Death Mask of Agamemnon
If we look at the first 111 lines of the Odyssey, we are given a few key elements that paint the scene; the invocation of the muse leads directly to the distress of Odysseus’ situation in his journey home—this includes a) the slaughter and feasting of the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun, by Odysseus’ men (10-16); b) a second invocation of the muse (17) indicating that he is now alone, held by the goddess Kalypso (20-22) who wants him “for her own” (25); c) but Odysseus was actually saved by Kalypso (cf. book 5), after he was punished by Poseidon, the only god who does not “pit[y]” Odysseus (31-32); d) yet Poseidon at the moment when the Odyssey begins is currently away (we could say ‘suspended’), enjoying sacrifices on the other side of the world (35-42), and so we hear Athena and Zeus plotting to save Odysseus; e) we are shown that Poseidon is angry because of the blinding of his son, Polyphemous (92-92), which will occupy the first event that Odysseus recounts in book 9 in Phaiacia; f) but Poseidon does not kill him, he merely keeps him adrift at sea, as though to torment him (98-99)…nevertheless, since Poseidon is only “one god” (104), Athena and Zeus decide to send the messenger god to tell Kalypso to “let the steadfast man [Odysseus] depart for home” (111).
But this merely sets the stage in medias res. The action in ‘real time’ instead begins with Telemachus (his name literally means “far-away fighter”, perhaps an ironic nod to his absent father who left for Troy before Telemachus was born). Athena decides to intervene and tell Telemachus to seek out news of his father. Therefore, Telemachus will be the central character throughout books 1-4. A perhaps overly simple question at this point presents itself: why does the narrative start with Odysseus’ son, rather than with Odysseus?
It is important to note that Telemachus in a sense is acting as the representative of Odysseus, since, for example, Helen almost immediately recognizes him due to his physiological features when he visits Menelaus’ palace, and this gives her a chance to tell a story about Odysseus disguised in rags, along with the first mention of the Trojan horse (book 4). So the drama of the Odyssey begins with Telemachus because he is caught in an awkward situation—he is held suspended, just like his father, and this suspension is in fact the suspension of sovereignty. Furthermore, for Telemachus, Odysseus is primarily suspended as a father. The suitors are brutally feeding off of his family livelihood, and they are all intent upon taking his father’s place. When Telemachus says to Athena, who is in disguise, “My mother says I am his son; I know not / surely. Who has known his own engendering?” (259-260), he is referring to the fact that for him Odysseus is only a name, a name that does not fill the lack of fatherhood or sovereignty. He has never known his father and has only had to go on faith, fiction and fantasy that the great Odysseus is his father; of course, the other side of the suspension is the fact that he does not know whether or not Odysseus is alive or dead, and it is this search that sends him on his journey. If Odysseus is dead, then supposedly Telemachus will be sovereign—the line will continue, and Telemachus will be formally called something like “Odysseides” or “Odysseidon”, the formal title of “son of Odysseus”, retaining the name of his father.