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Shmoop has a secret. Odysseus may be the Odyssey's hero, but we actually think Telemachos is more interesting. Sure, Odysseus is the strongest, bravest, smartest, kindest, most pious hero alive today—but, come on, isn't all that perfection just a little boring? Odysseus starts off a hero and he ends up a hero. But not Telemachos. Telemachos starts off as a whiny little brat and ends up as a man who just might someday make a good king.
Intrigued? We thought you might be.
Okay, we said "whiny little brat," but let's start off with the good. Telemachos may not have the chutzpah to kick the suitors out of his dad's great hall, but at least he knows how to treat a guest. When he sees Athene lurking by the door, "the heart within him [is] scandalized that a guest should still be standing at the doors" (1.119). He brings her a chair and a footstool, and even makes sure to put her somewhere out of the way where she won't "lose [her] appetite there among overbearing people" (1.134).
Sure, but she's a goddess. Of course he brings out the red carpet, right? But this is Athene in disguise. For all Telemachos knows, s/he's just some rando trying to get a free meal—and yet he still treats the stranger with respect and honor.
Telemachos also starts out ahead of the game by having Odysseus for a father. At the same time, it's rough for this boy not to have his dad around. He explains it like this:
For my mother, against her will, is beset by suitors, own sons to the men who are greatest hereabouts … all their days, they come and loiter in our house and sacrifice our oxen and our sheep and our fat goats and make a holiday feast of it and drink the bright wine recklessly. Most of our substance is wasted. (2.50-58)
Say this in your whiniest voice possible, and you'll notice that it doesn't exactly sound heroic. Sure, it's not a good situation. But we really want Telemachos to step up and do something about it, rather than simply describe it. He also blames the gods for his weakness: "If only the gods would give me such strength as he has to take revenge on the suitors for their overbearing oppression," he says, but "No, the gods have spun out no such strand of prosperity for me and my father. Now we must even have to endure it" (3.205-209).
Granted, there's a lot in The Odyssey about accepting your fate and your destiny—but we'd feel a lot more sympathetic if he at least, you know, tried to kick them out of his house.
Most of all, though, he's mad. His dad didn't even have the sense to die on the battlefield and bestow honor posthumously on his son; he had to die (so Telemachos thinks) at sea, like a weakling and coward:
I should not have sorrowed so over his dying if he had gone down among his companions in the land of the Trojans, or in the arms of his friends, after he had wound up the fighting. So all the Achaians would have heaped a grave mound over him, and he would have won great fame for himself and his son hereafter. But now ingloriously the stormwinds have caught and carried him away, out of sight, out of knowledge, and he left pain and lamentation to me. (1.236-243)
Way to stand by your dad, Telemachos. He's lost faith in his father, and it's not good. No wonder Athene decides to take matters into her own hands.
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When Athene shows up disguised and Mentor, Telemachos thanks her for her fatherly advice. And with the appearance of a good male role model, things start to look up for our guy. She does the things that his father would have done for him, broadening his mind by taking him to visit the great heroes, showing him the great court of Menelaos, and giving him a chance to show off his skills at speaking. Above all, she gives him confidence in himself:
From nearby Athene came to him likening herself to Mentor in voice and appearance. Now she spoke aloud to him and addressed him in winged words: 'Telemachos, you are to be no thoughtless man, no coward, if truly the strong force of your father is instilled in you; such a man he was for accomplishing word and action.' (2.267-272)
Notice how she emphasizes first that Telemachos is no "thoughtless" man: like his dad, he's as much brains as brawn. And like his father, he's pretty good at trickery, coming up with a plan to sneak away without his mom's knowledge.
Sure, sneaking off doesn't sound particularly grown up. But remember, we're working with different cultural expectations here. Telemachos is acting like a man: he's sparing his mother the worry of knowing that he's leaving, and he's making a decision on his own. He may still be shy about talking to the heroes ("I have no experience in close discourse" [3.23], he says), but, with Athene's help, he finds the courage to speak up.
Like any road trip, this one leaves Telemachos a wiser man—and the transformation is complete when he reunites with his dad. Now that his father figure is back in town, Telemachos isn't afraid to speak up to the suitors, saying "but if you are determined to murder me with the sharp bronze, then that would be my wish also, since it would be far better than to have to go on watching forever these shameful activities" (20.315-319).
But raw courage isn't the only thing Telemachos has gained. He's also gained maturity: he's not afraid to own up to his mistakes. In a super-important moment, he confesses to Odysseus that he left the door of the storeroom open, allowing the suitors to retrieve their weapons:
Then the thoughtful Telemachos said to him in answer: 'Father, it was my own mistake, and there is no other to blame. I left the door of the chamber, which can close tightly, open at an angle. One of these men was a better observer than I.' (22.153-157)
Notice how Homer calls him "thoughtful" Telemachos? Odysseus is brave and crafty and all that, but he does tend to act first and think later (witness all the times he has to get his men out of a situation). Telemachos seems to be the opposite. His problem is thinking too much and too long. By the end, though, he's learned to act. He may not be exactly the ruler that his dad is, but we get the feeling that he'll be a good one.