The planting of trees in the orchard—the passing down of tradition, of the moral wisdom of the past, of the torch of life, and of the beauty of life’s simplest but richest and pleasures—produces the great harvest of joy that culminates in the final chapters of the “Odyssey.”
Editor’s Note: Imaginative Conservative Senior Contributor Mitchell Kalpakgian passed away on August 28, 2018. This is the final essay that he wrote for us, and perhaps the very last scholarly work he completed. Fellow Senior Contributor Joseph Pearce has composed this fine tribute to Professor Kalpakgian.
In the concluding chapters of the Odyssey after Odysseus’ twenty-year absence from Ithaca, he returns home from the Trojan War and from the years of wandering after the fall of Troy. From the moment he arrives in Ithaca as a beggar in disguise to the revelation of his real name, Odysseus experiences many reunions with all the beloved members of his household and family who have mourned his absence and yearn for his return to reunite the family, restore justice to his kingdom, and expel the suitors of Penelope who have corrupted the home and brought barbarism into civilization. In every one of these reunion scenes between master and servant, father and son, husband and wife, and father and grandfather Homer depicts scenes of the sweetness of life (“something life perfection”) and the most exquisite joys of the heart. None of the exotic pleasures Odysseus has experienced in his travels or the heroic adventures that have earned great glory bring Odysseus the complete fulfillment or the overflowing joy that these scenes of reunion bring to his life—neither the island paradise of Calypso whose peerless beauty never fades nor the royal welcome of the Phaeacians and King Alcinous who offers Odysseus the hand of his daughter Nausicaa, a maiden whose incomparable beauty moved him to ask in awe if she were a mortal or a goddess who resembles Artemis: “I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me.”
After an absence of twenty years and upon arrival in Ithaca, Odysseus in disguise seeks news of the situation of his family and the state of his kingdom. Has his wife Penelope remarried? Has his son Telemachus matured into noble manhood? Is his aged father Laertes alive or in good health? Have the swineherd and maidservants remained loyal and faithful to their master and fulfilled all their duties in the care and maintenance of the home and estate? In seeking the answers to these natural questions and posing as a stranger learning from his conversations, Odysseus distinguishes between his friends and enemies, slowly disclosing his identity to all who prove their great devotion and deep affection for their master, father, and husband. These episodes of heartwarming reunion abounding with spontaneous tears of joy define the sum human happiness at its greatest wonder.
As a stranger welcomed by Eumaeus honoring the sacred law of the gods who enjoin hospitality to travelers, Odysseus first recognizes the dedication of his faithful servant who—even after the passage of twenty years—cares for the flocks with the same conscientious sense of duty as if his master were present: “it warmed Odysseus’ heart, Eumaeus cared so much for his master’s goods.” As they exchange stories and memories, Odysseus in his disguise of beggar hears Eumaeus expressing the greatest affection and most heartfelt gratitude for his absent lord: “Never another master kind as he! / I’ll never find one, /not even if I went back to mother and father.” Throughout this long interim, he has yearned for lord’s return, heartbroken at Odysseus’ absence and possible death, lamenting “it’s longing for him, him that wrings my heart.” Struggling to restrain his tears, the swineherd cannot contain his sadness: “I can scare bear to say his name aloud, /so deeply he loved me, cared for me, so deeply.” Nowhere in his travels does Odysseus receive such affection and appreciation for his kindness, such heartfelt memories of gratitude reminding him of how much he is missed, cherished, and needed in Ithaca. This joy is exquisite and extraordinary.
When the goddess Athene announces the moment is ripe, Odysseus reveals his secret to Telemachus, the son amazed at the sudden change of the beggar’s appearance into godlike beauty: “No, I am not a god…. No, I am your father—the Odysseus you wept for all your days, / you bore a world of pain, the cruel abuse of men.” As they embrace, father and son cannot restrain their tears of joy and utter piercing cries that Homer compares to the wailing sounds of eagles after the nests have been plundered: “Both men so filled with compassion, eyes streaming tears…” Nothing in Odysseus’s illustrious deeds on the battlefield like his invention of the Wooden Horse or his daring escape from the Cyclops corresponds to the depth of happiness he experiences in the bond of love he shares with his son. All of the relationships that matter the most to Odysseus are the bonds of familial love and shared life that have deepened in the course of a lifetime to forge the most intimate bonds of the heart. Profoundly moved, Odysseus and Telemachus experience the deepest happiness of the soul that transcends the five senses and the gratifications of the body.
When Odysseus notices that Argos, his old hunting dog and the companion of his youth, wags his tail and drops his ears to give a sign of recognition, again Odysseus relives another fond memory of the past, the days he reveled in hunting with his dog in pursuit of deer and hares. Once more the happy tears rush as “Odysseus glanced to the side and flicked away a tear, hiding it from Eumaeus.” All these recognition scenes are filled with the happiest memories, proofs of the great affection felt for Odysseus by all the members of his family and household who cherished him with the fondest love. Odysseus realizes he is irreplaceable in all their lives and needed in Ithaca more than any other place where he has been welcomed, honored, or invited to live.
When Odysseus approaches his wife Penelope as the beggar in disguise, he comes as a foreign traveler who allegedly brings news about her lost husband. Wary and prudent, Penelope inquires about Odysseus’ appearance as she recalls all the details of the clothing she selected. As the beggar gives an accurate account of all the articles Odysseus was wearing, Penelope replies, “I am the one, myself, / who gave him the very clothes that you describe. /I brought them up from the storeroom, folded them neatly, fastened the golden brooch to adorn my husband.” As a devoted wife who thought of all her husband’s needs and prepared his traveling bags with all the tender loving care of a woman mindful of keeping her husband properly clothed for all weather conditions, Penelope adds the additional personal touch of a golden brooch—a symbol of the beauty of her undying love for Odysseus always to remember and cherish. This memory touches and melts the heart, reassuring Odysseus of Penelope’s imperishable love during all the twenty years of his absence. Nothing the goddess Calypso offers to Odysseus by way of immortal beauty and pleasures of love compares to Penelope’s true devotion to her husband and her life of sacrifice for the integrity of their marriage—her refusal to accept any of her suitors.
Other memories warm the heart of Odysseus to assure him how loved, cherished, and missed he is. When the maid Eurycleia bathes the feet of the beggar in one of the rituals of hospitality for guests, she notices a scar on the leg—a reminder of Odysseus’ boyhood when she nursed the wound from a boar he suffered during a hunting expedition with his grandfather and uncles. As beloved relatives, they had invited him as their guest and looked forward to the joy of his visit to participate in his favorite sport—members of the extended family who also rejoiced in seeing the happiness of a child and welcomed him with all their affection: “with eager handclasps, hearty words of welcome. / His mother’s mother, Amphitea, hugged the boy /and kissed his face and kissed his shining eyes.” What awaits Odysseus in Ithaca are all these reminders of an entire life filled with the love of herdsman, maidservant, son, wife, parents, and grandparents—the family and the extended family—that no other place supplies.
When Odysseus finds the opportune moment to reveal to Penelope that he is Odysseus her husband, not the beggar in disguise, she tests him to determine the truth, troubled by his sudden change of appearance. When she tells her maid to move the bed to watch the stranger’s reaction, Odysseus protests: “Who could move my bed? Impossible task.” Built around an olive tree in the court that Odysseus shaped to make the bedpost, the immovable bed tells the secret shared only by husband and wife: “That’s our secret sign, I tell you, our life story.” When Odysseus mentions the ivory inlays, gold fittings, and oxhide straps with the same precise detail that Penelope earlier described Odysseus’ clothing on the day he left Ithaca, her heart leaps as copious tears of joy dispel all remaining doubts: “She dissolved in tears, rushed to Odysseus, flung her arms/ around his neck and kissed his head and cried out.” Clinging to her beloved husband and never releasing her arms from his embrace, Penelope cannot stop sobbing from the outpouring of love: “The more she spoke, the more a deep desire for tears/ welled up inside her breast—he wept as he held the wife he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last.”
In Odysseus’ final reunion with his Laertes, when the son approaches his father to embrace him with all the affection of a heart full of longing, he speaks reassuring words: “Father—I am your son—myself, the man you’re seeking, / home after twenty years! / Hold back your grief.” Skeptical, Laertes desires absolute certainty and asks for a sign. As Odysseus shows him the scar from the boar’s tusk and recalls an episode from boyhood with exact detail when he and Laertes planted thirteen pear, ten apple, and forty fig trees fruit trees in the orchard, the venerable father and grandfather cannot believe his eyes: “He threw his arms around his own dear son, fainting/ as hardy great Odysseus hugged him to his heart/ until he regained his breath, came back to life and cried out, ‘Father Zeus—/ you gods still rule on high.” Laertes’ joy surpasses all his wildest dreams and hopes and testifies to a dream come true and an answer to a prayer.
Human happiness can reach such heights and depths of joy that it leaves men in awe at the goodness and sweetness of life when they behold the miracle of love’s fruitfulness in the bonds of marriage and family that multiply throughout the generations. The circle of life from Laertes to Odysseus to Telemachus tells the story of civilization through the example of faithful husbands and wives, devoted parents and children, and dedicated sons and daughters who repay their parents in their old age with loving care. The planting of trees in the orchard—the passing down of tradition, of the moral wisdom of the past, of the torch of life, and of the beauty of life’s simplest but richest and pleasures—produces the great harvest of joy that culminates in the final chapters of the Odyssey.
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The featured image is “Odysseus and Penelope” (1802) by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751–1829) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.