Book 21 continues the long fortieth day of the Odyssey (cf. Introduction to 20) and contains the bow-contest from the moment it is initiated by Penelope until it is won by Odysseus. A central role is played by the object of the bow (cf. the deictic τóδεin 92, 153 and τóδε in 349): after being elaborately introduced by the narrator, it is first handled by several members of the Odysseus-party, viz. Penelope (who fetches it from a storeroom), Eumaeus (who hands it over to the Suitors), and Telemachus (who would have strung it, had his father not signalled him not to), then comes into the hands of the Suitors, Leodes and Eurymachus (who try unsuccessfully to string it), until finally, again via the hands of Eumaeus, it ends up with its rightful owner Odysseus. Almost the entire book consists of retardations †, which postpone the climactic moment when Odysseus is given the bow which the narratees now know (since line 4) will be his revenge weapon. The actual stringing of the bow and shooting of an arrow through the twelve axes takes up only a few lines. Throughout this series of retardations the tension of the narratees is kept 'at full steam' through repeated *prolepses of the Suitors' death.
The contest episode is carefully structured: