“’You must not cling to your boyhood any longer – it’s time you were a man’” (1. 341). These are the words of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, in her attempt to motivate Telemachus as he embarks on a rite of passage to manhood. Throughout the epic poem, Athena assists and inspires Telemachus, imbuing him with confidence and courage so he may follow in the footsteps of his father, the great Odysseus.
After his first encounter with Athena, we witness Telemachus mature from an unmotivated, helpless daydreamer, into a young man who has the confidence and ability to speak eloquently in an assembly of his peers, travel to foreign courts, and confront his mother’s suitors. In the epic poem, The Odyssey by Homer, the author effectively portrays Telemachus’s transformation into a man through his interactions with, and the reactions of, his mother, her suitors, and contemporaries of his father, who are all awed by his self-assured presence and his authoritative words.
Telemachus’s confidence shines as lures in his detractors with his wise words, not only gaining a newfound respect, but also fulfilling his destiny as the true son of Odysseus. When The Odyssey begins, we are introduced to a “cautious” Telemachus with a “heart obsessed with grief” (1. 133). Athena finds him sitting among a group of suitors who are attempting to court Telemachus’s mother, Penelope, and have overrun his home. They treat Telemachus like a child and insult him in their conversations, as Eurymachus assures the men of Ithaca “’Who’s there to fear? Surely not Telemachus, with all his tiresome threats’” (1. 221-222). Immediately after Telemachus’s first encounter with Athena, we see the beginnings of Telemachus’s transcendence when he rebukes his mother while she is pleading with the bard Phemios to stop playing. He tells her to return to women’s work and he will tend to the house for he “” hold[s] the reins of power in this house’” (1. 414).
His mother is “astonished” and does what he says as “she took to heart the clear good sense in what her son had said” (1. 16). Penelope’s instant obedience to her son’s words portrays Telemachus as an assertive and authoritative man. It is then a “poised Telemachus,” (1. 384) who decides to hold a town meeting, the first in nineteen years, and the true son of Odysseus speaks with such assertion that the suitors are also astonished. “So Telemachus declared. And they all bit their lips, / amazed the prince could speak with so much daring” (1. 438 – 9).
Homer’s image of men, who have disrespected Telemachus, his mother, and his home, biting their lips in admiration, highlights his transcendence as the once hesitant and ineffective Telemachus transforms before their eyes as he commands the suitors to leave his house. The next time Telemachus prepares a speech, “the people all gazed in wonder as he came forward, the elders making way as he took his father’s seat” (2. 93). When the men with the most respect, the elders, all move out of the way for Telemachus to pass, this is a true sign that Telemachus has earned recognition as a noble and commanding figure.
Telemachus’s journey to the courts of Pylos and Sparta, where he meets other nobles, is a metaphorical representation of Telemachus’s rite of passage into manhood. Through hearing accounts of his father‘s bravery, intelligence, and craftiness, from other heroes of the Trojan War, he realizes that he too can strategize and rid his house of the suitors. Also, when Athena, Nestor, and Menelaus tell Telemachus how much he resembles his father in appearance and speech, they are encouraging him to become more like Odysseus and give him confidence.
The validation of Telemachus’s transformation is revealed when Nestor, renowned as an honest and honorable man, tells him “’Your way with words – it is just like his – I’d swear / no youngster could ever speak like you, so apt, so telling’” (3. 139-140). Homer reinforces this idea when Telemachus experiences a similar reaction from Menelaus who declares “’Your father’s son you are – your words have all his wisdom’” (4. 229). Thus Homer emphasizes Telemachus’s transcendence when he is praised, a second time, as the great son of Odysseus for his oratory skills.
When we first meet Telemachus at the beginning of The Odyssey, Homer introduces him as a sheltered youth: an immature twenty-year-old, incapable of handling many of the challenges and responsibilities of manhood. However, by the end of Book IV, Telemachus is slowly developing into a worthy successor to his father and fulfilling Athena’s prophecy when she tells Telemachus “’you’ll lack neither courage nor sense from this day on, / not if your father’s spirit courses through your veins – / now there was a man, I’d say, in words and action both’” (2. 303-5).
From a young adult who is unable to assert himself in his own house, Telemachus transforms into a man who impresses both the men and women of Ithaca, and commands respect abroad. Telemachus learns how to conduct himself as a Prince, a skill he lacks before he meets Athena, and he learns how to venture out, speak up for himself, and do things on his own without the repressive influence of his mother and her suitors. By the end of Book IV Telemachus is now worthy to take on the title as the son of Odysseus and return to Ithaca and take control of his father‘s house.