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Travis Taylor
Professor Hampsey
HNRS 251-70
6 June 2014
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo
Relational Problems in a Returning Hero
Every soldier that returns home from battle faces a new challenge: to re assimilate with
their family and and community. Emotional conflict often arises because most people cannot
relate - that is, cannot empathize - with the internal wounds caused by horrors on the battlefield
and years away from the comfort of home. Homer gives us a picture of this internal conflict,
which is perhaps the earliest attempt in an oral story that gets into the mind and heart of the
returning hero. In the final book of The Odyssey, he shows two men trying to reconcile their
present reality with the lives they were torn from two decades earlier. Odysseus has to face who
he was, who he has become, and who he is expected to be. At the same time he must discover
how ten years of mourning have changed Laertes. Homer uses the reunion of Odysseus and
Laertes to show that battle and trial fracture mens identities and he examines how they relate to
their community. In the key scene where Odysseus-in-disguise questions Laertes, Homer shows
us how Odysseus and Laertes have been broken and how their identities are restored, which
serve to criticize the motives of war.
Upon reunion with Laertes, Odysseus chooses to stay in disguise because his father is not
to be trusted, or so his experience tells him. The strong father that he knew is now old and weak
from years of sorrow. Odysseus first reaction is to weep for his fathers condition, but then his
cold, calculating side takes over. Odysseus decides to first draw him out with sharp words,

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trouble him (Homer 24.250). Although Odysseus seems cruel, he wants to know where Laertes
heart lies and his best tool is his mastery of lying. Homer describes Laertes as wasted by years,
racked, bowed under grief (24.243). Odysseus finds that his father still has great love for him,
and has been mourning since his disappearance. That Laertes mourned for ten years over his lost
son shows how strong the bond is between father and son. The grief has consumed him so much,
that when Odysseus comes out of disguise, Laertes cannot believe his son has returned: in
reaction to Odysseus claiming his real identity, Laertes murmurs, If you are Odysseus, my son,
come back, give me some proof, a sign to make me sure (24.342-43). He is so closely bound to
grief, that he has a hard time letting it go. Here, Homer is getting deep into the workings of the
mind, and may be suggesting that grief can actually become a comfort. Laertes continual grief
also shows how important a proper burial was to the ancient Greeks. Laertes is not mourning for
the more recent death of his wife because he was able to process his grief with a burial. A parallel
of this is also shown in book 24 of Homers Iliad, where Priam cannot properly mourn his son
until he gets the body back from Achilles. Overall, Homer seems to be using Laertes griefwrecked life as another argument toward the futility of the Trojan War which starts the odyssey.
Homer uses this reunion scene primarily to show how Odysseus trial has hindered his
ability to connect his family. In his previous encounters with Telemakhos and Penelope,
Odysseus was under the pressure of staying hidden, so his motives were tainted. But now that
that he has defeated the suitors, his base motives surface and Homer shows that the effects of his
trial are long-lasting. For about 80 lines, Odysseus leads his father on, provoking more and more
pain until Laertes is reduced to weeping in the dirt. In a stirring passage, Homer depicts,
A cloud of pain had fallen on Laertes. Scooping up handfuls of sunburnt dust
he sifted it over his grey head, and groaned, and the groan went to the sons heart. A
twinge prickling up through his nostrils warned Odysseus he could not watch this any
longer. (24.328-33)

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Homer seems to be saying that Odysseus brutal interrogation of his father is unjustified, but he
continues because he, the man of all occasions, cant relate to his own father. But Homer is
careful, and makes his remarks quietly. After all, being a hero is supposed to make a man strong,
not give him relational problems. So after this interrogation, Odysseus does what he should
have done, and embraces his father with tears of joy, owning up the the kitsch of a heros return.
In the restoration of Laertes that follows, Homer suggests that healing from such a great
internal wound takes a long time to heal on its own. Only the divine power of Athena allows
Laertes to be restored to his son. The first wave of restoration is external: Homer says,
Then Athena, standing by, filled out his limbs again, gave girth and stature to the old field
captain fresh from the bathing place. His son looked on in wonder at the godlike bloom
upon him. (24.380-84)
This moment is strangely similar to Odysseus transformation to Telemakhos in book 16, and
Homer is saying that a large part of their identities come from their appearances. The second part
of Laertes identity comes from his strength and courage. Homer tells, Power flowed into him
from Pallas Athena, whom he invoked as Zeuss virgin child, and he let fly his heavy spear
(24.539-41). Just like Odysseus, Laertes had to regain a strong appearance and to kill someone in
order to regain his full identity. Through this restoration, Homer looks into what makes up a man,
and seems to criticize the Greeks view of a hero at the same time. For both father and son, a god
is necessary to restore their life, which their own heroic qualities could not accomplish.
Overall, Homer uses this reunion of father and son to dig into what makes up a mans
identity. He shows how extended mourning can consume a mans life, and become part of that
person, almost like a dependence. He also shows how war and trial can take away the ability to
relate to family, criticizing the view that a great warrior makes a great husband. For Homer to
convey these subtle issues in his time via oral storytelling is amazing, as we still dont have a full
grasp of them today. Soldiers returning from overseas duty often suffer the same struggles as

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Odysseus. We just call it post-traumatic stress disorder. Families of fallen soldiers are often
consumed with grief for years, just like Laertes. We still struggle with the moral mess of war, just
as Homer did. The effects of battle are not solely immediate, but persist into the lives of warriors
long after they return home.

Works Cited
Wilkie, Brian, and James Hurt. "The Odyssey, Book Twenty-Four." Trans. Robert Fitzgerald.
Literature of the Western World. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 580-94.