This is the longer version of my write-up for the Greek & Roman Mythology course writing assignment on the Coursera.
Some scholars have claimed that book 24 is a late addition to the Odyssey by a later editor and was never intended by Homer to be part of the epic. Using only Homer’s poetry as evidence, they wonder how well (or not well) it serves as a conclusion to the story and whether book 23 could serve as a better one. Weigh in yourself on this question. Would the Odyssey make more sense as a story if it ended with book 23? Why or why not? Justify your position using specific evidence from the epic. Analyze the main themes of book 23 and book 24 and evaluate how they relate or do not relate to the main themes of the story as a whole. Then construct a case either that 23 or 24 makes a better conclusion.
Book 23 actually ends quite nicely with the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope. Nevertheless, there are still two unresolved issues at the end of book 23.
First, Odysseus still needed to deal with the relatives of the suitors. Odysseus said to Telemachus that someone would run away after he killed an anonymous man. But now they had done something much worse. They had just killed the best of Ithaca’s princes. Surely the retaliation would be much worse as well (Fagles, 384). Telemachus replied that surely his father, as “the best on earth… when it comes to mapping tactics” (384), would know what to do next. Odysseus then replied that for now they were just going to wash themselves and put on fresh tunics. The bard would play his song and lead them for a dance, such that those who passed the house would think that there was a party going on. The ruse did work, and it bought him some time before the relatives of the suitors realized that something was going amiss. For now, Odysseus said,
“No news of the suitors’ death must spread through town
till we have slipped away to our own estates,
our orchard green with trees. There we’ll see
what winning strategy Zeus will hand us then.” (385)
At the end of book 23, Odysseus also indicated to Penelope that he needed to meet his father, Laertes (392).
“But now I must be off to the upland farm,
our orchard green with trees, to see my father,
good old man weighed down with so much grief for me.
And you, dear woman, sensible as you are,
I would advise you, still…
quick as the rising sun the news will spread
of the suitors that I killed inside the house.” (392)
At first it looks like that Odysseus wanted to see his father because he had been in so much grief for him all these years. Also, he had met his mother at the underworld, re-united with his wife and his son (and his servants), and the only person left that he hadn’t met yet was his father. Meeting his father would complete his reunion. But, Odysseus being Odysseus, it is not the only reason Odysseus wanted to meet his father. The other reason Odysseus wanted to meet his father is he would need his father to help him dealing with the relatives of the suitors (385, note the echo of ‘our orchard green with trees’ to refer to his father’s estate in 392).
Second, Odysseus still needed to complete his task to appease Poseidon’s wrath. Odysseus told Penelope, “We have still not reached the end of all our trials. One more labor lies in store.” (388) During his journey to the underworld, the ghost of the prophet Tiresias said to him that he “must carry a well-planed oar” to “a people who know nothing of the sea”, such that someone would call it “a fan to winnow grain” (389). When he met such people, he should then plant the oar and make sacrifice to Poseidon. Only by then he could make amends of what he did earlier to Poseidon’s son, Polyphemus the Cyclops (177-178).
So, these are the two unresolved issues if we ended with Book 23.
And Book 24 does deal with the first issue. Odysseus managed to meet his father (which, again, in itself would become a nice conclusion as now he has completed all his reunions) and enlist his help to face the Ithacans (404), which finally ended with peace (410).
Additionally, in Book 24 we also read the story of the suitors in the underworld. They are not necessary by themselves but serve as a link to Agamemnon. Remember, Odysseus’ story is basically the opposite of Agamemnon’s. Odysseus can return successfully to his home because Agamemnon didn’t. Odysseus learnt from what happened to Agamemnon and he did learn the lesson well. Thus, Book 24 also becomes a fitting end for Agamemnon. “Happy Odysseus! Son of old Laertes—mastermind—what a fine, faithful wife you won!” (399)
How about the second issue with Poseidon, then? Well, I think the journey with the oar could become another epic on its own. We could imagine it as a preview of a sequel if we are watching a movie.
Thus, although Book 23 could make a good conclusion, Book 24 would make a better one. It completes Odysseus’ reunion with his family, it ends the book not with the existing possibility of revenge but with peace, and it also completes the story for Agamemnon, whose story becomes the back-story of Odysseus’.