Argus’ Tale

Sometimes when I’m teaching Homer’s Odyssey, I ask students to write a short story about a passage they’ve read but from the perspective of a character other than Odysseus.  I decided to try my own hand at the assignment.  It’s based on an episode from Book 17, when Odysseus, now back home in Ithaca, comes to his palace disguised as an old beggar.  A grim fact of Odysseus’ return has been the failure of almost everybody to recognize him without being told; only his old dog, Argus, knows him for who he is (a translation of the original passage is below my story). It’s a classic tale of canine loyalty, but my idea was to complicate it a little.

Argus’ Tale

There was a time … well, I think there was a time, because I can’t remember all that well any more.  But there was a time when I had an excellent nose.  I could track anything– stags, birds, you name it, I’d get the smell and I was after it.  And I’d catch it, too!  I would.  You laugh, but I would, because I was fast.  Look at him go, the hunters would say when I tore after some boar or other, and my master would smile and say, Oh yeah, he’s fast alright.  That’s what he’d say.

Those days are over, though.  My nose isn’t what it was, and my legs are, well, let’s say that I just don’t get around that much anymore.  And my master has been gone for a long time, too.

I usually lie here, outside the palace.  There are always a lot of people going in and out of the palace, and they always have some small treat for me.  It works out well.  I lie here and, when I see them, I struggle to my feet and give the old tail a wag, and  they give things to eat.  They seem to have a lot left over every night. … There was a time when the servants would bring me the juiciest pieces of the prey I had hunted down.  I was the king’s dog, and I ate better than most of the people in the house.  Why shouldn’t I have?  I’d caught it, hadn’t I?

Well, that was a long time ago.  I don’t know, lying here’s a lot easier than running after things.  I was fast once, you know … maybe I already told you?  I can’t recall.

Did I mention that I used to have a really good nose?  Oh, I could tell you who everyone was even if I’d only sniffed them once.  My master had some many friends who would come, and I knew right away who was who.  Their clothes might smell of salt, and I knew they had come straight off from the sea.  And maybe their sandals were made of leather from a kind of cow that you don’t find around here.  I could smell all of that, and I’d know.

I can’t smell anything now, though.  And it hardly matters.  The men going in and coming out of the palace, I can’t even tell how many of them there are, maybe a hundred, maybe more.  When they pass by, I make a big show out of getting up, and I wag my tail and that’s usually enough to get a little snack.

Anyway, here comes one.  Just try to stand up here.  Okay.  I don’t think I recognize this one.  Or maybe I do?  Wish I still had the nose–it would be useful to know if I knew him sometime ago.  Seems friendly.  Let’s hope he’s got something for me to eat.


From Odyssey, Book 17

 The translation of Odyssey 17 below is from an on-line translation by Ian Johnson:

And so these two men [Odysseus and Eumaeus]                               [290]
talked to each other about these things.  Then a dog
lying there raised its head and pricked up its ears.
It was Argus, brave Odysseus’ hunting dog,
whom he himself had raised many years ago.
But before he could enjoy being with his dog,
he left for sacred Troy.  In earlier days, young men
would take the dog to hunt wild goats, deer, and rabbits,                 
but now, with his master gone, he lay neglected
in the piles of dung left there by mules and cattle,
heaped up before the doors until Odysseus’ servants
took it as manure for some large field.  Argus lay there,      
covered in fleas.  Then, when he saw Odysseus,
who was coming closer, Argus wagged his tail
and dropped his ears.  But he no longer had the strength
to approach his master.  Odysseus looked away
and brushed aside a tear
—he did so casually 
to hide it from Eumaeus.  Then he questioned him:                     

Eumaeus, it’s strange this dog is lying here,
in the dung.  He has a handsome body.
I’m not sure if his speed once matched his looks
or if he’s like those table dogs men have,
ones their masters raise and keep for show.”                  

Then, swineherd Eumaeus, you answered him and said:

“Yes, this dog belongs to a man who died
somewhere far away.  If he had the form
and acted as he did when Odysseus
left him and went to Troy, you’d quickly see                   
his speed and strength, and then you’d be amazed.
No wild animal he chased escaped him
in deep thick woods, and he could track a scent.
He’s in a bad way now.  His master’s dead
in some foreign land, and careless women
don’t look after him.  For when their masters               
no longer exercise their power, then slaves
have no desire to do their proper work.
Far-seeing Zeus takes half the value of a man
the day he’s taken and becomes a slave.”                   

This said, Eumaeus went inside the stately palace,
going straight into the hall to join the noble suitors.
But once he’d seen Odysseus after nineteen years,
the dark finality of death at once seized Argus.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Classics, Dogs, Education, Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

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