The Odyssey

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The Odyssey Book 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Penelope sets out Odysseus's bow and axes, and announces to the suitors that the archer that can shoot an arrow cleanly through the axes will have her hand in marriage. Telemachus tries it first, to set an example, but he can't even string the bow. The suitor Leodes tries the bow and fails: it is too stiff to bend. Other suitors lack the strength to string it as well. Meanwhile, Odysseus speaks to Eumaeus and the cowherd, Philoetius, outside the palace: he tells them his true identity, shows them his scar as proof, and enlists them in the coming battle. He asks Eumaeus to carry him the bow after the suitors have tried it, and to tell the maids to lock their doors; he asks Philoetius to lock the courtyard so that no men can escape.
We are reminded, after watching Odysseus beg in rags and tolerate insult after insult, that he is a hero in the traditional sense as well: he has extraordinary strength and skill. His weapon alone shows that he is far superior to the other men; they can't even string it! But even a hero like Odysseus is not too proud to resort to trickery or to accept help from servants. The notion of the mighty, singular hero is no longer accurate, in this book; 2700 years ago, it is already outdated. Ancient ideas of glory give way to more human notions of honor.
Themes
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
Odysseus reenters the palace, where Eurymachus has just failed to string the bow. Odysseus-the-beggar advises the suitors to rest and pray to the archer god while he himself tries the bow, just to amuse them. Antinous warns him angrily that he may end up like the drunken Centaur Eurythion, who was mauled by his hosts the Lapiths. But Penelope urges the suitors to let the stranger try his luck; there is no shame in such a thing, she says, compared to the shame the suitors have brought on the household. Telemachus asserts his right to be the one to hand over the bow and sends Penelope to her quarters.
Odysseus maintains his ruse until the very end – perhaps he takes pride in the art of disguise. Antinous's warning shows that he does not comprehend honor and custom: honor does not lie in one's social standing, so there is nothing dishonorable in a beggar competing against a lord. Penelope says as much. Telemachus demonstrates his growing maturity and confidence by giving his mother orders and thereby protecting her from the coming battle.
Themes
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
Eumaeus carries the bow to the king amidst the mocking of the suitors. Odysseus strings the bow as gracefully as a bard tuning his lyre; Zeus sends down a bolt of lightning. Then the king shoots the arrow cleanly through the row of axes. He says to Telemachus: it's time for the song and dance that follow a feast.
Homer compares Odysseus to a bard to show both his facility with the unwieldy bow and the artfulness of his schemes. In this moment, Odysseus regains his heroic stature; but his glory is now more human as it contains traces of the helplessness, despair, and humiliation he experienced in his 20 years of travel back to Ithaca.
Themes
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon