Throughout the first few books of The Odyssey, it almost seems as though Telemakhos is the central character since the introduction of his father does not come until after Telemakhos has experienced an “awakening" to his responsibilities. The reader witnesses his struggles with the suitors who have taken over his father’s palace and with the assistance of Athena, he finally begins to take control of the situation. Although Telemakhos never quite matches his father Odysseus in terms of wit, strength, agility, and other qualities befitting a hero, he does experience significant growth throughout the text. While The Odyssey is essentially a work concerning Odysseus, it is impossible to ignore the contributions Telemakhos provides, especially in the conclusion of The Odyssey. The reader is given special insight into the development and maturation of Odysseus’ son by presenting him as weak and powerless in the beginning, only to have him slay one of his tormentors in the end and see his mother and father happily reunited.
In Book I, to offer a short summary of The Odyssey in this section, Telemakhos is not yet mature, nor does he have the confidence or ability to stand up to the many suitors who greedily devour the family’s vast stockpile of food and wine. His disappointment in both himself and situation is apparent when he states in one of the important quotes from The Odyssey, “I wish at least I had some happy man / as father, growing old in his own house— / but unknown death and silence are the fate / of him that, since you ask, they call my father" (I.261-264). At this point, his father’s land and palace are overrun by men who are older than him and instead of being outwardly defiant he merely complains quietly and plots for the day when his father might return. Although this self-pity is only a minor part of the opening of the text, when analyzing Telemakhos it is important to see the helpless and immature state he is in so that his later development of inner strength will further define him as the son of a hero.
Much of this broadening and strengthening of this character against the suitors is not brought about by a personal revelation, but rather by the divine influence of Athena. Even at the first intervention of Athena, Telemakhos still stands in the shadow of his father and does not realize that he has the ability to find his father and bring justice to the suitors. For example, instead of making his own affirmations about the future course of action, Telemakhos merely states, “If he [Odysseus] returned, if these men ever saw him, / faster legs they’d pray for, to a man, / and not more wealth in handsome robes or gold" (I.202-204). Instead of vowing to correct the problem himself, Telemakhos is still an immature dreamer, waiting for his mythical father to return. It seems as though he might have continued with his half-hearted rebellion against the suitors unless Athena built up his confidence and made him see that he was perfectly able to bring about change.
Telemakhos begins listening to the disguised goddess (although later he knows her despite her attempts at concealment). For instance, Athena tells him in one of the important quotes from The Odyssey, “a sensible man would blush to be among them" (I.274) and later in Book I she also says, “You need not bear this insolence of theirs, / you are a child no longer" (I.243-44). Athena’s words seem to invoke the mature part of Telemakhos’ character and he responds to her assertions that he is now a man and is thus capable of taking control in his father’s absence. Almost as if her words had a magical influence upon him, Telemakhos becomes increasingly assertive, both with the suitors as well as his mother. He scolds them all and although he is not entirely successful, as many do not take him seriously, this is his first awakening to his potential. Again, it is important to emphasize that Telemakhos does not seem to come to this understanding of his responsibility on his own accord but it takes a role model, someone close to his father (which is actually Athena is disguise) to urge him to greater things. In some senses, it seems as though he might not have been able to muster the gumption without outside assistance and although he later is more heroic, it is this lack of “true" heroics, both in terms of mind and spirit that separates from the his father. Even still, it is fitting that the title of Book II is “A Hero’s Son Awakens" since there has certainly been an awakening, although it isn’t the awakening of new hero, but the son of a hero.
When Telemakhos finally sets out on his journey, he seems to feel like more of a man. He has been able to speak his mind to the suitors and his mother and this is the first step in his process of self-discovery and development. For a short while it seems possible to forget that he is not the hero of the text and it isn’t until Book IV when he meets Menelaos and his wife that the reader becomes aware of the large gulf that separate the deeds and heroic personality of father versus son. When Menelaos says to his wife after discovering the true identity and parentage of Telemakhos, he exclaims to his wife, “My dear, I see the likeness as well as you do, / Odysseus’ hands and feet were like this boy’s; / This head and hair, and the glinting of his eyes" (IV.159-61). It is worth noting that they only compare Telemakhos to his father on purely physical descriptions. Instead of feeling as thought they are in the presence of someone who is destined for great things, they merely notice that he is “noble" because of his outer appearance and rich garments. Furthermore, through his host’s stories about the heroic deeds of Odysseus, the reader is finally given a glimpse into the life of the legendary father.
Through the telling of these glorious tales of wit and conquest in “The Odyssey” by Homer, Telemachus no longer seems like a hero but like a weak shadow of his great father. Odysseus clearly possesses great self-confidence and charisma but there are no points in the text that confirm that the same is true about his son. Even more importantly, the rest of the text after this initial introduction to the heroic deeds of Odysseus shows that the father posses more common sense and cunning than the son. For instance, Odysseus is able to beat the Cyclops through thought and clever action whereas his son does absent-minded things such as leaving the weapons cache open at a vital moment. Although Telemakhos can be admired for overcoming his immaturity and weakness in the face of his crumbling home, he is not on the same heroic level of his father at this point or even at the end of the text.
The conclusion of “The Odyssey” by Homer contains two key moments for defining the development and maturation of Telemakhos. For instance, when he sees that his mother does not fall at her husband’s feet when he returns home and slays all of the suitors, Telemakhos does not stand idly by. He scolds his mother, telling her in one of the important quotes from “The Odyssey” by Homer, “Mother, cruel mother, do you feel nothing. / drawing yourself apart this way from father? / Will you not with him and talk and question him? … Your heart is hard as flint and never changes" (XXIII.221-224). This is a sharp difference from the very beginning of the epic because he seemed very mindful of his mother and wanted to see her happy. He realizes by this point that she is far from perfect (especially since he knew that she was leading the suitors on by weaving a veil that she never finished) and does not look at her blindly. Although their relationship is never fully explored, this seems like an important event and shows that he has taken his position as “man of the house" alongside his father. The second event that takes place that shows a great deal of development of the part of Telemakhos is when he kills Eurymachus, the man who had been one of his greatest sources of frustration, with his spear. This is a turning point because it shows that he has finally been able to have complete revenge on those who failed to take him seriously before his departure. Although Telemakhos is not discussed much after this event, it is his own personal conclusion since he has had some form of retribution.
In sum, for a character analysis of Telemakhos, it is fair to say he is not on equal footing with his heroic father but his character is fully developed by the end of the text. He now has a greater understanding of who he is both in terms of his family and himself and despite the fact that he may never match the great Odysseus, he is nonetheless a “secondary hero" of the tale.