What specifically makes Odysseus heroic?
What makes Odysseus heroic is his extraordinary story – extraordinary quest, settings, challenges, feats, distractions (i.e. the character as hero from a story perspective)! He’s got what it takes to be a hero (strength and intelligence above the norm), but we really only imagine him as a hero because he’s put on a True Hero’s Journey (wonderful trials and tribulations across the wine dark sea), he faces major major conflict (God’s wrath, temptations, monsters, geographical constraints), and showcases key values and actions that help him overcome, transforms him in his personal growth arc to achieve a worthy end goal (Save the world / Free Penelope from suitors / Bring glory to his Kingdom).
From a structural standpoint, Homer set it up that way: when we meet Odysseus in Calypso’s cave, stasis equals death – Odysseus has to get out of a dire situation. A Mentor (Athena) sets him on the path of The Hero’s Journey (via Zeus-Hermes-Calypso). Change is required (or die), and movement through the story-story sets this in motion. He embarks on a high-risk journey fraught with monsters and god’s wrath, he’s tempted by sirens along the way, thinks through decisions-decisions in the face of difficult choices, and struggles, showcases his wits and strength, James-Bonding it or Vin-Dieseling it (Chuck Norris-ing it?) to get to point B.
He gets tools, he collects allies, he battles it out with enemies. Conflict is everything, right. His arc of growth compels us to read and retell his story; his incredible situation, and what he does with it, becomes an example or morality tale for what other folks could be capable of if hard-pressed in a situation like that — and so this surmounting, or standing out, makes him heroic. [Even if he is supported by the gods or fated to do something]. And… worthy goals!
Right from the get go, Homer has got us rooting for him, even before we meet him in first person. Because Telemachus cares, and Penelope cares, and Athena and Zeus… so if all these worthy mortals and deities care, we must have lots of empathy for Odysseus and want him to prevail, too! And that’s what makes him a hero — someone we (as reader/audience) look up to and care about.
In what ways does Odysseus potentially present a challenge to models of heroism?
Odysseus is not quite the stereotypical alpha male hero from the outset. He cries like this helpless baby when Calypso has him in her cavern. (Weeping, not anger) I mean, if he’s so full of wit and strength why hasn’t he moved to action and dreamt up a thousand methods to get off Ogygia? And then when Hermes brings instructions from Zeus to free him, Odysseus questions Calypso’s good intentions.
He doesn’t immediately latch onto the opportunity to sail home without one last tryst with her and getting her to help him with the sails of his ship, etc. If he is so heroic, with worthy goals of going home to his wife, why be unfaithful and why delay any longer? If he’s so crafty, why does he need anyone’s help in building a ship? He delays a lot, he is unfaithful, and somehow takes a long time coming home. He questions Ino’s good advice about abandoning ship when Poseidon clearly has it out for him, and then begs for Nausicaa and Arete’s help when he does land in Scheria.
There is some inconsistency in how he trusts some women, not others, even when caught in similar dire situations where he needs help. It is not necessarily rational, but perhaps emotional, based on his view of the gods.
Also, he got into this whole mess in the first place because his crew stole cattle from the Sun God. If he’s the true ancient greek hero, who’s just a cogwheel in the piece of the gods’ plans, he really should have known or managed his crew a little better, and not have angered the gods so terribly in the first place. But I guess every hero makes mistakes.
What about Telemachus?
Even less the alpha male, perhaps more beta or omega, Telemachus just requires a whole bunch of handholding all the way. He’s lounging around when everyone’s ransacking his home and waiting to pounce on his mom, dreaming of the day his dad comes home to save the day. It takes Athena in disguise many times to move him to action. He has no proven track record to inspire authority when he calls for assembly, instead, he is cajoled and pitied. He doesn’t seem to have his father’s good luck being surrounded by a harem of women (did this define a hero in Ancient Greece imagination?). And Nestor, Menelaus and Helen have to bring up the story of Orestes over and over before Telemachus gets it through his thick skull that action is required to do something about his situation. Other people have to tell him what to do! It’s like he’s not even aware of how bad it is, he’s just a frog in boiling water waiting for it to get so hot he dies before jumping out. And he requires a lot of divine intervention in order to get tools and friends necessary to proceed.