Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Humanity of Achilles

In yesterday's post, I mentioned how weary Achilles is beginning to seem--how tired he is of his anger--as day after day he drags Hector's corpse around Patroclus' tomb. In the last chapter of Homer's epic, the Greek hero finally finds a way to move past his rage into a new state of humanity.

Led by chariot-driver Hermes, King Priam travels into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to return his son's body to him.  He plans to offer him a "treasure chamber" with "the lavish ransom for Hector's head."  But the meeting between Hector's father and Peleus' son is no financial trade.  As Stanley Lombardo translates:

   Great Priam entered unnoticed.  He stood
   Close to Achilles, and touching his knees,
   He kissed the dread and murderous hands
   That had killed so many of his sons....
   "Remember your father, godlike Achilles.
   He and I both are on the doorstep
   Of old age.... Think of your own father, and pity me.
   I am more pitiable.  I have borne what no man
   Who has walked this earth has ever yet borne.
   I have kissed the hand of the man who killed my son.

Through his grief and his courage in the face of that grief, Priam causes Achilles to imagine the pain his father will feel when he himself falls in battle.  Achilles also recognizes that Priam feels the same kind of pain he feels as he grieves for Patroclus.

   The two of them remembered....
   And Achilles cried for his father and
   For Patroclus.  The sound filled the room.
   When Achilles had his fill of grief
   And the aching sorrow left his heart,
   He rose from his chair and lifted the old man
   By his hand.

"Let our pain lie at rest a while, no matter how much we hurt," says Achilles to Priam.  "You must endure this grief and not constantly grieve."  He is of course speaking to himself as well.  He agrees to return Hector's body, after it is cleaned and anointed with oil, to King Priam.

And the two men begin to move past their grief and into the world of the living.  They share food together and prepare their beds--a quite literal sign that human life has returned to them.

In summary, over the course of the book we've seen the rage of Achilles transform. His initial anger is selfish: he feels his honor has been slighted by his commander Agamemnon. Only when his friend is killed can he move past his pure selfishness.  He begins to reconnect in his deep suffering and grief. Instead of fighting for glory, Achilles is fighting for his loved ones. This is a certain kind of growth, as troubling as it is to watch him strike out in vengeance against the Trojans.  A more mature connection is his development of empathy: when Achilles recognizes that Priam, his greatest enemy, feels the same grief that he does. When the two men who have been fighting against each other for a decade turn to see that they are in fact mirrors of each other--mirrors who feel the same grief and humanity--then Achilles can overcome his second rage. Only then can he begin to heal.

The book starts with slighted honor and accelerates with vengeance.  Achilles is a wounded animal, striking out in blindness to the cares of all those around him.  Only when Priam humbles himself, with great maturity and peace, does Achilles learn to recognize the needs of other people.  The book ends at this point, with his rage transformed.

Homer chooses to end his epic with death, sadness, and funerals.  In the days that follow, as audiences of Homer's day knew, the war would continue.  The walls of Troy would be breached and the city would be destroyed.  Achilles would fall to his death when Paris shot him in the heel.  But Homer does not tell us that story, just as he did not tell us the beginning of the war.  In these last pages of The Iliad, the story ends at a moment of peace--and deeply human reconciliation.

When I picked up this book, I expected a war story full of violent battles and arrogant bluster.  Both are in the book--but now as I put the translations I have back on the shelf, I can't help but be stunned by how beautiful is and how deeply its larger themes resonate in today's world.

*  *  *

Although this is my last post about Homer's The Iliad per se, I will be talking about contemporary treatments of the story for the rest of the week. Up for discussion tomorrow: a modern adaptation of the scene discussed today.


  1. Wondering what translation you have of the Iliad. I have the Samuel Butler one and am wondering if I'm better off getting a more modern rendition....

  2. Jenny: I'm relying primarily upon the Stanley Lombardo translation, which I love. I've also been using the Fagles translation which some people prefer. Lombardo is perhaps the most muscular and straight-forward. Fagles is a little more ornate but still very easy to follow. Both translators use rhythm and imagery beautifully. You might check out the post http://lifetimereadingplan.blogspot.com/2011/01/beginning-homers-iliad.html for a little more on translations. Let me know what you choose!

  3. Wow! That's The Illiad?? That sounds beautiful! I'm glad this one (and The Odyssey) are on my list!!

  4. Jillian: I can't wait to hear what you think. Perhaps one reason I was so pleased with The Iliad was because I was expecting to hate it so! (But one warning: sometimes the violence is a little much.)

  5. You've really made me want to pick this up again. It is so beautiful.

    As for the first commenter: NO NO NO! Not the Samuel Butler, awful. I tried that first before I ended up with Fagles. not a good one in my opinion.

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