildoer turns out to be a pitiful soul that moves us to compassion. Such is Willa Cather’s marvelous love for all her characters. With a few exceptions aside, when the world needs to be “moved” by a literary work; when it needs to “see itself”—its struggles and its heartaches and its battles—there must be evildoers. And I find that fascinating! What makes the evildoer so indispensable?

Here’s my take (I’d love to hear yours! Drop me a comment):

This poor human race of ours is deeply invested in the issue of evil-doing; so thoroughly so that the mere suggestion of it can pique a reader’s interest and send him in pursuit of its resolution; and every poet, playwright and novelist knows how to seize upon that to captivate his audience.

There seems to be some ancient longing, deep within the human soul, to see good prevail and evil fail and justice to rule at last. Every reader knows that his world, if not his personal life, is engaged in such a struggle. Unable to solve all the evils of this world, perhaps we take some solace in seeing them vanquished on the stage, or in the pages of a book.

That longing is no incidental thing. It is deeply ingrained, and I personally believe it is the by-product of our creation by the hand of a righteous God. Skeptics may try to refute such a notion, of course, but isn’t it interesting that no one doubts that the longing is there! Every writer and every artist in every culture on earth knows it is there; and knows how to incite it; take advantage of it, to make his tale compelling. And to do that he needs “villains”.

These days, of course, it is the popular thing to disavow any interest in “right and wrong” and disparage the very notion of “moral absolutes” altogether. After all, isn’t that the current vogue?

But—oh!—bring in the “suitors” and let them brawl! Let them despise the good man and traumatize the innocent and victimize the helpless! Then we will see the hard-bitten moral relativist embrace an absolute value or two! He will be just as anxious as anyone else to see the righting of that wrong! Evildoers have a way of doing that: drawing us all into the fray! Our appetite for justice and righteousness may not be perfect, of course, but it’s there, planted deep within! And whenever evildoers arise, the hunger for justice rumbles again.

Oh, yes, it is true: the human race is deeply invested in the issue of evildoing. And this, by the way, seems to set us apart from the rest of living creatures—have you thought about this?—as far as we can tell anyway. Isn’t it interesting that Man is the only creature that “wrongs”? He, after all, is the “fallen” one. And therein, I believe, is the key: that longing for justice is all intertwined with the predicament of Man’s sin, and his so-thoroughly human need to be free from it.

We have the Holy Scriptures, of course, to explain all this so clearly and perfectly; and you will not find, on the face of the earth, another book that does so. But what you will find in other books, in stories and writings from all over the world, is that that longing is there! And that writers from every nation, tribe and tongue have been seizing upon it for centuries, to touch the hearts of readers and engage them in the struggle.

And here we are, finding it now, even in Homer’s Odyssey.

  1. Robert Fagles, Homer: The Odyssey Viking Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, New York, 1996 ISBN 978-0-14-026886-7.
  2. The most notable of all the many translations of Homer are: George Chapman (1615); Alexander Pope (1725); Andrew Lang (1879); Willilam Morris (1887); Samuel Butler (1900); Richard Latimore (1965); Emily Wilson (W.W. Norton, 1971) and Robert Fagles (Viking 1996).
  3. Ibid. 1, Bk XVI, ll. 275-281 p. 346.
  4. Ibid. Bk XVII, ll. 370-371 p. 365.
  5. Ibid. Bk XIV, ll. 3-4 p. 301.
  6. ibid. Bk XVII, ll. 236-253, p. 361.
  7. Ibid. ll. 411-417, p. 366.
  8. Ibid. ll. 509-515, p. 369.
  9. Ibid. Bk XVIII, ll. 12-16, p. 375.
  10. Ibid. ll. 404-413, p. 387; these last four lines are an interesting duplication of Melanthius’ words (above); it must have been a common saying.
  11. Ibid. ll. 437-450, p. 388.
  12. Ibid. ll. 370-376, p. 386.
  13. Ibid. Bk XIX ll. 71-75, p. 392.
  14. Ibid. Bk XX ll. 421-424, p. 423.
  15. Ibid. Bk XVII ll. 329-334, p. 364
  16. The Poetics of Aristotle, tr. by Preston H. Epps, Univ. of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1970, p. 26-27. Aristotle was focusing on “tragedy” with his critique: dismissing those who produce tragedy of spectacle as “striving to arouse fear and pity only through what is monstrous,” and thus proving themselves to be “total strangers to the nature and purpose of tragedy.”

Categories: Books and Literature, Fiction, Literary Treasures

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