Stories in Disguise: On Odysseus' Ithacan Lies and Their Relevance ...

Stories in Disguise: On Odysseus' Ithacan Lies and Their Relevance ...

Stories in Disguise: On Odysseus' Ithacan Lies and Their Relevance to the Device of the

Unreliable Narrator

Lars-Åke Skalin


After arriving at Ithaca in the thirteenth book of the Odyssey, the returning protagonist has good

reason not to reveal his true identity. This is realized by Athena as well as by Odysseus himself.

Hence the theme of deception will play an important role in the whole of the Nostos part of the

Odyssey, i.e. the songs of homecoming, XIII-XXIV. With the help of Athena the hero uses

clothing and physical appearance to disguise himself. But throughout the story he often uses

words for this purpose. Accordingly, he sometimes lies to people about his identity; this is done

on five separate occasions as he produces untruthful answers about who he is. These "Ithacan

lies" are told to Athena (who is also in disguise), to Eumaios, to the leader of the suitors,

Antinoös, to his wife, Penelope, and, lastly, to his own father, Laërtes. On four occasions the liar

pretends to be from Crete, and for that reason they have also been referred to as "Odysseus'

Cretan lying stories."

An interpretation of the meaning of these stories in the overall design presupposes, as an

understanding of narrative texts generally does, the operation of "reconstruction" (cf "Five Kinds

of Literary and Artistic Interpretation" by Anders Petterson in this volume). Pertinent questions

put to the actual text segments may then be for example "What is represented here?" "What are

we supposed to perceive in our mind's eye?" very much in the same way as we would ask them of

a traditional painting. A typical elementary answer to such questions may take the form of

mentioning of a fictional agent and name his or her act, e.g. "Odysseus is lying to X telling him

or her that p." But some of the lying stories in the Odyssey are too complex to be satisfactorily

elucidated in this fashion. As Sheila Murnaghan, among others, has noticed, the whole Nostos

part is dominated by the device of dramatic irony owing to the all-pervading motif of disguise. 1

But to this we must add that two of the five episodes are rendered using a special technique

which in itself implies irony.

My contention is as follows: although the theme of deception constitutes a common

denominator in these episodes they nevertheless display a subtle artistic variety of presentation

techniques. The first two episodes I find particularly interesting since we have here, as I will

suggest, two early examples of the "unreliable narrator" device, as this concept was once

analyzed by Wayne C. Booth. 2 In all five situations the protagonist pretends to be someone else.

In the latter three, however, his disguise is merely physical, or external so to speak, that is, he is

careful not to be recognized as the returning king, but he is not disguised as a veritable pseudo-

Odysseus, i.e. as a person with a moral character quite opposite to that of the protagonist. This, on

the other hand, is exactly what happens in the first two episodes. The result of Odysseus' verbal

disguise here is a parody of the hero, and, since this parody is displayed in a kind of life-story,

the best means of presenting it will be a parody of an act of narrating, not least of Odyssues' own

narrating at the court of the Phaiakians. Several homerologists have considered the five lying


stories 3 but as far as I know, no one has suggested this narratological approach. My interpretation

aims to demonstrate why the device of "unreliable narration" is pertinent in the places where it

occurs. This procedure will testify to the fact that the kind of literary interpretation referred to as

"reconstruction" in this volume often has to consider another interpretational type from Anders

Pettersson's list, namely "structural analysis". Since there is no complete consensus among

narrative theorists about how the device of the "unreliable narrator" or "unreliable narration"

should be described, a complementary purpose in my essay will be to suggest a way of dealing

with this phenomenon, my recommendation being that these terms should be restricted to a rather

narrow field of narrative issues.

I What Is Unreliable Narration?

Competent readers of fiction seem to have a rather good idea of what to make of the device of the

"unreliable narrator" and "unreliable narration". 4 This may sound strange, since a narrator's

reliability is often conceived of as a constitutive feature of narrative structure on the whole. The

characters within the plot can often err – this essential faultiness being in fact a constitutive

feature of their nature – but never their narrator, without whom neither character nor plot would

ever be brought into existence. 5 This property of infallibility obviously belongs to the so-called

heterodiegetic narrator, i.e. to that of third person narratives. But, as Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan

has observed, 6 without going further into the subject, even a homodiegetic narrator, i.e. a narrator

of a first person narrative, will display a kind of privileged position much like that of the

heterodiegetic one. I will come back to why this is so. Nevertheless, we can make sense of an

"unreliable narrator's" account. The reason might be that this device has in practice a much more

limited scope than the term would suggest. Perhaps one might even propose that an agent such as

the "unreliable narrator" does not, strictly speaking, "narrate" the story at all, provided that

"narrating" implies some kind of privileged position vis-à-vis the narrated content. This, at least,

will be my working hypothesis.

Fallibility being one regrettable attribute of the human predicament, we notoriously run the

risk of giving false information as soon as we want to assert something. We usually describe such

unsuccessful information as not corresponding to the facts, to how things really are. Reality itself

is expected to correct the mistaken belief. This should of course not be understood literally:

reality is not an agent constantly keeping watch on ignorant speakers. Instead one speaker is

corrected by another who, in doing so, has to take responsibility for his utterance, again running

the risk of being mistaken. But this does not imply that the idea of correspondence should be

abandoned. A report about something can be revealed as mistaken much later when better

information is gained. We also have to assume that many mistakes are never discovered.

However, if sceptical about a certain account, we could still assume that there is a correct one to

be made, if only someone were in the position to discover the truth.

When criticizing an assumed erroneous belief from the point of view of assumed better

knowledge, the former position is relativized and characterized with the latter as norm. In that

respect it takes a privileged stance vis-à-vis the object of assessment. Not that wisdom cannot

make us suspect that even this evaluative norm will at some later time turn out to have been

faulty, but this attitude is not part of the judgmental act. Suppose now that we regard the mistaken

agent with some empathy, which should at least be the case if it happens to be myself who has

been in error. It is not unlikely then that we will contemplate the clash between the privileged

state of knowledge and the underprivileged one with a sense of situational irony.


Such a sense of irony can also be brought to the fore on occasions when we become aware

of mistaken beliefs and faulty judgment already as confronting the inaccurate statements

revealing them. Suppose we are listening to a correspondent giving a report on the TV, and

because we happen to be in a privileged position with regard to the topic we are able to catch him

with some serious mistakes. He has put on the role of an informer, but his information does not

come off well because it encounters a superior knowledge which makes his statements false.

Besides correcting his mistakes we might also reflect with empathy upon his situation and

perhaps pity him because he has made a fool of himself.

It is evident that there is an affinity between the structure of the situations of assessment

described so far and the structure of an intrigue, i.e. a narrative with a plot distinguished by its

teleological direction. Such a structure is likewise informed by the presence of two orders: the

underprivileged order of the narrated characters, blindly and ignorantly progressing towards the

fulfilment of their destiny, and the privileged order of the story itself as a significant whole

containing all the norms required for the assessment of the characters' order. Moreover, there is

also an affinity between this structure and the concept of the "unreliable narrator," an agent who

in several respects seems to share the predicament of narrated characters. But if such a narrator is

located in the characters' order, we have to ask which agent should be identified as narrating the

"whole story?" I would opt for the storyteller, either we associate him with an oral singer, the

aoidos for instance of the Homeric songs, or with the author of written narrative fiction. The

narrative act of the storyteller is an act of representation, constituting a represented "world", a

diegesis. The relation between the position of the string-pulling storyteller extra his diegesis and

the entities (characters, events etc.) intra, or of, this diegesis is homologous to the relation

between the position of our well-informed critic and the blundering informer. In other words, a

narrative is a whole with norms as a supreme instance and what is named by these norms, in the

same complex structure.

The storyteller appears to have three main techniques at his disposal in constructing his

diegesis, as Plato had already observed. He can fashion it directly with his own words (diegetic

technique, or "telling"), or indirectly by the dramatization in which the represented "world"

"speaks for itself" (mimetic technique, or "showing"), or it can be done with a mixture of these

two. Let us look at an example of the mixed kind taken from the Odyssey:

There was a man among the suitors versed in villainy;

Ktesippos was his name, and he had his home in Same.

He, in the confidence of his amazing possessions,

courted the wife of Odysseus, who had been so long absent.

This man now spoke forth among the insolent suitors:

'Hear me now, you haughty suitors, while I say something.

The stranger has had his share long since, and, as is proper,

an equal one; for it is not well nor just to make light of

the guests of Telemachos, who come to him in his palace.

Come, let me too give him a guest gift, so he can give it

as prize to the woman who washes his feet, or to some other

one of the servants in the house of godlike Odysseus.'

He spoke, and with his heavy hand he caught up an ox hoof

that lay by in the basket, and threw it. XX.287-302. 7


The storyteller, the aoidos, opens by presenting in his own words a motif: a character, Ktesippos,

"versed in villainy." Then he tells the psychological motives that push this man to dare courting

Odysseus' wife in her husband's absence. This is done in rather a summarizing style and could be

understood as directions as to the kind of situation he is going to represent. After that he leaves

the scene to the man himself, dramatizing his words, and then ends by mentioning an action.

These two represented actions are rendered in a scenic mode.

Let us suppose that the diegesis (or part of a more complex one), communicated here by a

mixture of diegetic and mimetic techniques, should be understood as an "act of villainy," then it

is evident that the storyteller has adopted three means to convey this: direct outlining of the

situation or characterization, speech, and action, the two latter contributing indirectly to the same

portrayal. So, the storyteller's choosing to communicate the representation of such an act directly

by "telling" or his indirectly doing so by using a dramatic mode seem to be equivalent actions

from his side, separated only in style. The significance of the represented will come to the same

end. If the aoidos prefers to render the whole episode directly in his own words, then the diegetic

content, i.e. the representation of the "villainous act," will have to be implied from his speech. If,

on the other hand, he chooses to dramatize the whole episode, then the directions as to what kind

of scene is represented (an "act of villainy") will have to be implied. For the receiver is in need of

both direction and drama.

Sometimes the storyteller presents as a motif a person telling of events in a world where he

himself is an actor, a so-called homodiegetic narrator. It is not easy to say what significance this

device has for the story presented. Sometimes at least it strikes one as being of little consequence.

Compare this episode from the homodiegetic story of Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops in

song IX.272-291:

So I spoke, but he answered me in pitiless spirit:

"Stranger, you are a simple fool, or come from far off,

when you tell me to avoid the wrath of the gods or fear them.

The Cyclops do not concern themselves over Zeus of the aegis,

nor any of the rest of the blessed gods, since we are far better

than they, and for fear of the hate of Zeus I would not spare

you or your companions either, if the fancy took me

otherwise [---]."


So I spoke, but the pitiless spirit answered

nothing, but sprang up and reached for my companions,

caught up two together and slapped them, like killing puppies,

against the ground, and the brains ran all over the floor, soaking

the ground.

Suppose that we are ready to regard even this gift from the aoidos as a representation of an "act

of villainy," very much resembling the example above. What is new is the pronoun "I" which

mixes with third person pronouns. This indicates the device of the "homodiegetic narrator." But

as to the rest, the episode seems to be rendered by the same three means used in the Ktesippos

scene: direct outlining of the situation or characterization, dramatized speech in accord with the

characterization, and action illustrating both. So there is evidently no considerable difference in

narrative effect whether a diegesis (or part thereof) is assumed to be presented by a homodiegetic

narrator or by the storyteller in person. The idea of the narrator device here is that the character


Odysseus lets the Phaiakians know that he and his men have been the victims of an act of villainy

on the part of the Cyclops, but this is not really our concern, because this is not what is

represented by the aoidos at this very moment. What is represented is simply an "act of villainy",

presented to us for the sake of its narrative qualities, its narrativity. Homodiegetic narratives

often seem to function in this way. If the difference between the diegetic and mimetic mode as

regards the significance of what is represented seems to be non-existent, the same may be the

case for the difference between homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narratives. When no functional

difference between the primary storyteller and the inserted narrator is manifested, narrative

theory has referred to the latter as a "reliable narrator" and his assumed act as "reliable narration."


So how should we analyze the opposite of this phenomenon, an "unreliable narrator" and

"unreliable narration?" An "unreliable narrator" will be a kind of dramatized narrator. In that

sense he is akin to a dramatized speaker such as Ktesippos or the Cyclops, or even our

uninformed informer, characters who in speaking about things in their world simultaneously

indirectly and unwittingly characterizes themselves. What he has in common with the "reliable"

homodiegetic narrator is that he is the pretended source of a discourse which we take to be a real

narrative, not just dramatized speech. What makes him the "opposite" of such a narrator is that

his narrative seems to harbour a lack of fit between the direct diegetic outlining or characterizing

of situation on the one hand, and the mimetic rendering of the characterized on the other. He goes

on telling what is on his mind in very much the same way as Odysseus in the Cyclops episode,

but somehow a "false tone" clings to the relation. A typical feature of the homodiegetic "reliable"

narration is the quick fading away of the original enunciation situation with the narrator as an

erzählendes Ich only for it to appear as erlebendes Ich in the story. With a term borrowed from

film theory I will term this phenomenon "dissolving." This complete dissolving of the narrating

character does not appear to the same degree in "unreliable narrating," since the moral,

intellectual or emotional qualities of the narrator are usually an important, or even the main,

theme of the storyteller's narrative. These qualities give rise to the "false tone" which adheres to

the continuing telling.

Wayne Booth stipulated as a criterion of "unreliable narration" a clash between a normative

and a mimetic level. The source of meaning of the consistent text, so his argument goes, is not the

narrator but the "implied author." The tacit presence of an authority beyond the narrator has also

seemed a necessary assumption to most of the critics who have discussed the subject after

Booth. 8 The inner tension of such a narrative has been described as a lack of congruence between

story and discourse, what is said by the narrator as contrasted with the "facts" of the fictional

world, or as a lack of fit between what is reported and the narrator's validation of it. 9 In Story and

Discourse Chatman offers a scheme of the narrative communication that reads like this:

implied author narrator narratee implied reader

The solid line is said to indicate direct and the broken lines, indirect or inferential

communication. If the narrator is reliable the narrative act is achieved through the main axis, if he


is not, the communication is performed through the broken line above. Hence, according to its

ironic nature "unreliable narration" offers two messages, one credible the other not.

My own analysis has not taken recourse to the notion of an implied author but has instead

set the "storyteller" in that position. But this does not really matter for the structural analysis

which is content with distinguishing two complementary levels, one of norms and one of drama.

According to Marie Laure Ryan there are three possible means for the implied author to

correct the false assertions of an "unreliable narrator":

(1) the narrator could himself reveal the faulty information after it has been given;

(2) another narrator could give the straight information that will correct the false one;

(3) the implied discourse of the narrator could reveal how the message is actually to be

understood. 10

Ryan exemplifies the first possibility with Borges' "The Shape of the Sword". In this short story a

narrator relates how he met with a villain and how it all turned out. After telling this the narrator

reveals that the villain, up to now referred to as "he", is in fact the narrator himself, while the

hero of the story, hitherto referred to as "I", should instead be understood as "he". The second

method is manifested by "polyvocal" narratives like Laclos' epistolary novel Les Liaisons

danguereuses where one reliable correspondent may correct another less reliable. She also

mentions Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury where four voices are heard in turn, three personal,

Benjy's, Quentin's and Jason's, and one anonymous and impersonal. This impersonal voice,

which should be understood as the most trustworthy, reveals for instance that Jason is an

unreliable narrator. The third possibility, revelation by the implied discourse of the author, is

exemplified by Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al and Albert Camus' La Chute. However,

according to Ryan this method "leads to much more problematic diagnoses" than the two

mentioned above:

The narrator's declarations should thus contain both an accurate representation of the narrated

state of affairs, and hints of their own deficiency, such as uncorrected internal contradictions, or

blatant lack of fit between the reported events and their evaluation. These types of clues can be

used to raise doubts in the reader's mind as to the soundness of the narrator's judgment [...] but

they are too ambiguous to demonstrate deliberate insincerity or faulty information. When a

narrator is lying outright (a very rare case), or clearly mistaken as to how things are in the world

he descibes, he can only be caught by the explicit discourse of the first two method. 11

But in my opinion, only the last and most "problematic" method complies with the Boothian

concept of an "unreliable narrator" violating implicit superior norms of the narrative. Speaking of

the "unreliable narrator" as a literary device, or technique, with its own anticipated aesthetic

effects, should imply that we are offered continual textual signals that expose this narrator as

faulty (as self-deceptive, naïve etc.), i.e. not entrusted with the "whole" story. Methods one and

two never use any formal or technical means to let us understand that the narrator is dramatized

in this way. It is hard to understand then why such a narrator's account should be taken as

"unreliable" at all by us who have nothing to do with information internal to a fictional world but

only with the significance of a representation of such a "world." From a formalistic point of view

it would be just as correct to say that we are presented with two different stories within an

inconsistent work. Certainly the latter refers to the former but that does not imply that it could

provide it with the specific device which will make us identify it as "unreliable narration". The

reader should not be hoodwinked by a literary device; rather we think of techniques and devices


as instrumental in the communication of literary meaning. The "unreliable narrator" shouldn't

fool anybody but himself. Postmodern stories, like Borges' "The Shape of the Sword", tend to

achieve part of their effects by provoking the conventions of traditional storytelling technique and

the rules for the communication of stories. Such effects should accordingly not be analyzed using

formalistic or narratological instruments. And when it comes to the examples Ryan refers to as

"polyvocal" narratives, where one narrator corrects the other, I think her analysis is not quite

correct. Truly both Laclos and Faulkner give signals that will lead the reader to suspect

"unreliable narration" even at the moment it is before his eyes, the statements of a later narrator

only affirm what is already assumed.

The reason Ryan counts all three types as instances of the "unreliable narrator" and sees the

third case as the most problematic is her overall theory of narratives and narrators. According to

Ryan all narratives are to be regarded as reports of factual events, reports that could turn out to be

either right or wrong. Fictional narratives are mimetic representations of factual reporting.

Consequently, a narrator is "the speaking 'voice' which takes responsibility for the act of

narration, telling the story as 'true fact.'" 12 But, of course, it is not necessary to regard narration as

a series of affirmations that certain events have taken place. A more fruitful approach would be to

regard it as the communication of stories, which is something more than the sum of a series of

descriptions of events. An 'unreliable' narrator is, according to Ryan, a reporter who fails to tell

the truth. On the other hand, she is compelled to admit that an "unreliable narrator" very seldom

seems to lie outright. 13 This fact might suggest that the device of the "unreliable narrator" could

be analysed more fruitfully as something other than a mistaken or lying relater of facts.

It appears then that a storyteller can employ the device of an "unreliable narrator" in two

main ways. He may, on the one hand, let the focus rest on this narrator himself, dramatizing his

attempts to delude his narratee and or himself. A story like that will probably be described as

"psychological," in essence portraying the unreliable protagonist as a certain psychological type.

Examples of narratives with such self-deceivers are Henry James' "The Liar" and "The Aspern

Papers" or Albert Camus' La Chute. On the other hand, he may focus on what an "unreliable

narrator" unconsciously tells; such a teller will certainly also be characterized as a kind of selfdeceiver,

very often as naïve, but will not be the protagonist of a psychological story of selfdeception.

He is trying to give an account of things he has witnessed, but since his capacity as a

true observer is limited he will now and then misrepresent things. The barber, Whitey, in Ring

Lardner's "Haircut" is unaware of the real significance of the commemorative speech he gives on

the character Jim Kendall whom he has admired and whose death he regrets. Yet, from his

monologue the reader can get all the material needed to recognize a story about a really

disgusting brute who in the end suffers his well deserved punishment. Another example is Ernest

Hemingway's "My Old Man", where the young boy out of affection for his father and his own

naivity, is unable to see that what he tells us about his "old man" in order to motivate his

affection for him can just as well be taken to indicate his father's shortcomings.

The artistic point of such narratives is evident. Narrated in an anonymous, objective mode

these stories would have looked rather trite, but presenting the events from this extraordinary

perspective makes them interesting as a manifestation of artistic tour de force. It is very like the

technique of certain mannerist paintings such as "The Conversion of Saul" by Carravaggio,

where the sacred and well-known motif is presented from a quite conspicuous point of view,

formally rendering the horse the protagonist rather than the man.

II Odysseus' Ithacan Lies


The Stories Told to Athena and Eumaios

Brought to Ithaka put in a magic sleep, Odysseus together with his rich gifts is safely placed on

the shore by the Phaiakian sailors. When he wakes up he does not recognize that he has finally

reached his home island. Worried, he wishes to inform himself of where he is. He asks a person

whom he assumes is a young shepherd, but actually is the goddess Athena in disguise, the name

of the place and gets the answer that he is on the island of Ithaka. But then in turn he is asked by

the shepherd to reveal his name and his antecedents. Odysseus is, as always, on his guard against

being recognized, so he puts on a disguise. His answer therefore takes the form of a narrative

about a non-existent person's life – Odysseus is lying:

'I heard the name of Ithaka when I was in wide Crete,

far away, across the sea; now I myself have come here

with these goods that you see, but leaving as much again to my children.

I have fled, an exile, because I killed the son of Idomeneus,

Orsilochos, a man swift of foot, who in wide Crete surpassed

all other mortal men for speed of his feet. I killed him

because he tried to deprive me of all my share of the plunder

from Troy, and for the sake of it my heart suffered many

pains: the wars of men; hard crossing of the big waters;

for I would not do his father favor, and serve as his henchman

in the land of Troy, but I led others, of my own following.

I lay in wait for him with a friend by the road, and struck him

with the bronze-headed spear as he came back from the fields. There was

a very dark night spread over all the sky, nor did anyone

see me, nor did anyone know of it when I stripped the life

from him. But then, when I had cut him down with the sharp bronze,

I went at once to a ship [---]. 13.256–272.

After this episode there follows an account of how the stranger was put ashore on Ithaca by

Phoenician sailors.

The text above, I would state, manifests the device of an "unreliable narrator". The reason

is not that Odysseus is lying here. For my first claim will be that a character's lying about events

is not sufficient condition for us to recognize the text as an instance of "unreliable narration." I

will soon try to demonstrate this assumption with the help of Odysseus last three "Ithacan lies"

which will be contrasted with this as well as with the lie to Eumaios in song XIV.

The Athena and the Eumaios lying episodes have a rather complex structure. They take the

form of embedded homodiegetic narratives and remind us so far of earlier first-person relations in

the Odyssey, for instance of Odysseus' Apologoi or Menelaos' Proteus episode. Later Eumaios

will give the disguised Odysseus an account of how he, only a child, was sold as a slave to

Laërtes on Ithaca. But in these narratives the "I" of the experiencing character projects back an

"I" which could easily be associated with the fictive speaker, with Odysseus, Menelaos or

Eumaios, each of whom have come to wisdom through suffering. In normal cases of "unreliable

narration" the "unreliable narrator" will also be associated with the character who speaks, as it is,

for instance, in La Chute, in "Haircut" or in the Jason part of The Sound and the Fury. But when

Odysseus pretends to be a Cretan fugitive in the Athena episode, he as a speaker is plainly lying


to his interlocutors, but the "unreliable narrator" is the persona of the Cretan projected by the

narrative. So the "I" of Odysseus' words does not bounce back straight to the speaker but, given a

jaunty angle, to a projected character rather dissimilar from him, even his opposite in some

important respects. His story will be a story in disguise. And this is constitutive of the notion of

an "unreliable narrator" in the sense Booth gave it. It is a dramatizing technique and relies as a

consequence on indirect characterization. As readers we are led by implication via the

representation of speech and action to the significance of the whole episode, we are not led to it

by the storyteller's or "reliable narrator's" explicit direction as in the Ktesippos example given

above. Odysseus' speech to Eumaios, where he once again pretends to be a Cretan, this time the

illegitimate son of Kastor, displays the same structure as the Athena episode. Odysseus is

certainly lying to Eumaios, but the "unreliable narrator" is "Kastor's son," projected by words of

the liar.

If the speech of a character within a narrative is to be understood as an embedded narrative,

the criterion will be that it can display a certain amount of autonomy; in fact an embedded

narrative should constitute a digression from as well as a "dissolving" of the story representing

the narrator's speech situation as a motif. But then, an embedded narrative will not, logically or

"grammatically", be secondary to the primary, embedding narrative. No narrative or formal

qualities will, for instance, place the homodiegetic narratives of the Odyssey under the framing

heterodiegetic narrative. Rather the work presents a paratactical joining of equivalent elements.

The illusion of a hierachy is the result of a trick, it is a motivation, in the sense of the Russian

formalists, for the primary storyteller, Homer, to conceal his art and real business, which is to

entertain his audience by storytelling. In introducing a fictional motif, a person willing to tell a

story, the aoidos thus tricks us into yielding the floor to him for more narration. An embedded

"unreliable narration" should also display such an authonomy to be counted as a genuine

narrative and not just a piece of unreliable talk from a character. However the similarity cannot

be total. If that were the case, there would not be any reason for us to suspect "unreliable

narration" as something different from "reliable narration."

In the Athena episode the Cretan stranger seems to give a frank characterization of himself.

If he is to be taken as an "unreliable narrator" his self-description should turn against himself, in

contrast to what ought to be his intention: to impress favourably. So the question is whether he

compromises himself telling about his deeds and who he is.

He starts by saying that he is a fugitive and mentions the reason for this: he has killed a son

of Idomeneus. Being in exile because of manslaughter is not usually anything very remarkable,

either in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Several good men share such a fate. Think for instance of

Theoklymenos, the fugitive with the gift of prophecy whom Telemachos comes across at Pylos

whom he offers a safe escape on his ship (XV.220-286). This Theoklymenos is later to play an

important role as a truthsayer once he has landed on Ithaca (XV.529-34, XIX.350-370), so

evidently he is to be regarded as a man of quality. The pseudo-Cretan goes on to state the reasons

for his deed: Orsilochos threatened to deprive him of his plunder from Troy where he has fought.

That he should feel indignation at such a prospect could not surprise any reader of the Iliad where

a man's honour is so often measured by the share he gets of the common booty. So, is this

homicide not a justified action to save his honour and property? Then the stranger goes on to state

his relations to the father of the slayed, Idomeneus. He has not been willing to serve under him

but, as he says: "I led others, of my own following". And then comes the rather detailed account

of the killing.

Here we can note how the narrative really becomes autonomous from the speech situation

where it started: it is getting "narrativity". We are presented with a lively account of what it was


like to be there; the scene with the speaking Cretan and his interlocutor is "dissolved" and

replaced by a new, genuinely narrative scene with the Cretan as "experiencing I".

But still there is something wrong here. The account of how the homicide was arranged is

so compromising for the speaker that it deprives him of the possibility of being ranked as a true

embedded narrator like Odysseus, Menelaos or Eumaios, that is, "narrators" who do not in fact

narrate but leave the word to the aoidos himself, their narratives being "consumed" by his. But,

we might protest, an ambush is not necessarily regarded as something evil. Think of the Iliad

again, of how Achilles practically abuses Agamemnon for not being willing to risk his life and

health by lying in ambush! That is true, but it is of no consequence for this scene. It relates the act

of the killing in such a way that it must stand out as unjustified and shameful, we must think the

whole scene is ironic. This intuition is evidently based on the contrast with what we usually

expect from the Odyssey or epic poetry generally. The speaker says that two men killed from

behind an unarmed man going from his work all by himself. That the killing took place at night

with no witnesses and that the killer succeeded in escaping without anybody knowing that he was

the perpetrator of the deed, all this should be taken as indication of the villainous nature of such

an act. As a contrast we are later to be informed that Odysseus kills the suitors face to face in

broad daylight, with witnesses, and that he takes full responsibility for his actions, all in

accordance with the spirit of high epic. The unconscious irony of the Cretan's relation of his deed

is brought out by the expectations of the audience; following the story of the Odyssey has

prepared them for an heroic ethos in contrast to the ethos of the picaresque or sagas of ruthless

raiders. In other words, Homer has put a rogue story in the mouth of the Cretan fugitive in a

context that he has set to be determined by the spirit of high epics.

With this in mind we are now prepared to go back to some details concerning the stranger's

record of his background. He was not willing to serve as the henchman of Idomeneus, he

declares. Should this admission not already be sufficient to arouse our suspicions that he is no

man of honour? For Idomeneus is one of the greatest heroes of the Iliad. In comparison we may

look to a later lie of Odysseus, where in the most noble and chivalrous way he comforts Penelope

with the story of how he, a brother of Idomeneus, once met her husband and treated him well

(XIX.164-203). We may notice here, that being Idomeneus' brother is evidently a motivation for

the nobleness that characterizes this speech. On the other hand, the man who refuses to fight

under Idomeneus and prefers raiding on his own with his own men is in fact rejecting the heroic

ethos that dominates the homeric works. With that rejection the stranger intends to win approval,

in his story he pleads for understanding and sympathy. But he cannot reject the norms of the

work in which he is a character, so in the whole story, that of the aoidos, he unwittingly reveals

himself as a rascal.

Of course, it might be objected that the irony traced in this episode is only in the eye of the

modern reader, not in the text. Only those who, from some idiosyncratic ethics, are unable to

sympathize with a hero slaying a person in an ambush at night will find an irony here. Actually

quite a few homerologists have interpreted this text as being on the same level as, for instance,

Odysseus tale to the Phaiakians. A citation from P. Walcot's "Odysseus and the Art of Lying"

will suffice as a demonstration of this view:

All this strikes us as a squalid saga of retaliation, with one insult provoking another, until events

culminate in a far from chivalrous encounter between the offended and offending parties. Yet the

story must be designed to win approval of Odysseus' audience, and in this story the pseudo-

Cretan exemplifies what was always a golden rule for the Greeks, harm your enemies. And


typically again, the means employed to achieve results are much less important than the actual

achievements of results. 14

But such argument is beside the point. As readers we do not ponder over "means" as against

"achievements". We do not react as moral agents but as skilled readers, who have recognized a

flaw in the narrating itself. Suppose you can accept as a valid rule in this tale "harm your

enemies". Nevertheless, if a certain action is to be justified it must be described in words that will

put it in the best possible light. But in this narrative we sense a possible contradiction between a

stated justification of an agent's action and the description of it. There are details in the Cretan's

relation of his deeds that certainly seem to contradict its purpose of a justifying plea. Such flaws

let us sense the presence of an implied author behind the text, it is said. Perhaps, but is it not just

another way of saying that the story of the Orsilochos' slayer is not the "whole" story. The

primary narration is setting a scene where a self-deceiver is indirectly characterized by means of

a secondary and parodied narration. This latter account is secondary in a logical sense, as it is

subordinated to, and gets its narrative significance from, the primary level. Narration with a flaw

is not genuinely narration.

The second Cretan lie of Odysseus – told to Eumaios – shares with the first one this

parodying quality. His disguise is now a Cretan veteran from the Trojan war, a hero in decline, a

wretched self-deceiver who, with a mixture of bragging and lament, is trying to arouse the

sympathy of his interlocutor as well as boosting his own weakened self-confidence. The narrative

is compositionally motivated by the necessity for Odysseus to seek the assistance of his servant

without revealing his identity, but it also gives the aoidos an opportunity to demonstrate his

artistic excellency in psychological portraiture and complex narrative techniques. This episode is

too long to be discussed in its entirety, and for that reason I will confine myself to only parts of it.

I announce that my origin is from Crete, a spacious

land; I am son of a rich man, and there were many other

sons who were born to him and reared in his palace. These were

lawful sons by his wife, but a bought woman, a concubine,

was my mother, yet I was favored with the legitimate

sons by Kastor, Hylakos' son, whom I claim as father,

honored among the Cretans in the countryside as a god is,

in those days, for wealth and power and glorious children.

But then, you see, the death spirits caught and carried him from us

to the house of Hades, and his overbearing sons divided

the livelihood among them and cast lots for it. Little

enough, however, was what they gave me in goods and houses.

But I took myself a wife from people with many possessions,

because of my courage, for I was no contemptible man, not

one who fled from the fighting; but now all that has gone from me,

but still, I think, if you look at the stubble you see what the corn was

like when it grew, but since then hardship enough has had me.

Ares and Athena endowed me with courage, that power

that breaks men in battle. Whenever I detailed the best fighters

to go into ambush, planning evil things for the enemy,

the proud heart in me had no image of death before it,

but far the first I would leap out and with my spear bring down


that enemy and whose speed of foot failed against me.

Such was I in fighting; but labor was never dear to me,

nor care for my house, though that is what raises glorious children;

but ships that are driven on by oars were dear to me always,

and the wars, and throwing spears with polished hafts, and the arrows,

gloomy things, which to other men are terrible, and yet

those things were dear to me which surely some god had put there

in my heart, for different men take joy in different actions. (The Odyssey, 14.199-228)

The parodic quality of this narrative will appear when contrasted to the true ethos of epic poetry.

Just like the slayer of Orsilochos, this veteran does not fight the war of a true hero, meeting his

enemy eye to eye, but prefers attacking from ambush. However bellicose in appearance he will

not be put on a par with the aristocrats of the Iliad. He also implies that his way of life –

contemptuous of civil work, drifting about, raiding, away from home and family – is justified and

equal in moral value to that of a steady person's, the life of one who cares for his house and raises

children. He espouses a kind of relativism as regards human activity: "different men take joy in

different actions".

The veteran is also full of boasting about earlier manliness, alternating with lamenting over

his present state. But what do the details he mentions about his war experiences and the treatment

he receives from others actually reveal about him?

On the fifth day we reached the abundant stream Aigyptos,

and I stayed my oarswept ships inside the Aigyptos River.

Then I urged my eager companions to stay where they were, there

close to the fleet, and to guard the ships, and was urgent with them

to send look-outs to the watching places; but they, following

their own impulse, and giving way to marauding violence,

suddenly began plundering the Egyptian's beautiful

fields, and carried off the women and innocent children,

and killed the men, and soon the outcry came to the city.

They heard the shouting, and at the time when dawn shows, they came

on us, and all the plain was filled with horses and infantry

and the glare of bronze, and Zeus who delights in thunder flung down

a foul panic among my companions, and none was so hardy

as to stand and fight, for the evils stood in a circle around them.

There they killed many of us with the sharp bronze, and others

they led away alive, to work for them in forced labor;

but Zeus himself put this thought into my mind, as I will

tell you, but how I wish I had died and met my destiny

there in Egypt, for there was still more sorrow awaiting me.

At once I put the well-wrought helm from my head, the great shield

off my shoulders, and from my hand I let the spear drop,

and went out into the way of the king and up to his chariot,

and kissed his knees and clasped them; he rescued me and took pity

and seated me in his chariot and took me, weeping, homeward

with him; and indeed many swept in on me with ash spears


straining to kill me, for they were all too angered, but the king

held them off from me, and honored the anger of Zeus Protector

of Strangers, who beyond others is outraged at evil dealings.

There for seven years I stayed and gathered together

much substance from the men of Egypt, for all gave to me;

but when in the turning of time the eighth year had befallen me,

then there came a Phoenician man, well skilled in beguilements,

a gnawer at other's goods, and many were the hurts he inflicted

on men, and by his wits talked me over, so I went with him

to Phoenicia, where lay this man's house and possessions.

There for the fulfillment of a year I stayed with him,

but when the months and when the days had come to completion,

with the circling back of the year again, and the seasons came on,

then he took me on his seafaring ship to Libya,

with lying advices, that with him we could win a cargo, but in fact

so he could sell me there and take the immense price for me.

There is clearly a discrepancy between the veteran's boasting about his war merits and his

dishonourable behaviour in the fight against the Egyptians. This record of a battle echoes the

Kikonian episode in the Odyssey IX.39–66. But the differences are revealing: Odysseus is forced

to give up his combat with the Kikonians, but he manages to retreat with his men in good order

and he is never tempted to throw away his weapons and beg for mercy. Another significant detail

in the Cretan's narrative is how he is treated by other men. We can see how he acts a poor figure

against the bullying Phoenician. And he cannot help being the victim of the unscrupulous sailors

who are supposed to take him home from the Thesprotians:

[H]e sent me off, for a ship of Thesprotian

men happened then to be sailing for Doulichion, rich in wheatfields;

so he urged them to convey me there to the king Akastos,

in a proper way, but their hearts were taken with a bad counsel

concerning me, so I still should have the pain of affliction.

So when the seafaring ship had gone far out from the mainlaid,

they presently devised the day of slavery for me.

They took off me the mantle and tunic I wore as clothing,

and then they put another vile rag on me, and a tunic,

tattered, the one you yourself see with your eyes.

In sum, the details show that this person has often been treated with contempt by others and that

he has constantly been outsmarted by other, more cunning men. This should of course also be

seen in contrast to Odysseus, who is always treated with respect and always is the master of

cunning. On the whole, these details add to the sense of parodic heroic poetry.

This parodic technique constantly uses the idea of devaluating, decreasing, lowering the

parodied persons or actions and thus contrasting them with the standard which is Odysseus and

the ethos of heroic aristocratic poetry. From what the first Cretan narrator unconsciously tells he

is clearly not treated as Idomeneus' equal: he is asked to fight under him not together with him.

He is obviously on a lower social level than Idomeneus and not ranked among the aristocrats. The

second Cretan narrator himself admits his lower birth, being an illegitimate child. This contrast


etween higher and lower, aristocratic and plebeian, could be seen as an icon of the relation

between the two kinds of narration used here: the secondary mock narration is subordinate to the

primary genuine narration.

It is at the point where the Cretan veteran is trying to relativize different ways of life that he

really becomes a pseudo-Odysseus. The picture he paints of himself is indeed a contrast to

everything Odysseus stands for in this epic. The disguise of the hero here is not just one of mere

physical identity but to an even greater extent also of moral character. For in contrast to the

Cretan, Odysseus is eager to get home from his wanderings urged by his sense of responsibility,

by his desire is to take care of house and family. His wanderings are inflicted on him and are

described as his long "sufferings," as is the war he has fought. 15 In fact the two Cretan characters

should be associated with those roving and lying rascals Alkinoös refers to as the contrast to

Odysseus, after having listened to his long narrative:

Odysseus, we as we look upon you do not imagine

that you are a deceptive or thievish man, the sort that the black earth

breeds in great numbers, poeple who wander widely, making up

lying stories, from which no one could learn anything. You have

a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense within them,

and expertly, as a singer would do, you have told the story. (XI.363–368.)

Odysseus is not one of the contemptible men described here; Alkinoös has been convinced of his

true qualities by the manner in which he tells of his own sufferings. Significantly enough it is also

the way they tell of their antecedents that brings forth the true moral characters of the Cretans.


There is a constant difficulty in demonstrating that a text is to be understood as ironic. In ordinary

conversation we can rely on intonation, facial expression, some commonsensical understanding

of the situation etc. to get to the actual meaning of an utterance. In literature we have to look for

other kinds of signals, most of which are based on implication. The text has displayed some such

clues that make us unwilling to understand the tales of the Cretan narrators discussed above as

genuine narratives. But we could also add another explanation in support of the actual

interpretation, an argument not based on formal criteria but on something that might be termed

'vicarious reaction' from within the fiction itself. We can ask: How are the tales of the first and

the second Cretan narrators received by their narratees, and could we learn something from their


The answer is yes. The behaviour of both Athena and Eumaios confirms the idea that these

Cretan stories are parodies. Neither of them listens to the teller in real earnest. Of course no one

can fool Athena, not even Odysseus:

So he spoke. The goddess, gray-eyed Athena, smiled on him,

and stroke him with her hand, and took the shape of a woman

both beautiful and tall, and well versed in glorious handiworks,

and spoke aloud to him and addressed him in winged words, saying:

'It would be a sharp one, and a stealthy one, who would ever get past you

in any contriving; even if it were a god against you.

You wretch, so devious, never weary of tricks, then you would not


even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving

and your thievish tales. They are near to you in your very nature. (XIII. 286-295)

And the reaction of Eumaios has a lot in common with Athena's:

Then, O swineherd Eumaios, you said to him in answer:

'O sorrowful stranger, truly you troubled the spirit in me,

by telling me all these details, how you suffered and wandered;

yet I think some parts is in no true order, and you will not persuade me

in your talk about Odysseus. Why should such a man as you are

lie recklessly to me? But I myself know the whole truth

of what my lord's homecoming is, how all the gods hated him

so much that they did not make him go down in the land of the Trojans,

nor in the arms of his friends, after he had wound up the fighting.

How should this be interpreted? Firstly, it confirms that both episodes are cast in the comic mode.

Secondly, the laughter of Athena and the goodhumoured scepticism of Eumaios could be

regarded as vicarious expressions of the attitude of the reader or listener. Their laughter is the

fictional equivalent of ours, which renders the text in some sense meta-fictional here. That does

not mean, of course, that they are amused by exactly the same things as we are – they are in an

actual (fictive) situation before a real (fictive) person – only that there is some similarity between

our and their reaction to the fun of the situation type.

It is true that a scene like that where Odysseus first learns that he has arrived at Ithaca could

in principle be conceived in many different ways by the storyteller, serious as well as comic. But

it is hard to imagine a solution better than the one Homer is offering here. We are presented with

the two protagonists who will now meet for the first time and together attempt the difficult task:

Odysseus and his guardian goddess. The nature of the task demands the utmost cunning and

caution, which Athena has already foreseen. The audience knows that its hero has thus far amply

demonstrated that he is in possession of these qualities. Whether the joy of realizing that he has at

last reached his home island will lessen his vigilance it is appropriate to question. The narrative

reveals that Odysseus still comes up to expectations. But how smart is the hero? The intertextual

level of this text answers: He is as cunning and cautious as Diomedes of the Iliad is brave and

eager to fight. Diomedes was not afraid of attacking and wounding even the gods; and Odysseus

is trying to outsmart even Athena, the goddess of smartness and cunning. However, having

interpreted the episode in this way, it is hard to think of a more adequte form for it than as a

"story in disguise," i.e. using the device of the "unreliable narrator". For Homer could not let his

hero lie outright to a goddess, who is bound to expose him. Such a scene would have made him

appear ridiculous in the eyes of an audience and contradicted his reputation for cleverness. But by

casting his tale in the form of a parody of serious narration and thereby distancing the teller from

the telling, Homer succeeds somehow in making Odysseus the equal of the goddess of disguise.

Also it is the perfect solution to the delicacy of this situation. No one has reason to feel offended

here. Athena has not, since this is (irrespective of the actual intentions of the liar) a performance

of mere clownishness, that is, not a serious action but a mere representation of one. Nor has

Odysseus, since he will have to take responsibility only for the amusing impersonation of a

rascal; he has not ventured his reputation as a successful liar and failed. All these effects are

brought about by a single device: that of the "unrelible narrator", which separates a primary teller

from a told teller. Accordingly, we may even in this case speak about a vicarious, meta-narrative


pattern. The distance between the play-acting Odysseus and the the role of the infamous Cretan

fugitive is (in agrement with our remark above regarding the laughter of Athena) an icon of the

distance between the primary storyteller, Homer, and his dramatized speaker.

The tale to Eumaios is to be understood in similar terms. Of course, one could object here

that his sceptical remark is due to his mistaken belief that his master is dead, and that the

expression "I think some parts is in no true order" refers only to the stranger's having heard that

Odysseus is still alive. But even so, this will be of no consequence to an audience. For Eumaios

has suggested that something is in "no true order" in the story – an unspecified remark tallying

with our intuition that there is a flaw in it. When Eumaios expresses his conviction that his master

is dead the comedy goes on, now with two objects: on the one hand, the wretched supplicant in

his rags, bragging and trying to persuade the swineherd what a man he once was but at the same

time unconsciously revealing how often he has had to endure humiliation, on the other hand,

Eumaios before his longed for master, whom he is unable to recognize because of his true, not

just imagined, smartness.

Choosing the device of the "unreliable narrator" is also a more than adequate means of

presenting the story to Eumaios as a narratee, because even here the primary storyteller must

handle some ticklish problems, dealing with the relation between the disguised master and his

servant. He could not, for instance, let his hero seriously be the supplicant of his own servant, that

is why the account the disguised Odysseus gives of his antecedents must easily be a story in

disguise. It must be tailored for such a man as Eumaios can see with his eyes before him, a man

of no better position than himself, his inferior even as he is forced to ask for protection of him.

The problem is the way in which Odysseus should be allowed to speak to Eumaios without

actually taking the position which is given to him by his beggar's outfit. The solution to that

problem is speaking in disguise, i.e. by impersonation, which will create the necessary distance.

Not until he has revealed his identity can Odysseus be allowed to speak quite seriously to

Eumaios, no longer as an equal but as his master.

This delicate relation also appears in the stories that Odysseus and Eumaios exchange

which are no lying tales. Eumaios tells the stranger how he, once the child of a king, was stolen

by a treacherous servant and sold as a slave. This story is told from a pure and simple heart,

asking the narratee to sympathise with the miserable protagonist. Telling such a story of one's

own hard sufferings is to treat the narratee as an equal; in fact, this story resembles those that

Odysseus tells the Phaiakians at Skeria. Homer's motivation for it is clear enough. Being the son

of a king, Eumaios could be presented as Odysseus' assistant without disregarding the feelings of

an aristocratic audience. Having been stolen and sold as a child, he has never reached the status

of an aristocratic warrior and is consequently not Odysseus' peer. The story of the Odyssey can go

on with its true protagonist as undisputably dominating the scene.

On the other hand, after having gone to bed, Odysseus, still in disguise, tells Eumaios a

story of how once at Troy he tricked a soldier into lending him his warm cloak. Eumaios gets the

point and fetches a warm cover for the teller. Though not obviously false, this story is still not

quite as serious as Odysseus' stories at Skeria. It is a rogue story and consequently, regarded as a

genre of a lower status than the heroic epic which is the genre of the Odyssey as such. Telling a

story like this Odysseus can proceed in his disguise while still playing the equal of Eumaios.

The lies to Antinoös, Penelope, and Laërtes

Though Odysseus tells rather detailed lies about his identity to Antinoös, Penelope and Laërtes,

these accounts should not be considered as instances of of "unreliable narration." First of all,


these three episodes do not resemble genuine embedded narratives to the same degree as do those

discussed above; in other words, they are more firmly attached to the fictive speech situation.

From the details of what is told we could refer directly to the situation of its telling. The sense of

fictive speech rather than of narrative is probably due to the fact that we can see the reason the

speaker chooses to tell what he does and nothing else: he is evidently addressing his words to

someone in particular. Storytelling has a structure that makes it less bound to an individual

narratee. Secondly, these speeches do characterize their speaker, that is true, but in contrast to the

earlier ones, they characterize Odysseus himself, not an impersonation he is creating. We will find

here a disguised, lying Odysseus but not stories in disguise.

This is very clear in the appeal to Antinoös, the leader of the suitors. Odysseus in his

beggar's outfit asks him for some food:

Give, dear friend. You seem to me, of all the Achaians,

not the worst, but the best. You look like a king. Therefore,

you ought to give me a better present of food than the others

have done, and I will sing your fame all over the endless

earth, for I too once lived in my own house among people,

prospering i wealth, and often I gave to a wanderer

according to what he was and wanted when he came to me;

and I had serving men by thousands, and many another

good thing, by which men live well and are called prosperous. Only

Zeus, son of Kronos, spoiled it all – somehow he wished to –

when he put it into my head to go with the roving pirates

to Egypt, a long voyage, so that I must be ruined.

I stayed my oarswept ships inside the Aigyptos River.

Then I urged my eager companions to stay where they were, there

close to the fleet, and to guard the ships, and was urgent with them

to send lookouts to the watching places, but they following

their own impulse, and giving way to marauding violence,

suddenly began plundering the Egyptians' beautiful

fields, and carried off the women and innocent children,

and killed the men, and soon the outcry came to the city.

They heard the shouting, and at the time when dawn shows, they came

on us, and all the plain was filled with horses and infantry

and the glare of bronze; and Zeus who delights in the thunder flung down

a foul panic among my companions, and none was so hardy

as to stand and fight, for the evils stood in a circle around them.

There they killed many of us with the sharp bronze, and others

they led away alive, to work for them in forced labor;

but they gave me away, into Cyprus, to a stranger arriving,

Dmetor, Iasos' son, who was the strong king in Cyprus.

From there I came here, where I am now, suffering hardships. (XVII. 411-44)

The scene is set with one man testing another by telling a moral paradigm. Odysseus uses again

parts of the story he once told Eumaios (a variant of the Kikonian episode) with some very

important changes. Gone are those details which shed an ironic light on the narrator, revealing his

ignominious failings. Here is a hero who has learnt from his mistakes and become wiser and


humbler. Such is the example set for the presumptuous Antinoös, who, of course, in an obvious

manner will show his inability to accept its lesson.

This speech seems to meet rather well the critera we have stipulated for genuine narrative:

we can recognize the typical "dissolving" which turns the initial scene, where the begger starts to

narrate, to a narrated situation rendered, as it were, from the perspective of an experiencing self.

Further, there is harmony between the directive (diegetic) parts and the mimetic parts of narrated

action, speech and thought (the visible narrator is "reliable"). But in spite of that, it will not take

on the function of a genuine narrative in the same way as do, for instance, the tales of Odysseus

in the Phaiakian court. The reason is that neither Homer nor the fictive narrator is presenting this

story for the sake of storytelling alone. Like Nathan in the Books of Samuel, who tells David the

story of the rich man and the poor man with the intention of stirring his conscience, so Odysseus

is telling a tale with a practical purpose. Consequently the "whole" of the story (or episode) may

not be identified with this exemplum but with the overall scene: Odysseus testing Antinoös.

(Later, in XIX.70-19, Penelope's arrogant maidservant, Melantho, is exposed to a similar moral

lesson with the exception of its narrative part.) The complex organization of the third "Ithacan

lie," enclosing a secondary structure within a main one, is similar to the former two narratives as

it tells a story which also characterizes its teller. However, those narratives displayed a narrator

unconsciously revealing himself as a self-deceiver, while in this one he comes into view as a wise

man chastened by his sufferings. This makes a considerable difference compared to the other

two. There is no ironic clash between the attitude of the teller and the moral significance of the

told in the story to Antinoös. The ethos of this narrative and that of the narrator are entirely in

harmony. The reason we take the speaker for a wise man is because we can see that this story can

teach human wisdom, it is not because he has been provided with some external attribute of a

sage. Consequently, there is the same mode of indirect characterization as in the "unreliable

narrator's" accounts. However, the difference is considerable. This teller knows that his telling

expresses the quality of wisdom, in fact, that is why he tells it as a moral example. But the

impersonated bragging Cretans are unconscious of the ethos of their own life stories. Hence their


The lies to Penelope and Laërtes, in turn, have another character than the three already

discussed. They are not so much narratives as (false) reports of isolated facts. The episodes where

Odysseus lies to Penelope and Laërtes display a dramatized speaker in a speech situation which is

the object of our main interest.

O respected wife of Odysseus, son of Laërtes,

you will not stop asking me about my origin?

Then I will tell you; but you will give me over to sorrows

even more than I have; but such is the way of it, when one

strays away from his own country as long as I have,

wandering many cities of men and suffering hardships.

Even so, I will tell you what you ask me and seek for.

There is a land called Crete in the middle of the wine-blue water,

a handsome country and fertile, seagirt, and there are many

peoples in it, innumerable; there are ninety cities.

Language with language mix there together. There are Achaians,

there are great-hearted Eteokretans, there are Kydonians,

and Dorians in three divisions, and noble Pelasgians;

and there is Knossos, the great city, the place where Minos


was king for nine-year periods, and conversed with great Zeus.

He was the father of my father, great-hearted Deukalion.

Deukalion had two sons, myself and the lord Idomeneus,

but Idomeneus had gone with the curved ships to Ilion

along with the sons of Atreus. My glorious name was Aithon,

and I was the younger born, but he was elder and better.

It was there that I knew Odysseus and entertained him,

for the force of the wind had caught him, as he was making for Ilion,

and brought him to Crete, driving him off course past Maleia.

He stopped at Amnisos, where there is a cave of Eileithyia,

in difficult harbors, and barely he had escaped from the stormwind.

He went up to the town at once, and asked for Idomeneus,

for he said he was his hereditary friend, and respected;

but it was now the tenth or eleventh day since Idomeneus

had gone away along with his curved ships for Ilion.

But I took him back to my own house, and well entertained him

with proper hospitality, since there was abundance

in the house, and for his other companions, who were his followers,

I collected from the public and gave them barley, and shining

wine, and cattle to dedicate, to content their spirits. (XIX.164-198)

Here no "dissolving" will let the scene in the hall with Penelope and her disguised husband

disappear and be replaced by a scene in Crete instead. The whole action – that is, what would

make the core of a résumé – is this situation with Odysseus talking to his beloved wife under the

constraint of not revealing his true identity. An attempt at summary would not mention the

incidents in Crete as a separate episode, they are justified only as the contents of what Odysseus

says in comforting his wife. And in his conversation with Laërtes, Odysseus, still in disguise, is

not telling a story in which a protagonist of a certain kind meets the son of Laërtes, he is actually

saying that he met that man himself, although his words are not true.

But since what is narrated here by the primary storyteller is a scene where Odysseus speaks

to people, he is characterized by his act whether his words are literally true or not. In talking to

his wife Odysseus pretends to be a younger brother of Idomeneus. It is informative to compare

his words here with those of the Cretan bragger who tells Athena that he would not serve under

that man in Troy. This man, in contrast, speaks nobly and modestly and does not make his own

person the centre of interest. Of course this behaviour characterizes the speaker, but it is not a

characterization that applies only to the man impersonated, it really says a lot about the man

impersonating too. You could also say that Odysseus is the one who speaks nobly and

comfortingly to Penelope. But you could not say that Odysseus is the one who speaks like a

rascal to Athena, as he is impersonating the slayer of Orsilochos. Accordingly, there is some truth

in his speech to Penelope. This observation would be one way of understanding the line with

which Homer summarizes this scene in the hall: "He knew how to say many false things that

were like true sayings" (pseudea ... etumoisin homoia) (XIX.203).

The purpose of my discussion of the five "Ithacan lies" of Odysseus has been to argue for the

thesis that these episodes do not reveal just one but a variety of narrative devices. Although all



five texts have been defined as "stories", their fictive speakers as "narrators", and their contents

as "untruth", I would propose that only the first two are instances of the device of "unreliable

narration." This does not mean that their fictive narrators are lying. Rather, to recognize it as

"unreliable narration" is to say that it is a story the perspective of which is awry and therefore

indirectly characterizes the fictive teller. The storytelling in these episodes is parodic. The third

text has a complexity of its own. It should not be characterized as "unreliable narration", because

there is no flaw in the representation of the intention of the fictive narrator and the representation

of his telling. The story of the beggar could be described as the instrument of a fictional speech

act (in this case a warning) that has nothing to do with narrating for the sake of narration. So even

if the paradigm he is offering the suitor is a full-blown narrative, it is totally integrated with a

dramatized speech act, which prevents it from emerging as a narrative of its own. The last two

lies lack the narrative characteristics that apply to the former ones. They never lose contact with

the dramatized scene of enunciation, and although Odysseus is here speaking in disguise their

ethos is in harmony with the ethos of Odysseus' own serious actions. Here, there is no sense of

irony or parody.


1 Sheila Murnaghan, Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey. Prineton: Princeton Univ. Press,


2 Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, [1964], 2 ed. Chicago & London: The Univ. of

Chicago Pr., 1983, in particular Chapter 12.

3 For example Adele Haft, "Odysseus, Idomeneus and Meriones: The Cretan Lies of Odyssey 13–

19." The Classical Journal 79 (1984): 289-306; Hugh Parry, "The Apologos of Odysseus: Lies,

All Lies?" Phoenix 48 (1994): 1–20; W.B. Stanford, "Studies in the Characterization of Ulysses –

III: The Lies of Odysseus." In Hermathena/ A Series of Papers by Members of Trinity College 75

(1950): 35–48; Werner Suerbaum, "Die Ich-Erzählungen des Odysseus." Poetica 2 (1968): 150–

177; C.R. Trahman, "Odysseus' Lies (Odyssey, Books 13–19)." Phoenix/ The Journal of the

Classical Association of Canada 6, no. 2 (1952): 31–43 and P. Walcot, "Odysseus and the Art of

Lying." Ancient Society 8 (1977): 1–19.

4 See, for instance, Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and

Film. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Pr., 1978 and. Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction

and Film. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Pr., 1990; Gregory Currie, "Unreliability Refigured: Narrative in

Literature and Film." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 53:1 (1995): 19-29; Marcia M.

Eaton, "Liars, Ranters, and Dramatic Speakers." In Language and Aesthetics: Contributions to

the Philosophy of Art. Edited by Benjamin R. Tilghman. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,

1973; Marie-Laure Ryan, "The Pragmatics of Personal and Impersonal Fiction", Poetics

10(1981): 517–539; Tamar Yakobi, "Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem." Poetics

Today 2, no. 2 (Winter 1981): 113–126; Francis Sparshott, "The Case of the Unreliable

Narrator." Philosophy and Literature 10, no. 2 (1986): 145–167; Jenny de Reuck, "Stereoscopic


Perspective: Transmission and Reception in Unreliable Homodiegetic Narration." AUMLA 74

(1990): 154–168.

5 See for instance Tamar Yacobi, 1981, p. 113.

6 Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen, 1983,

p. 95.

7 The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore. New York: HarperCollins

Publishers, 1965.

8 See for instance Chatman 1978 and 1990; Ryan 1981; Rimmon-Kenan 1983; de Reuck 1990;

Currie 1995; for a critique of the assumption of an implied author, see Wall 1994.

9 Chatman 1978, Ryan 1981, and de Reuch 1990.

10 Marie-Laure Ryan, 1981, p. 530-531.

11 Ryan 1981, p. 531.

12 "Narrator", in Irene R. Makaryk (ed.), Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory.

Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Pr., 1993.

13 Ryan 1981, p. 531.

14 P. Walcot, "Odysseus and the Art of Lying". Ancient Society 8 (1977): 1-19, p. 11. C.

R.Trahman stresses the intimidating function of this narrative: Odysseus warns the shepherd not

to touch his goods. "Odysseus' Lies." Phoenix 6 (1952), No 2: 31–43. But this psychological

analysis will not conflict with the one I propose. Marilyn A. Katz, in Penelope's Renown:

Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,

1991 argues that Odysseus's fictional self-representation represents a "true" characterization of

who he is. Hugh Parry, in "The Apologos of Odysseus: Lies, All Lies?". Phoenix 48(1994): 1-20

has presented convincing arguments for why Odysseus' narrative at the Phaiakian court should

not be taken as unreliable.

15 Kevin Crotty has stressed the importance of the kedea (suffering) theme as constitutive of the

epical ethos of the Odyssey. See his The Poetics of Supplication: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994, especially Chapter 8: "Supplication and



Booth, Wayne, C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Pr.

[1961] 2:nd ed. 1987.

Burrows, Reynold Z. "Deception As a Comic Device in the Odyssey." The


Classical World 59 (1965), No 2: 33–36.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and

Film. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Pr., 1978.

– Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca:

Cornell Univ. Pr., 1990.

Currie, Gregory. "Unreliability Refigured: Narrative in Literature and Film."

The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 53:1 (1995): 19-29.

Eaton, Marcia M. "Liars, Ranters, and Dramatic Speakers." In Language and Aesthetics:

Contributions to the Philosophy of Art. Edited by Benjamin R. Tilghman. Lawrence: University

Press of Kansas, 1973

Haft, Adele, J. "Odysseus, Idomeneus and Meriones: The Cretan Lies of

Odyssey 13–19. The Classical Journal 79 (1984): 289–306.

de Jong, Irene. "The Subjective Style in Odysseus' Wanderings." The Classical

Quarterly 42 (1992), no. 1: 1–11.

Katz, Marilyn A. Penelope's Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey.

Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991

Murnaghan, Sheila. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey. Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1987.

Parry, Hugh. "The Apologos of Odysseus: Lies, All Lies?" Phoenix 48 (1994):


Rademacher, Ludwig. "Die Erzählungen der Odyssee." In Sitzungsberichte der

Kais. Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien. Philosphisch-Historische

Klasse 178 (1915): 1–59.

de Reuck, Jenny. "Stereoscopic Perspectives: Transmission and Reception in

Unreliable Homodiegetic Narration." AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian

Universities Language and Literature Association. 74 (1990):


Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London:

Routledge, 1983.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. "The Pragmatics of Personal and Impersonal Fiction."

Poetics 10 (1981: 517-539.

– "Narrator", in Irene R. Makaryk (ed.), Encyclopedia of Contemporary

Literary Theory Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Pr., 1993.

Sparshott, Francis. "The Case of the Unreliable Narrator." Philosophy and Literature

10, no. 2 (1986): 145–167

Stanford, W.B. "Studies in the Characterization of Ulysses – III: The Lies of

Odysseus." In Hermathena/ A Series of Papers by Members of Trinity

College 75 (1950): 35–48.

Suerbaum, Werner "Die Ich-Erzählungen des Odysseus." Poetica 2 (1968):


Trahman, C.R. "Odysseus' Lies." Phoenix 6 (1952), No 2: 31–43.

Walcot, P. "Odysseus and the Art of Lying". Ancient Society 8 (1977): 1-19.

Wall, Kathleen. "The Remains of the Day And Its Challenges to Theories

of Unreliable Narration," Journal of Narrative Technique 24 (1994):


Yakobi, Tamar. "Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem." Poetics Today 2,

no. 2 (Winter 1981): 113–126.


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