Essays on Homer’s Iliad

 

 

ESSAY SIX 
HECTOR AND ACHILLES

 

[This essay, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), Canada, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without charge and without permission, provided the source is acknowledged; released August 2005. For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad. References to the text of the Iliad are to the online translation (by Ian Johnston) available here. The references in square brackets are to the Greek text. For comments and questions please contact Ian Johnston.]

 

 

THE ILIAD AS A TRAGEDY

 

Commentary on the Iliad often seems to involve some interesting questions about the nature of the two principal human characters, Achilles and Hector, in particular, about which of the two is the hero of the poem and whether either of them qualifies as a tragic hero. The answer to the first of these questions seems clear enough: Achilles is obviously the hero, as the invocation to the poem announces (pace all those, like Thomas Cahill, who wish to raise doubts about the matter). The second question is more problematic: Are Hector and Achilles tragic heroes? Or does one of them fit the bill and other not?

 

Such arguments about the tragic hero are almost inevitably circular: one sets out a list of criteria which the tragic hero must meet, then applies them to Achilles and Hector, and so reaches a conclusion determined by one’s initial assumptions. The persuasiveness of the case rests on the a priori (and perhaps contested) assumptions with which one begins, a dubious logical procedure. So I do not propose to follow that line of argument here. Instead I wish to focus on the conduct of Hector and Achilles in the poem (without applying any particular label to their characters in advance), especially in comparison with the normal behaviour of the other warriors, in order to see if there is anything distinctly different about what happens to them. If there is, we might want to explore the extent to which that might indicate similarities with other later heroes who in large part define what we mean by a tragic hero, especially with reference to Greek drama (e.g., Oedipus).

 

In other words, I intend here to measure Achilles and Hector against the heroic code, as that is established in the poem by the warrior leaders, and see what that line of enquiry produces. Such a comparison is significant, because (to telegraph where I am going) each of them experiences a relationship with this shared belief which is, in some important ways, different from that of the other warriors. Achilles moves beyond the traditional code into uncharted territory, where he is terribly isolated, a journey which gives him a new and potentially shattering perspective on what they all believe. This development is unique to him in the poem and (I shall argue) is close enough to what tragic heroes go through to enable us to say that he enters the realm of “tragic experience.” Whether that qualifies him to be a tragic hero I shall leave to others to judge. Hector’s career is very different. He is the only warrior leader (apart from Achilles) who momentarily loses faith in the heroic code, and that loss is devastating, not because it brings him any new insight, but rather because it makes him lose control of himself in an absurd panic. He regains his composure before his death and dies an orthodox warrior hero. But (I shall argue) we cannot say of him, as we can of Achilles, that he has pushed experience into some as yet unexplored realm.

 

THE WARRIOR ETHIC REVISITED

 

An earlier essay in this series (Essay 4) examines the heroic code of the Iliadic warriors, so I shall not go into any detail here. However, before looking at Hector and Achilles we need to remember the major features of the ethic that sustains these warriors as a normative guide to their conduct. The warrior ethic and the religious and social beliefs fundamental to it establish for the Iliadic leader a coherent vision of experience which we can briefly sum up as follows: in a fatalistic universe of constant irrational natural and cosmic strife, where the only certainty man has is the knowledge of his own inevitable death, the final end to his personal existence, the individual has the freedom to choose his response; the finest men, in their freedom, decide to assert their individuality by defining themselves as worthy human beings in battle, risking death in a continuous series of personal encounters. The immediate rewards for the warrior are social esteem and moments of glory in this life and perhaps an enduring fame after death. Each leader organizes his life in the service of this vision. What contributes to it has value and what does not serve its needs has no place. The warrior code is thus radically pessimistic in the sense not only that the pursuit of personal happiness does not exist as a reasonable long-term option, the choices life offers being inherently unsatisfactory in some important ways, but also that the vision does not provide any acceptable alternative to a chosen life of harsh dangers and either an early death or an insignificant old age. The warrior lives with a cruel destiny which he cannot change, but, in spite of that, he constantly strives with all his resources to stand up and declare himself. Only in such a brave reaction does his humanity acquire any significance and value.

 

This harsh creed serves a number of important functions, for it gives the warrior a sense of his identity in relation to those around him and establishes shared guidelines for how to act in a world which does not provide any divinely sanctioned moral truths. As we have seen, the heroic code makes stern demands but also establishes certain limits. One does not have to push one’s heroic self-assertion to the extreme limit: one can refuse to fight against the gods. It also provides well-understood unwritten rules for mutual dealings among the leaders, including any disputes. Thus the heroic code offers a reassuring sense to each warrior of who he is and how he must behave. The traditions of his family, his past experiences, his position in the social hierarchy, and, above all, the expectations of the group, provide not only a challenging and reassuring sense of how the warrior should act but also a guarantee that he will not be abandoned in death. His comrades will fight for his corpse and celebrate his memory.

 

Setting aside Hector and Achilles for the moment, we observe that all the major warriors in this poem subscribe to this creed uncritically; in other words, they do not challenge its authority, and they always act in accordance with its demands. As we have seen in an earlier essay, they do not have to think like us, puzzling about what is appropriate from moment to moment. Their shared faith in the heroic code gives them immediate and spontaneous instructions, and the group is always around them to observe, encourage, and, if necessary, criticize. Homer structures the poem so that, when we have to follow the major events in the careers of Hector and Achilles, we already know in detail the standard by which their warrior group operates. One of the major functions in the poem of Diomedes and Sarpedon, for example, who get so much attention before Achilles returns, is to consolidate our understanding of the heroic code. These warriors, like their peers, never stray beyond the group or the group’s faith in its values. Sarpedon’s final battle and dying speech (in Book 16) confirm his adherence to the shared code. He lives and dies a brave warrior, always among his comrades and bolstered by the ethos for which he is such an eloquent spokesman. In spite of the fact that he can imagine a better life if the conditions were different, he never, not even in dying, moves outside the group, physically or spiritually.

 

This is obviously a hard faith, and many readers, no doubt, are tempted to see these heroes as victims of a perverted system of belief. But, as I have argued earlier, their conduct arises compellingly out of what they believe about the world and is an expression of their freedom to choose how they will confront a grimly beautiful and destructive fate. They could opt out of the war, but for them mere survival at home is less important than a significant, worthy life on the battlefield, especially since they will all die sooner or later anyway. So none of them raises any significant doubts about or loses faith in their shared creed. This notion of their freedom to choose is important, because it is not the case that these men are mere slaves to circumstances, unwilling robots pushed to destruction by blind impulses, as, for example, Julian Jaynes suggests, “The Trojan War was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us. They were noble automatons who knew not what they did” (75). Such a view is no more applicable to these warriors than it is to modern soldiers or, for that matter, professional athletes in strenuous, often dangerous, team sports, whose actions stem from a similar belief. Their quality as soldiers or athletes arises from how they choose to conduct themselves in circumstances they must confront (if they wish to be considered worthy) but cannot change.

 

HECTOR

 

In the light of the above summary remarks, we can see that for almost all the poem Hector is an orthodox warrior leader. Of course, he possesses a special pre-eminence as the unquestioned leader of the Trojans, and they obey his orders without raising any doubts (at least until Polydamas offers alternative suggestions about their tactics). Before Achilles’ return to the war, Hector is one of the most successful followers of the heroic code. As we have seen in an earlier essay, even when his own behaviour brings out very clearly some of the more complex ironies of the code, as in the scene with Andromache and Astyanax, for example, he remains an uncritical servant of his culture’s vision of life. His attitude to the gods and their treatment of him reveal no significant differences between Hector and the other warriors, except for the degree of his success. His conduct on the battlefield, including his many triumphs and his setbacks, his being wounded, and his recovering with the help of Apollo presents nothing we are not already familiar with from the experiences of other warriors.

 

But the scene of Hector’s final battle introduces something very different, an act which gives him a unique importance in the poem. For in that encounter with Achilles, we witness a remarkable departure from normality. Just before the fight, Hector, for the very first time, becomes totally isolated on the battlefield, physically displaced from his comrades, who are all dead or inside the walls. He has enjoyed a dazzling success and a cruel reversal in leading the Trojans against the Achaean ships. Now he stands alone outside the walls of the city. His parents have made their most eloquent pleas for his return. Hector must decide whether to face Achilles or retreat within the walls, declining battle. His moment of supreme crisis has come. Hector’s first response to this unusual situation is, as we have seen, to reaffirm the code by which he has lived. If he goes back into the city people will laugh at him, and he will suffer the worst experience he can imagine, public shame for his conduct in battle. By comparison with that certain result, he prefers his chances against Achilles.

 

But then an extraordinary moment occurs. In his physical isolation, Hector suddenly changes his mind and starts examining ways to avoid the conflict. He briefly considers betraying everything he has lived for, by throwing himself on the mercy of Achilles, offering enormous gifts—half the wealth of the city and Helen as well. Hector instinctively realizes how abnormal such an action would be, for he acknowledges that he would have to take an oath to divide Troy’s riches without deceit, the first suggestion of the potential for dishonest conduct in a noble warrior. That possibility he then rejects as impractical and dishonourable. Achilles may spurn his offer and kill him anyway, thus redoubling his shame. And so he returns once more to the simple clarity of the warrior code: “No, it’s better to clash in battle right away./ We’ll see which one wins victory from Zeus” (22.163). Hector’s hesitation here—his summoning up, even momentarily, dishonourable options—indicates that his faith has started to waver. It has become uncharacteristically difficult for him to meet the present situation with the customary heroic response.(1)

 

Hector’s behaviour at the first appearance of Achilles suggests, then, that the strain of adhering to the community ethic has become so strong that Hector, in his physical isolation from his fellow soldiers, has great trouble maintaining it. He does not want to act in the way which his vision of life tells him he should. Nothing in the warrior code will justify the options he would prefer to attempt. And so Hector does the unthinkable—he runs away. His instinctive decision to take flight indicates that he has momentarily lost the will to continue the heroic role, that the warrior’s faith no longer answers to or can contain his most urgent emotional demands. So he breaks down. Because he is at a total loss, left with no comrades to support him and nothing to tell him what to do other than a sudden onrush of fear, he panics and surrenders himself to the most human of impulses, a desperate attempt to escape certain death. Instantly the significance of his life collapses, and his proud, individualistic stance crumbles into a nightmare:

 

Like a dream in which a man cannot catch someone
who’s running off and the other can’t escape,  
just as the first man can’t catch up—that’s how
Achilles, for all his speed, could not reach Hector,
while Hector was unable to evade Achilles. (22.247) [22.199]

 

The extended description of Hector’s running away in repetitive circles around Troy illustrates the absurdity of life from which the heroic assertion of individual worth has disappeared. The heroic code does not permit Hector to enter Troy and evade battle, while his personal feelings do not permit him to stand and fight. The once proud warrior has consequently become totally disoriented, like a terrified rabbit, because the faith that has sustained him him is inadequate to his situation, and he does not know what to do, or rather he cannot endure doing what his previous way of life tells him he must do. In the absence of such a continuing faith in the heroic code, how else can a man cope with the terrible fear of death but keep running until the destroyer catches him? But Hector has nowhere to run to. Caught in an acute dilemma from which there is no way out he instinctively changes his heroic path, up to this point in his life always a direct linear course to and from battle, into an absurd, never-ending circular chase in no man’s land. The passage offers no suggestions that Hector is aware why he is behaving in this manner. He does not even consciously decide to run. Once his faith in the warrior code disintegrates, he loses control of himself.

 

Significantly, Hector regains his heroic composure as soon as he thinks he has found a comrade to stand with him on the battlefield. With Deiphobus apparently at his side, Hector instantly recovers the warrior code which had failed him when he was alone, and he can now move to face Achilles in the conventionally manner. Having accepted the strong likelihood of his death he seeks to bargain with Achilles to make sure he receives the traditional funeral honours. The latter’s fierce, uncompromising refusal indicates that he is now following a very different vision from Hector’s customary faith. This Hector does not see. Back inside the only system of belief he has every experienced, he seeks to hang onto the certainties it offers. Even when he recognizes that Athena has tricked him and faces the sure knowledge of his own imminent death, Hector shows us that he will die as he has lived, among the finest examples of the warrior code:

 

                                          “This is it, then.
The gods are summoning me to my death.
I thought warrior Deïphobus was close by.
But he’s inside the walls, and Athena
has deceived me. Now evil death is here, 
right beside me, not somewhere far away.
There’s no escape. For a long time now,
this must have been what Zeus desired,   
and Zeus’ son, the god who shoots from far,
and all those who willingly gave me help
in earlier days. So now I meet my fate.
Even so, let me not die ingloriously
without a fight, but in some great action
which those men yet to come will hear about.” (22.3730) [22.297]

 

Hector comes close here to recognizing something profound about human experience, the complex ironic mystery at the heart of life. But he turns away from that insight, unwilling or unable to push into the unknown territory he would encounter if he confronted the cruel irrationality of fate head on. This speech does not reveal any extraordinary insight into human life, a more intense and deeper understanding than the heroic code provides every brave warrior. By recalling himself to the traditional notion of his earlier faith, Hector is, in a sense, protecting himself. He has not re-embraced that creed because he has freely chosen to do so, in the full light of its ironic consequences returning to the orthodox fold with the fresh and vital awareness of a temporary apostate. He is grabbing hold of it, as if that were the only way to confer some meaning on his final moments. His dying request to Achilles for proper treatment of his corpse is thus an apparently vain last invocation of the customary rituals, a final plea for the traditional honours which make his suffering and death meaningful. And when Achilles’ refusal to honour Hector’s dying words reveals again just how far the victor has moved away from normal conduct, how impervious he now is to the common expectations of the group, Hector can only make the desperately weak dying reply that the gods may punish Achilles if he does not behave properly.

 

Hector’s last combat thus present a cruelly ironic portrait. His death is not, by his own standards, absurd, as it might have been if Achilles had speared him in the back while he was running away. The assertion of his heroic dignity, however, is undercut by our sense that in his desperation he is using the tradition as, so to speak, an illusion. Hector must know before he dies that his life will count for something, and the only system of values he can reach for is the traditional one which has just failed him. True, Hector has regained his courageous composure, but the experience of collapse has not brought him to a significantly new awareness of his condition. Hence, Hector’s death does not support the contention that he is significantly transformed before he dies, that he somehow gains an insight into the absolute verities of human existence, that before his death “he sees the whole truth in the face of it, the flaw which false hope had made in his courage is cured, and he meets Achilles like an equal” (Whitman 212), or that “At this moment, and only at this moment, Hector is equal to Achilles, and superior to all Iliadic characters, in the depth and intensity of his consciousness of life as limited and valorized by the fact of death” (Mueller, Iliad 64), or that at this moment he is “endowed with a brief moment of clairvoyance” (Michalopoulos 95). To equate Hector and Achilles here or to compare Hector with Oedipus is to invest Hector’s death speeches with a significance they will not support.  For there is no sense here that Achilles and Hector meet as equals. Quite the contrary. Hector remains an admirable human warrior-leader, but Achilles we know is on a different plane altogether. The spiritual difference between the two is as marked as the difference between the normal armour of Achilles which Hector is wearing and the divinely crafted armour of his opponent.

 

Achilles’ immense physical, emotional, and spiritual superiority over Hector in this encounter is perhaps one reason why so many readers find Hector a far more sympathetic figure than Achilles. The preference rests not only on our natural liking for the leader of the most famous underdogs in our best known war, who will soon lose everything to the victors, or on our natural admiration for the chief of those fighting in defense of their homes and families, or even on the way in which our Christian traditions can more easily ascribe to Hector orthodox virtues. We also like Hector because we can readily understand what has happened to him. In comparison with Achilles’ invincible confidence, brutal success, and terrifying spiritual isolation, Hector’s momentary loss of faith and the emotional uncertainties of his final battle strike us as particularly human, actions we ourselves might well demonstrate in the fatal ironies of the killing zone.

 

ACHILLES AS A TRADITIONAL WARRIOR LEADER

 

The Iliad is, of course, centrally the story of Achilles, who is, beyond all doubt, the hero of the poem, as the opening invocation announces, not only because he is the mightiest of the warriors, whose presence or absence has a decisive outcome on the battles, but also because in his experience of the war he pushes his understanding of human life beyond the customary limits and explores the extreme consequences of that vision with an integrity and intensity that no one else in the poem even understands, let alone matches. In following the career of Achilles in the Iliad, therefore, the reader has to confront issues which no other warrior leader raises.

 

In discussing the story of Achilles, one might usefully begin by outlining the general stages through which he passes on the route to the final calm acceptance of his own death. First, the poem depicts him as a famous and successful but recognizably normal heroic leader. That is how he has been up to the quarrel, and his peers all acknowledge his high status (especially Nestor in Book 1). After the quarrel with Agamemnon, he enters a period of unusual inactivity, in which for several books he disappears from the action. When he re-enters the story in Book 9 to entertain the ambassadors from Agamemnon, it is evident from the nature of his refusal that some important changes have been taking place. In his response to the death of Patroclus, Achilles reveals yet another development, and this change leads directly to his decision to return to the war and to his subsequent aristeia. Finally, after the killing of Hector, in the most extraordinary scene of the poem, a transformed Achilles meets Priam to arrange the surrender of Hector’s corpse. By the end of the narrative, the warrior leader of the opening has become so changed that he is quite unlike any of his former comrades. He has been through an amazingly intense isolation, and his suffering and emotional dislocation have given him quite a different perspective on the traditional heroic code by which he has lived his life until a few days before.

 

From what we learn about the life of Achilles before the quarrel with Agamemnon and in the first moments of that argument, Achilles appears to be quite similar to the other leaders, except for his outstanding speed, strength, and battlefield success. There is no suggestion that his life has not been rooted in the ethic they all subscribe to. In Book 1, the other leaders acknowledge his military prowess, a gift from the gods, but they accord him no unique honours in the peer group other than that, and Nestor, the voice of traditional authority, makes clear the relationship between Agamemnon’s and Achilles’ relative social positions. His response to the expropriation of Briseis is what we would expect from any other warrior leader, intense anger over a loss of status which the removal of the girl represents. And his decision to withdraw his and his men’s services from the battle represents a logical, if extreme, response to Agamemnon’s insult. The anger he unleashes against the Achaeans, prophesying disaster for the army, and his vow not to help arise out of his feelings that, according to the warrior code, he has been shamed, a very passionate outburst, to be sure, but by no means a conscious decision to abandon that framework of belief. In fact, by hoping that his withdrawal will shame Agamemnon in front of everyone else, Achilles is obviously relying on the traditional code to bring him satisfaction. The language of his oath, however, contains ironic suggestions that Achilles at this point is not aware of the full significance of what this moment will bring:

 

“I’ll tell you, swear a great oath on this point,                   
by this sceptre, which will never sprout 
leaves and shoots again, since first ripped away
from its mountain stump, nor bloom any more,     
now that bronze has sliced off leaf and bark.
This sceptre Achaea’s sons take in hand       
whenever they do justice in Zeus’ name.
An oath on this has power. On this I swear—
the time will come when Achaea’s sons
all miss Achilles, a time when, in distress,     
you’ll lack my help, a time when Hector,
that man killer, destroys many warriors.
Then grief will tear your hearts apart,
because you shamed Achaea’s finest man.” (1.256) [1.233]

 

His words here offer us a complex insight into the future course of his life. He takes his oath on the most important emblem of traditional respect among his peers, the object symbolizing “justice in Zeus’ name.” In accordance with the freedom that tradition grants each warrior, Achilles declares his choice and confirms it by reminding the assembly of the ancient authority and the value system which has made him “Achaea’s finest man.” Then he hurls the staff on the ground. Obviously, in his anger, he means to indicate to his fellow warrior leaders as dramatically as possible his most passionate feelings about Agamemnon’s insult. But by casting aside the symbol of their common religious and political faith, Achilles unwittingly reveals the deeper consequences of his action: he is rejecting the group and therefore the communal warrior code which gives him the only system of meaning he understands and which has made him what he is. After all, Agamemnon’s insult only carries weight within the context of the orthodox warrior culture, and Achilles’ extreme reaction to the king’s arrogance illustrates just how thoroughly he is a product of that group belief. His immediate motive may be passionate anger and a desire to teach the Achaeans just how important and valuable he is, but the dramatic gesture indicates the start of an emotional and spiritual displacement from the group.  

 

The poetic imagery of Achilles’ oath conveys also the hidden complexity of the moment. The wood staff will never flourish again, for it has been cut away from its nourishment, its tree and its environment, and is now dead. Achilles’ emphasis on that image in the course of cutting himself away from the organism which has nourished him raises the question: How is he to flourish now that he has apparently thrown away the only system of values he has ever known? And the implied comparison with the staff indicates an answer: dry, dead wood flourishes again, if at all, only in fire, for only in the glorious blaze which destroys what it feeds on can the lopped-off limb regain vital heat and become, in the process of self-destruction, a beautiful living thing. Here again, Achilles is announcing no carefully thought-out plan. His oath and his rejection of the staff are spontaneous responses to his deepest irrational feelings, in his view quite appropriate to the insult he has just received. But the dramatic irony latent in the imagery—the gap between our complete understanding of what the moment represents and Achilles’ only very partial grasp of its significance—alerts us to the full implications not only of the action but also of Achilles’ ignorance. This dramatic irony receives further emphasis a few lines later, when Achilles asks his mother to secure Zeus’ favour in giving help to the Trojans, so that events will shame Agamemnon. Thetis responds with an lament for the untimely death of her son. At this moment, Achilles’ death is the furthest thing from his mind—he wants revenge. But Thetis and the reader see the more profound significance of the events which launch Achilles’ story in the Iliad.

 

It’s important to stress (yet again) that Achilles’ anger here comes from an understandable reaction. The feelings are intense, but they originate in the natural response of a proud, successful warrior-prince, who up to this point has always conducted himself in accordance with the demands of his society. The anger is not abnormal (except perhaps in degree). Nor is Achilles, as some critics have suggested, already displaced from his group before the fight with Agamemnon or in some way very different from them, at least concerning his sense of himself and of the warrior group.(2) To insist that Achilles is in some way very different in his nature is to remove from his story its human significance, which depends for its power on his transformation from an important warrior leader among his peers into a solitary avenger. For what makes Achilles extraordinary is not his initial behaviour or his character before the quarrel, but rather the changes that take place when he withdraws from the fighting and then refuses to come back.  

 

THE EMBASSY TO ACHILLES

 

The Achaean ambassadors to Achilles (in Book 9) base their appeal to him, just as Agamemnon does, on their understanding of what is appropriate behaviour for a warrior leader. They assume that Achilles is still the man they have always known and will thus respond favourably to a restoration of or increase in his status with material possessions far in excess of what he has lost and a fulsome public apology from Agamemnon. And they are right to make this assumption because, according to the warrior code, any normal leader would and should accept such an extraordinary offer. Hence, Achilles’ continuing refusal, his quick rejection of their offer without any discussion, indicates that, however he felt at the time of the original quarrel, when such persuasion might have worked to change his mind, the inexorable emotional logic of his choice has been at work while he has isolated himself from the fighting.

 

Whatever one thinks of Agamemnon, his offer to Achilles is extraordinarily munificent, marks of the very highest status. It would be difficult to imagine what the king might add to the rich gifts of gold, horses, towns, loot, daughters, and dowry. The fact that Achilles rejects the offer so quickly and in such intemperate language indicates at the very least that away from the battle his passionate sense of his own individuality has grown so intense that he is unwilling to make any compromise in the name of the group, even if such a compromise would enormously enhance his status. One should notice, too, that the reasons Achilles gives for his conduct are extremely dubious, especially when he complains about everyone getting the same portions of booty. We know that he has received ample rewards for fighting in the past (and not merely an equal and paltry share of what everyone gets), as he himself admits in his reply to Odysseus, “I’ll take back from here more gold, red bronze,/ fair women, and grey iron—all I captured” (9.457). And Agamemnon’s offer, one would think, would be enough to persuade any man, if his major concern were material rewards. After all, the extravagance of the compensation is a mark of Agamemnon’s extremely high regard for Achilles. The inadequacy of the reasons and the intensity of the response show that Achilles’ refusal here rests on something other than the normal standards of the group, something we might call his personal determination to stand apart no matter what. Achilles may well believe what he states, but the logic of his refusal does not bear close scrutiny, especially in the extreme language he uses:

 

                             “He cheated me, betrayed me.
His words will cheat no more. To hell with him.   
Let him march to his death by his own road,
for Counsellor Zeus has stolen his wits.
I hate his gifts. And he’s not worth a damn.
Not even if he gave me ten times, no, 
twenty times more than all he owns right now,
or will possess in future, not even 
all the wealth amassed in Orchomenus,
or Egyptian Thebes, where huge treasures sit
piled up in houses—that city of gates,
one hundred of them, through each can ride    
two hundred men, horses and chariots            
all together—not even if he gave me
gifts as numerous as grains of sand
by the sea or particles of dust,
not for all that would Agamemnon win
my heart, not until he satisfies me
in full for all my heartfelt bitter pain.” (9.468) [9.375]

 

His feelings here have become totally disproportionate to the original insult. Even if he still defines the injuries done to him in terms of the warrior code, he clearly is developing a much more passionately uncompromising sense of his own rightness and is rapidly leaving conventional behavior far behind. Putting the matter another way, we can say that Achilles’ new feelings about himself have outgrown his ability to explain them. He reaches for the conventional vocabulary to account for his present attitude, but his appeal to the code cannot properly describe how he is now feeling, for he is moving out into uncharted waters where no compromise is possible. After all, this speech amounts to saying that there is absolutely nothing Agamemnon could do to satisfy him, even if Agamemnon had virtually all the wealth in the world.

 

We also clearly recognize that important changes have been taking place in Achilles sense of himself, because he now can seriously imagine possibilities outside the heroic code. He talks about love, going home, getting married, and remaining idle on his father’s property. Dishonour, he claims, is less important than death. No wonder his listeners are shocked into silence at his response to Odysseus, for Achilles is rejecting outright everything the warriors (including him) have ever lived for. To offer love as a replacement for military glory and status, domestic possessions for plundered riches, peaceful leisure for heroic effort, and life for fame—all that astonishes his listeners. It’s important to note that these comments do not necessarily define a new faith Achilles has acquired, for in the passionate and often illogical appeals to traditional beliefs and to antithetical principles the speech expresses considerable confusion. But the mere fact that Achilles can say and think such things amazes his audience. They no longer recognize the man who walked away from the assembly a few days before.

 

The second spokesman for the embassy, Phoenix, the old family friend and Achilles’ teacher, appeals to him in the name of their affection for each other and of ancient precedents for heroes whose anger relented. The speech has much more personal warmth than Odysseus’ words, but the effect on Achilles is much the same. His rejection, though more friendly, is equally firm and contains at least one significant point which alerts us further to how he is changing:

 

“Phoenix, dear old father, noble lord,
I don’t need such honours, for I possess
honour in the will of Zeus. That will keep
me here beside my own hollow ships, 
so long as there is breath within my body, 
strength in my limbs. But I’ll say this to you—
bear it in mind—do not confuse my heart
with these laments, these speeches of distress,
all serving that heroic son of Atreus.
You should not love him, in case I hate you,
who are now my friend. You would be noble
to join with me, and so injure the man
who injures me. . . .” (9.766) [9.608]

 

In the intense conviction of his own rightness, Achilles demands a total lack of compromise and refuses to think about how loyalty works both ways. Confident that he is following the will of Zeus (a very bold and self-assertive claim), he insists that anyone who disagrees with him will not be his friend, and friends should “injure the man who injures me.” But what about Achilles’ obligations to his friends, who are being seriously injured by Hector and the Trojans? There would be little point in making this argument to Achilles, however, since he would be unable to perceive the logic in it, so governed his now by his extreme feelings about himself.

 

The final speech, the shortest and most effective, comes from Ajax. He bases his appeal to Achilles on the friendship of his comrades who “honoured him above all others there beside the ships” (9.796). We don’t normally think of Ajax as a skilled orator, but here he adopts the masterful tactic of addressing his opening remarks to Odysseus, as if Achilles were not even present, a point which is, in a sense, true, because Achilles has, by his refusal to entertain the offer (which, Ajax points out, any man would accept for insults much greater than what Achilles has been through) ceased to be a comrade, a member of the group. Ajax’s tactic obviously makes some connection with Achilles’ remaining social feelings, because he does finally concede that he may return to battle once Hector reaches the ships. The comment from Achilles promises nothing definite, but the change in tone and the suggestion of a possible reconciliation reminds the reader that, for all his peremptory dismissal of Odysseus, Achilles has not yet totally isolated himself from his companions.

 

The speeches in Book 9 merit very close attention because they show us that while the battles have been going on, something very unusual and significant has been happening at the end of the Achaean line. In his inactivity, Achilles has been emancipating himself from the demands of the warrior code and, in so doing, has launched a course of action which brings out hitherto concealed possibilities of individual assertiveness. His actions arise spontaneously from his own feelings about himself. There is no sense of predestination or cosmic determinism here. But the ominous suggestion presents itself that he is now setting himself over and above all forms of customary restraint, identifying what he wants as Zeus’ will, banishing from his thinking any notion that what the warrior group believes is important, and regarding anyone who disagrees with him as an enemy. The angry pique of the original quarrel with Agamemnon is changing into something much more profound, complex, and dangerous—the isolation of a man who acknowledges no authority except that of his own passionate will.

 

ACHILLES AND PATROCLUS

 

When Hector succeeds in breaching the Achaean rampart and burning the ships, Achilles does reconsider, and the decision leads directly to his re-entry into the war. To understand the significance of this change, we need to consider in role of Patroclus, Achilles’ dearest friend, whose death drives him back to battle with his feelings transformed. Something about the relationship with Patroclus is so special to Achilles that, when he loses his friend, his understanding of the world changes in an extraordinary way.

 

At first, Patroclus appears unexceptional, another warrior among many others. As a member of Achilles personal retinue, Patroclus listens to him singing, pours wine for the ambassadors from Agamemnon, tends the fire, prepares a bed for Phoenix, and sleeps with a woman in the same hut as Achilles. Later, in Book 11, he goes to get information about the wounded Achaeans and to treat Eurypylus, before returning to Achilles and begging to be allowed to return to battle in order to assist their beleaguered companions. The pattern of these actions gradually develops a picture of Patroclus as an unusually kind man, attentive to the needs of others and sensitive to their distress, in a manner unlike anyone else in the poem. Among the constantly assertive warriors, Patroclus appears something rather special, moved more by simple human concerns for his friends than by the more egocentric demands of the heroic code. No other warrior on either side, for example, makes a plea more squarely based on simple feelings about others than does Patroclus at the opening of Book 16. Unlike Agamemnon’s worry about his brother’s wound or Hector’s fears about Andromache, Patroclus’ anxiety here is disinterested. He seeks permission to return to battle, not to enhance his reputation but to provide desperately needed assistance to their “worn out” friends. Menelaus’ later tribute to Patroclus’ as a man who “knew how to treat every man with care,” while reminding his fellow soldiers of Patroclus’ “kindness” (17.818) further strengthens our sense that here we have a warrior with a special interest in the welfare of others.

 

The combination of Patroclus’ qualities—his constant attendance on Achilles, his warm concern for others, the strong sense of mutual love between the two men, and the unique duties he has from his father to look after Achilles, ”to give shrewd advice,/ prudent counsel, and direction to him” (11.909)—suggests that his relationship with Achilles has an important symbolic function. For in a sense Patroclus emerges as a constant reminder of Achilles’ more sympathetically human side, his continuing social identity as a member of the warrior group. Patroclus’ compassionate attachment to his fellow soldiers represents a quality which Achilles, by his withdrawal, has rejected, but the bond between Achilles and Patroclus keeps alive in his spirit at least some feelings for the warmth of human comradeship and loyalty to the community of warriors. Whether we see Patroclus and Achilles as two side of the same man or as two quite separate individuals doesn’t really matter. In his obvious feelings for Patroclus, Achilles displays a part of his nature quite different from the heroic self-assertiveness with which he conducts himself in front of everyone else (after the quarrel), and so long as Patroclus remains alive, Achilles still retains a vital link with the rest of humanity—he still has feelings for others, even if he is in the grip of fatal passions which threaten to extinguish those feelings. Hence, we can readily understand not only why Achilles agrees to Patroclus’ tearful request to help the Achaeans but also why he gives him his personal armour. Of course, there is a tactical reason (to trick the Trojans into believing that Achilles himself has returned), but Achilles is also, in a sense, responding personally to the dire needs of his comrades. He is sending a part of himself out into the battle once more. It’s important to notice, by the way, that this whole incident is initiated by Achilles when he sends Patroclus out to get information about the progress of the battle, a sign that he is perhaps not quite so emotionally isolated from his old friends as he might like to think.

 

In granting permission to Patroclus to return to battle, Achilles significantly appears torn by conflicting feelings. On the one hand, he wants a normal life among his peers, but, on the other, he wishes to emancipate himself from them as fully as possible. His first instructions appear to suggest that he has abandoned his lonely quest for ultimate justice on his own terms:

 

“Now, pay attention to what I tell you,
about the goal I have in mind for you,
so you’ll win me great honour and rewards,
so all Danaans will send back to me
that lovely girl and give fine gifts as well.” (16.104) [16.83]

 

Achilles could have achieved these goals long before by agreeing to accept Agamemnon’s offer. Nothing Patroclus does now will produce something equal to that earlier list of material wealth (and the status that comes with it). That Achilles should still be making a suggestion like this indicates that a part of him is still responding to the conventional ways of acting among his peers. And the restraints he places on Patroclus (not to attack the city itself but to stop once he has saved the ships) arises, by his own admission, from his desire not to have his own glory overshadowed.  

 

However, in the very same speech, Achilles indicates just how powerful the other side of his nature has become, the uncompromising desire to have everything on his own terms, without the group:

 

“O Father Zeus, Athena, and Apollo—
if only no single Trojan or Achaean
could escape death, and just we two alone
were not destroyed, so that by ourselves
we could take Troy’s sacred battlements!” (16.121) [16.97]

 

By any normal standard, this wish makes no sense. It obviously goes against the very human desire of Patroclus to assist his comrades and also denies Achilles’ wish a few lines earlier on for a return of the girl and more honours from the Achaeans. For if Achilles and Patroclus were the sole survivors, who would be left to confer status on them and value on the achievement? The emotional logic, however, is clear enough. Achilles would like to push his isolation to an extreme by not rejoining the community, but he does not wish to lose his relationship with Patroclus.  He wishes, that is, to answer only to himself and yet retain his customary humanity. In the very process of expressing his deepest wishes, he exposes their paradoxical impossibility.

 

ACHILLES AFTER THE DEATH OF PATROCLUS

 

If we recognize in the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus the last and most important vestiges of Achilles’ basic links to his fellow warriors, with what he used to be, then we can much more readily grasp the significance of Achilles’ enormous grief at Patroclus’ death and the extraordinary measures he takes to provide the funeral rites. For Achilles is here lamenting and burying himself—or at least that part which has made him a loving human being, rooted in a community, with a social identity everyone acknowledges. With Patroclus dead, he is now moving further out into new and uncertain territory, without the old links to his fellow men, and, what is particularly important, he now recognizes the fact. The death of Patroclus forces Achilles to confront the destructive consequences of his passionate, individualistic stance and to recognize for the first time the harsh ironies of fate, without the consolation of a group belief.

 

The first experience of this insight (which occurs when Achilles hears the news of Patroclus’ death in Book 18) overpowers Achilles. He hurls himself into the dust and utter a dreadful lament which echoes throughout the entire world. And when he gets up again, he carries with him the terrible knowledge of how his life will now play itself out: he will accept his heroic fate, win revenge for Patroclus, and go to his own death.

 

“Then let me die, since I could not prevent
the death of my companion. He’s fallen
far from his homeland. He needed me there
to protect him from destruction. So now,
since I’m not returning to my own dear land,
and for Patroclus was no saving light
or for my many other comrades,
all those killed by godlike Hector while I sat
here by the ships, a useless burden
on the earth—and I’m unmatched in warfare
by any other Achaean armed in bronze,
although in council other men are better—
so let wars disappear from gods and men
and passionate anger, too, which incites
even the prudent man to that sweet rage,
sweeter than trickling honey in men’s throats,
which builds up like smoke inside their chests,
as Agamemnon, king of men, just now, 
made me enraged. But we’ll let that pass.” (18.122) [18.98]

 

What’s extraordinary in these lines is the tone—the terrible calmness, which enables him to dismiss the passions that have driven him to this point (although they do not entirely disappear from the story), and to acknowledge in a way we have not yet witnessed a transcendent detachment from normal human concerns, so that he can accept his own responsibility in the quarrel with Agamemnon and even his own imminent death. Having learned from the death of Patroclus that he cannot have life entirely on his own terms, he will see it through to the end, true to the feelings that got him where he is.
It’s important to notice that in the final stages of his story Achilles is not merely seeking revenge for Patroclus. If that were all, then his actions would be an absurd response to something that happens all the time in this war, as Odysseus points out when Achilles refuses to eat:

 

“Too many men are dying every day,
one after another. When would anyone
get some relief from fasting? No, the dead
we must bury, then mourn a single day,
hardening our hearts.” (19.280) [19.226]

 

But Odysseus (and his comrades) cannot understand that Achilles’ response to the death of Patroclus expresses much more than just his grief at the loss of a dear friend. For Achilles is responding to a radical insight into the nature of life itself. In wanting both the common human bonding symbolized by his feeling for Patroclus and the ultimate greatness of the passionate individual who demands to live life on his own terms, Achilles has sought the impossible. He has exposed the complex nature of human fate (something the heroic code, the communal faith, normally keeps concealed). This he now recognizes. His actions from this point on arise out his sense of the injustice of human life, which will not grant any man, no matter how intense his passions or great his achievements, all his desires. Having unwittingly sacrificed his common humanity, Achilles will not seek to regain it but will continue in the lonely splendour and suffering of the man who will now pursue the mystery of fate to its centre and who, in complete freedom, accepts total responsibility for his personal confrontation with it. On the face of it, Achilles does return to group, but no longer as a fully participating member. He refuses to eat or sleep, seems unconcerned about status, and thinks of only one thing, getting back on the battlefield. 

 

The full recognition of what life means gives Achilles a paradoxical quality. One the one hand he becomes extraordinarily brutal, an invincible and immoveable butcher of human life, free from any conventional social or emotional restraint, a man who will fight against anything that stands in his way, even the gods themselves. On the other hand, he sometimes displays a transcendent calm, a fully mature acceptance of the mysteries of experience, unaided by any of the rituals men devise to shield them from a complete knowledge of their own condition. The first characteristic turns Achilles into a human firestorm, inexorably destroying everything in his path. The second gives him an almost prophetic power appropriate to a man who has seen deep into the heart of darkness and returned to the world of human striving. Achilles’ actions against the Trojans in battle and in the bloody sacrifice of animals and men on Patroclus’ funeral pyre do not stem solely from his desire for revenge against Hector. His wrath here he directs against the world itself, which has refused to grant him everything he demanded from it and which has killed Patroclus. Without Patroclus and what he represents, Achilles has no reason to live, and his remaining human passions express themselves in a cruel slaughter against everything that has disappointed his greatest hopes, including his attack on the Scamander river, against both nature and the god. If his will has come to nothing, then he will will nothingness by attacking the world as an uncompromising destroyer. At the same time, however, Achilles’ great spiritual suffering has opened his eyes to a much more all-encompassing vision of what it means to exists as a human being alone before fate.

 

Both of these qualities emerge in the incident with Lycaon, in which Achilles delivers one of the most extraordinarily powerful speeches in the entire poem:

 

So Lycaon begged for mercy from Achilles.
But the response he got was brutal:

 

                                            “You fool,
don’t offer me a ransom or some plea.
Before Patroclus met his deadly fate, 
sparing Trojans pleased my heart much more.
I took many overseas and sold them.  
But now not one of them escapes his death,
no one whom god delivers to my hands,
here in front of Ilion, not one—
not a single Trojan, especially none
of Priam’s children. So now, my friend,
you too must die. Why be sad about it?
Patroclus died, a better man than you.
And look at me. You see how fine I am,
how tall, how handsome? My father’s a fine man,
the mother who gave birth to me a goddess.
Yet over me, as well, hangs fate—my death.
There’ll come a dawn, or noon, or evening,
when some man will take my life in battle—
he’ll strike me with his spear or with an arrow
shot from his bowstring.” (21.115) [21.98]

 

Achilles can dismiss Lycaon as a “fool” because he knows that pleading for life in the face of death makes no sense, especially when death comes in the form of an invincible warrior for whom the warrior code has ceased to exist in any meaningful way. In a world without love and companionship, death is the only reality that matters, and anyone who is afraid of the end of an absurd life is indeed a fool. But then he can call his helpless victim “my friend” and in a kindly tone insist upon their common equality in the face of death. Killing and being killed, Achilles now understands, belong to the inevitable order of the universe, beyond all human custom, all systems of value, all illusion-giving conventions of status. Death, which makes all men equal, no man can evade or transcend, not even the greatest of men who deliberately sets himself apart. He and Lycaon are playing their parts as human beings on this earth, according to the fatal conditions into which they were born. That Achilles can declare his common humanity openly with such eloquence while performing the killing that ends human life and brings him closer to his own death indicates just how far he has travelled into the fatal ironies of human existence. His urge to destroy everything, including later the corpse of Hector, brings out his radical dissatisfaction with life, but his moments of terrible composure suggest that the process of transformation continues. The difference between the normal warrior’s passionate boasting and fierce preoccupation with his own status and Achilles’ lonely detached calm, the awesome tranquility of his solitary, irresistible, aware ruthlessness, reveals the unique qualities of his present spiritual limbo.

 

Not until after the killing of Hector does Achilles succeed in emancipating himself from the passionately destructive demands of his nature. The heroic calm breaks when he slays the Trojan hero and savagely mutilates the corpse. And though he can finally fall asleep, he gets no easy rest. We know from Achilles’ attitude to Agamemnon during the funeral games that the traditional concerns of social man have largely ceased to matter to him. He can make his peace with the commander-in-chief and even award him an unearned prize, because such normal concerns as status do not matter to him anymore. The suffering he has undergone and the death which he knows awaits him have given Achilles a wholly different view of human life, as a result of which the reasons for the original quarrel now seem trivial. For the sake of his friend (and for what they shared together) he will observe the customary funeral rites, but he is no longer driven by the intense search for his own personal glory. When he talks about his own funeral mound, he specifies that he wants “nothing excessive—what seems appropriate.”

 

ACHILLES AND PRIAM

 

The final stage of Achilles’ story takes place in the encounter with Priam, in the meeting between the isolated young destroyer and the long-suffering old king, both soon to perish and both filled with sorrow for the conditions of human life. For the first time in the poem, two opponents face each other as men, not as warriors, and for all the bloody history of their antagonism they interact as human beings first. They touch each other’s real flesh, rather than trying to puncture each other’s hearts with spears hurled through artistically decorated metal. No gesture in the poem is more moving than Priam’s initial greeting:

 

He came up to Achilles, then with his fingers
clasped his knees and kissed his hands, those dreadful hands,
man-killers, which had slain so many of his sons. (24.587) [24.477]

 

The two men share an awareness of the imperative claims of their common humanity—beyond status, riches, past exploits, present enmity. Through the intense suffering each has experienced they can unite momentarily in a single act of human compassion:

 

Priam finished. His words roused in Achilles
a desire to weep for his own father. Taking Priam’s hand,
he gently moved him back. So the two men there
both remembered warriors who’d been slaughtered.
Priam, lying at Achilles’ feet, wept aloud             
for man-killing Hector, and Achilles also wept 
for his own father and once more for Patroclus.
The sound of their lamenting filled the house. (24.625) [14.509]

 

And the two men so different in all other respects, can demonstrate a mutual respect and tenderness in a shared sense of divinely ordained human grief:

 

                                                        “But come now,
sit on this chair. Though we’re both feeling pain,
we’ll let our grief lie quiet on our hearts.
For there’s no benefit in frigid tears.
That’s the way the gods have spun the threads
for wretched mortal men, so they live in pain,
though gods themselves live on without a care.” (24.643) [24.522]

 

Now Achilles can at last surrender Hector’s corpse. In so doing, his new understanding of life moves beyond all selfish passion into a state of pure acceptance, a state of being earned through the stages of suffering he has experienced. Revenge on the body of Hector no longer matters. This condition is not a stoic resignation, nor is it achieved without effort, as the suggestion of the old anger indicates, when Achilles momentarily turns on Priam. But Achilles’ final acknowledgment of Priam, like the old king’s of him, creates a picture of their mutual awe before the ineffably mystery of life:

 

When they’d satisfied their need for food and drink,
then Priam, son of Dardanus, looked at Achilles,
wondering at his size and beauty, like gazing    
face to face upon a god. Achilles looked at Priam,
marvelling at his royal appearance and the words he heard. (24.779) [24.628]

 

For the first time in the poem, two men look at each other, say nothing, and appreciate each other simply for what they are as human beings. There is nothing left for them to say or do.

 

THE FUNERAL RITES FOR HECTOR

 

The last scenes of the poem depict the funeral rites for Hector, with the traditional rituals in place. Hector here receives the immortality for which he and all the warriors have striven throughout their lives, a public burial and the lasting memorial appropriate to a great hero. In that sense, Hector’s final rites are a suitable summing up of all the deaths we have witnessed. In the celebration around the corpse the hero enters the communal memories of his people, his greatness is assured, and he achieves the only triumph over death available to him. At the same time, however, the laments of the Trojan women over Hector’s bier and the very abrupt close remind us that the heroic careers of Hector and of Achilles, who is now waiting to die and to receive his memorial, and the deaths of all the other heroes have effected no significant changes. The war will go on; Troy will fall; the warriors will continue to fight elsewhere. That is the fate of human life, the glory and the terror, the triumph and the destruction, the paradoxical ironic mystery from which there is no escape.

 

HECTOR AND ACHILLES AND TRAGIC HEROISM

 

Having explored in some detail the stories of Hector and of Achilles, we can return to the question with which we began: Can we usefully apply the term tragic hero or tragic character to them? I have no wish here to argue for a particular definition of that key term which I might then employ as an analytical tool to answer the question. And so I propose to offer a few cursory remarks comparing the two warriors with characters who are, by common agreement, among our most famous tragic heroes (I have in mind especially Oedipus, Lear, and Macbeth).

 

Central to the stories of Oedipus, Lear, and Macbeth (and other figures we call tragic) is a willed isolation, a determination to have the world answer to them rather than entertaining any thoughts of compromise. Often this sense of isolation develops slowly and subconsciously, usually in response to a decision the character himself has made, but when he becomes aware of his emotional (and sometimes physical) displacement from the group around him, he characteristically becomes even more resolute to proceed on his own, even (or especially) when he recognizes the self-destructive consequences looming ahead. This refusal to compromise his sense of passionate individuality, his sense of his own absolute rightness, in defiance of any commonsense response, makes him distinctly different from comic heroes, who typically strive to adapt, learn, adjust, endure, and forgive, so that they can be reintegrated into their society, and it is the great mystery at the heart of the tragic response, arising from deep within the hearts of certain people, who would rather perish on their own terms than live by anyone else’s standards.

 

This highly developed sense of passionate egocentricity is, I would claim, foreign to Hector. Throughout the poem he remains a loyal servant of the social code which has made him what he is, except for the moment when he panics and runs. And this exception appears to confirm the previous remark, because when Hector is fully isolated, he disintegrates, and he requires the presence of a fellow warrior to bring him back to his senses, so that he dies a firm believer in what he has always lived for. By contrast, when Achilles collapses in the dust at the new of Patroclus’ death, he gets up again even more locked into his assertive and solitary individuality.

 

Achilles, we can all acknowledge, goes though a very different experience, which makes parts of his story similar in some respects to the stories of Oedipus, Lear, and Macbeth—especially his willed determination to stand apart, no matter what the cost. And, like them, the suffering he undergoes gives him, as we have seen, insights granted to no one else in the poem, including Hector. There is no doubt that if Homer had included the death of Achilles we would have little trouble considering him our first great tragic hero. But Homer does not include that episode.

 

Of course, not all tragic heroes and heroines die (e.g., Oedipus in Oedipus the King and Nora in A Doll’s House), and some have argued that the term tragedy applies also to the nature of the suffering, without reference to the ending, the agony that comes from willing oneself to face up to fate or the gods with no consoling social illusions (so in that sense we might say that Job’s experience during the suffering he undergoes is tragic, although his complete story clearly is not, since he eventually compromises and is rewarded handsomely for doing so). Much depends on the extent to which we feel that Achilles has by the end of the poem become happily reintegrated into Achaean society. Schein, for example, observes that Achilles at the end of the epic “is re-established as his distinctive self—as the hero he was . . . in the beginning” (162), an interpretation that, in effect, makes Achilles’ story rather like Job’s.(3) Such a view strikes me as strongly overstated, an attempt to neutralize any discomfort we may feel with what we have experienced in following Achilles’ life. We are given virtually no details about Achilles after the meeting with Priam (although the final mention of him as going to bed with Briseis casually suggests he’s not as displaced and suffering as we have seen him). This point needs to be balanced against his sense and ours of his impending death. 

 

My own sense is that Achilles’ story is close enough to those of the other tragic heroes I have mentioned to permit us to place him in their company. What he goes through is certainly comparable to the experiences of Oedipus and Lear and Macbeth and others, and the effect of his story, like theirs, is a profound and moving challenge to our modern faith in, say, the progressive rational amelioration of life in the community or in the benevolent operations of a providential God or in a moral universe. Achilles’ actions have momentarily torn aside the illusions men devise to enable them to understand the mystery of nature, and he has taken upon himself the full consequences of that action. His suffering, like that of the other heroes, alters nothing in the world, but it affirms everything about the greatest spirit of man, the striving to rise above the ironies of war and of life itself. That’s why it is so difficult to reach a clear moral evaluation of Achilles (Is he good? Is he bad?)—for, like so many great heroes we call tragic, he has pushed himself into a realm beyond the range of such human moral categories.(4)

 

NOTES TO ESSAY SIX

 

(1) Those who seek to understand Hector by paying close attention to his psychology (not always the most reliable way of understanding the characters in the Iliad) may see an important connection between his conscious hesitation here and the unconscious ironies evoked in his conversation with Andromache in Book 6. J. M. Redfield offers the illuminating suggestion that Hector’s terror at the gleaming armour of the approaching Achilles is a deliberate reminder of Astyanax’s terror at the sight of his father’s military appearance earlier (158). Hector’s momentary doubt immediately before his duel with Ajax may be significant in this regard (in Book 7). [Back to Text]

 

(2) Paolo Vivante claims that Achilles’ anger is “a divine, not a human emotion” (54), and Schein states that from the outset of the poem Achilles is “radically different from [the other Achaeans]” (91). [Back to Text]

 

(3) Many people, of course, have objected to the ending of Job’s story as a violation of the entire emotional logic of the tragedy (a later interpolation, perhaps, to bring us a more comfortable picture of God’s justice). Schein is determined to mitigate any potentially tragic effect the Iliad may have, so that the poem becomes much more optimistic and reassuring to modern readers. For example, he sees in the ending something in which “love and solidarity seem somehow more powerful than death and destruction” and which points “beyond conventional heroic values toward an ethic of humaneness and compassion” (187). This, it strikes me, is sugar coating the darkly ironic weight of the entire poem, including the ending, to make it more palatable to modern sensibilities. And given the intensity of Achilles’ and Hector’s experiences and Homer’s complex vision of warfare as man’s fate, I find Michael Silk’s summary judgment, even with his later qualifications about Achilles, very odd: “The Iliad is primarily celebratory, not exploratory.  It presents the unchanging surface of experience, rather than the depths where nothing is constant” (102).  [Back to Text]

 

(4) That may be why those who try to come up with a clear moral evaluation of Achilles sound so oddly wrong, as in Moses Hadas’ attempt to trace the “moral deterioration” of Achilles: “The balance of right and wrong is depressed on the side of wrong when he rejects Agamemnon’s bid for reconciliation. He rehabilitates himself and asserts the victory of civilization when he overcomes his own passionate impulse to abuse the body of Hector and returns it to Priam” (16). That may reassure us about the importance of moral categories, but the terms are irrelevant to Achilles’ view of why he is acting the way he is. That’s what makes him such a disturbing figure. [Back to Text]
 
 


[For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad.]