This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
For many years, as you know, Odysseus fought with the other kings and captains in front of the walls of Troy. But when the city fell and the conquering armies set off in their ships for their own lands, they were all broken up and divided by quarrels among themselves, and also by violent storms at sea. Some of the kings after a time reached their homes in safety; but sweet Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, waited in vain for her husband’s return.
She did her best to rule the kingdom for him and to bring up her little son, Telemachus, in the way Odysseus would have liked, but she found the task very difficult. The nobles of the country began to do just as they chose and treated the palace of Odysseus exactly as if it were their own. Not only that, but one by one they came to Penelope, and, declaring that the king was dead, made her offers of marriage. Almost every morning one or another of them would seek out the queen, and, putting on quite absurd airs and graces, would propose to her! Penelope began by refusing them all indignantly, but her refusals made no difference. They kept on proposing as regularly as before. So at last, in despair, she called these foolish suitors together and made a bargain with them.
She was at work, she told them, on a beautiful piece of tapestry, which she bade her maidens exhibit. The lords looked with great interest at this delicate length of weaving, where fair pictures were wrought in threads of scarlet and purple and gold; and they all greatly admired it. Then Penelope said that it would take some time to finish, as it was so very elaborate, but that her lovers could watch her working at it, and, when it was complete, she would make her choice among them.
With this, the suitors for her hand were obliged to be content; and day after day they watched the queen twirling glittering threads on her golden distaff, and weaving them into pictures with an ivory shuttle on a silver loom. Being men, they knew very little about tapestry; but, even to them, the progress of the work seemed amazingly slow. And, after three whole years of waiting, a little maid came to them and gave away the secret.
The queen, said she, certainly worked very hard at the tapestry all day, and the nobles could see for themselves how industrious she was. But, no sooner did night come, and she went to her beautiful bed chamber, than she lit her lamp, and, sitting beside it, unraveled every bit of the weaving she had done during the day. This she had been doing all through the three years; and the suitors for her hand, had they not been so silly and conceited, could have found it out for themselves.
The nobles were, of course, exceedingly angry; and what made them even angrier was that young Telemachus, whom they had looked upon as nothing but a boy, suddenly showed himself to be a man. He took his father’s scepter in his hand one day, put on his father’s robes of state, and mounted the royal throne. Also, he told his mother, Penelope, to have no more fear. He, her son, would not only protect her but would himself go in search of the lost Odysseus.
Nobody quite understood this sudden courage and kingliness on the part of the youthful prince. But the fact was that Athena herself had come to him, at first in the disguise of an old man, but, later, showing herself as the lovely immortal lady she was, with her shining armor, her brilliant wings, and her glittering spear. And she had promised not only to protect him and his mother, but always to be near him, in one form or another, if he would set off to find the lost king, and to bring him back to his own country.
So Telemachus ordered a ship to be made ready and had it manned by the bravest sailors in Ithaca. Then he set off to visit in turn all the kings who, he knew, had been with his father at Troy, and who had returned home once more. And, at the court of the king of Sparta, where Queen Helen was living again in safety, more beautiful than ever, he got the news he wanted.
And a strange tale it was that the king of Sparta told him.
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“It was near the coast of a very hot and sandy country that I last heard of your dear father, Odysseus,” said the monarch sorrowfully. “My ship was kept there by a great calm. I had set sail without making any offering to the spirits of the waves and winds, and this calm was their revenge upon me. My sailors and I watched the sun rise and set, rise and set, for twenty days, and never moved more than the length of our boat all the time.
“Then, on the twentieth evening, as the great, golden wheels of the bright-haired one’s chariot began to dip into the waves, suddenly I saw a beautiful nymph rise up quite close to me from the depths of the sea, and sit on a rock near at hand. ‘Why are you lingering here,’ she asked wonderingly, ‘where your sailors can find neither food nor water?’
“I told her that I waited because, as there was no wind to carry me away, I had no choice in the matter. And I begged her to help me.
“Then she told me that her father was the Wise Old Man of the Sea, and that, every afternoon, he came up out of his watery caves to sleep on the shore, guarded by strange and slimy monsters. And she said he could help me, but I should have a great fight to catch him. Then she bade me bring three of my bravest men and meet her, next morning, at a certain place among the rocks. When she had arranged this with me, she slipped back into the water, and the waves rustled above her head as she shook out her silk robes among them.
“As soon as the lovely purple light came up next morning from the East, my three brave men and I hurried to the shore. There the nymph met us, all blue and silver-robed, and sweet as the dawn itself. She scooped out for us four deep hiding places in the sand, and we crouched down in them. Then she covered us, one by one, with the skins of four dead and vast monsters — and very horrible these skins looked and smelt, so that the pretty nymph had to comfort us and drive away our disgust, with drinks of nectar.
“There, half stifled, but consoled by the honeyed wine of the Shining Ones, we stayed, under the skins of the dead monsters, until their living companions flounced noisily, one by one, out of the surf at the edge of the ocean. They lay down in a great group about us, and then up came the Old Man of the Sea himself, and counted them, and counted us, too, among them, thinking us living monsters, and not dead skins at all. And, in the belief that everything was right, he lay down quite close to us and fell asleep.
“Out, then, from under the horrible skins rushed my heroes and I, shouting our warcry. We seized the Old Man of the Sea, catching hold of an arm or a leg apiece, and so dividing him among the four of us. What would happen next the nymph had warned us, but I could hardly have guessed it would be so strange! For, what do you think, prince? The Old Man turned into a lion in our grasp, and there we were, fighting with his claws, as he shook his mane and roared with rage. No sooner had we got used to the lion than it vanished, and we found ourselves clinging for dear life, to the neck and tail of a spotted leopard! Next thing, the leopard grew tusks, and we were struggling with a boar; and then, up above our heads, the boar rode on the air in the form of a dragon, that we only held back by the beating tips of its wings. As we still clung on, the loud noises made by the dragon’s feathers turned into the rushing of water, and away streamed the sea wizard, laughing loudly. He had turned himself into a brook! But we stemmed its waves just as they were about to disappear into the waves of the ocean, and then, behold, there were green boughs about us, with leaves growing on them, and all four of us were hugging the branches of an oak! And then, at last, this great magician gave in to us, and, becoming a funny old man again, stood quite sedately in the middle of his monsters, and asked us what we wanted!
“We told him we wanted, most of all, to get home again, and he promised that we should. Then he answered many questions that we put to him, for there is hardly anything that the Wise Old Man of the Sea does not know. Last of all, he gave us news of my dear friend, Odysseus.
“Your father, prince, is in a cave far away, that belongs to a lovely nymph, called Calypso. She has thrown her enchantments over him, and he lives under a vine hung with purple grapes, while the bees make golden honey for him, and the sea birds nest overhead, and sea fairies heap silver dishes with fragrant fruits for him to eat. Calypso sings sweet songs to him and weaves lovely robes for him to wear. But, with it all, he is unhappy. Dreams trouble him by day and night — they are the dim dreams of his wife, Penelope, and of you, Telemachus, his only son.
“This is what the Old Man of the Sea told us, prince, before he plunged from the shore back into the green depths of the ocean, which shook with a great noise like thunder as the wizard returned to the salt, wave-crested waters of his home.”
The king of Sparta finished his story, and Telemachus raised his drooping head.
“I must hasten onwards,” he said. “I know now where to seek my father. I will find him yet and take him safely home to my mother, Penelope.”
At home, in her lonely palace, the queen Penelope spent her days in weaving and embroideries, her nights in sad dreams about her husband and son. The suitors, for their part, went on feasting at the royal banqueting tables and spending the rest of the day in songs, laughter, and games. What cared they for the sadness of their queen, or the absence of their young prince? They simply hoped he would stay away until Penelope married one of them and gave Ithaca a new king.
Then, one day, they were startled out of their idle, luxurious lives. Somebody got a sudden idea that Telemachus had really gone away to invite some foreign monarch to come and help him to recover his lost power in Ithaca. This terrified the nobles and also made them exceedingly angry. They talked the matter over and finally decided to send a ship to wait in a quiet bay on the coast, by which Telemachus would have to pass as he came home. The sailors would be instructed to capture the prince and put him to death. Many of the nobles themselves went on board to make sure Telemachus should not escape.
But Athena was always watching over the son of Odysseus, as well as over the long-lost king. She appeared to Telemachus in a dream and told him to go back to Ithaca at once, for she herself would guide his brave father’s footsteps home again. She told him, too, of the ship with the wicked nobles in it, and explained exactly where it was waiting in the little hidden bay. So, when the prince’s ship neared the bay where the nobles waited, the seamen rowed the vessel through a little hidden rocky strait, where hardly ever vessel went, and, in this way, passed the danger, and carried Telemachus safely to the land.