29 May 2013


While the Iliad has many female characters, it is not a poem about women.  Except for Andromache, Hector's wife, their main narrative function is to further the course of the war, whether as pawns, like Chryseis and Briseis, or more actively, like Helen, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.  Even Thetis, Achilles's mother, when she brings him maternal comfort, brings it in the form of a new shield and armor.  The poem's subject--war--is intricately bound up with the relations of men, as comrades, antagonists, soulmates, but perhaps even more deeply as sons with their fathers.  A man is rarely named whose father's name does not follow immediately after, and the grief of fathers bereft of their sons is evoked in many places:                                                                                             
                                                               [and] Merops...refused to let his two boys march to war,
                                                               this man-killing war, but the young ones fought him
                                                               all the way...and Diomedes...stripped them of life-breath...

                                                               The son of Tydeus killed [Xanthus and Thoon] on the spot,
                                                               he ripped the dear life out of both and left their father
                                                               tears and wrenching grief...

Some of the heroes even bear their fathers' names as epithets: Telamonian Ajax; Tydides, for Diomedes son of Tydeus; the Atridae, Menelaus and Agamemnon, sons of Atreus; and of course Pelides, who is Achilles son of Peleus.  Since I've already raised the controversial idea that modern psychological phenomena may help us understand the ancients, not to mention the other controversial idea that literary characters may sometimes be interpretable as if they were alive, I shall go on to suggest that the way sons feel about fathers is at the heart of The Anger of Achilles.

What does Homer tell us about Achilles?  Son of Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis, he was raised in Phthia, in northern Greece; when sent to join the Achaean armada he was

                                                               ...a youngster still untrained for the great leveler, war,
                                                               still green at debate where men can make their mark.

Instructed in warfare on the way to Argos by "the old charioteer Phoenix," he is so naturally gifted at it that he joins the Argives as their youngest chief and best fighter.  While I shall not in general allude to non-Homeric legends about Achilles (such as the one about his heel), Apollodorus writes that he was fifteen when named admiral of the Greek forces.  When the poem begins, then, nine years later, he is in his mid-twenties, and has spent his entire young manhood on campaign, among men of war.  Impetuous, strutting, and prideful, Achilles is touchy about having his pre-eminence in battle acknowledged by his more seasoned fellow captains, and hungry for all the fame there is.  Also of vital importance: he has fallen in love with the maiden Briseis:

                                                               I loved that woman with all my heart,
                                                               though I won her like a trophy with my spear.

This is "the strong/ Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles,/ Who would not live long" (as Auden calls him), in the ninth year of the war against Troy, when

                                                               [the] gods knotted the rope of strife and leveling war,
                                                               strangling both sides at once by stretching the mighty cable,
                                                               never broken, never slipped, that snapped the knees
                                                                                                                                    of thousands...

The Greeks are suffering a plague sent by Apollo at the request of his priest Chryses, to whom Agamemnon has refused to return his daughter Chryseis, a trophy of war.  Once the cause of the sickness is known, the other captains insist that Agamemnon return her; angrily, he acquiesces, but only if they make up his loss from their own shares of the booty.  Outraged that Agamemnon should seek to take back spoil already shared out, Achilles challenges him.  Their exchange heats up until Agamemnon, himself outraged by Achilles's rebelliousness, claims his lover Briseis for himself to make up for losing Chryseis.  Staggered, Achilles reaches for his sword, but is restrained by Athena in the name of Zeus, "Father of the Gods;" he then retires to his own encampment, on strike, with his fifty ship-loads of Myrmidons.

In all his pride, Achilles still longs to be contained within the loving authority of a father.  While his position makes him equal to the other captains, he is too young to feel at ease as their peer.  On the other hand, "godlike Achilles" is the most fearsome fighter in this group of heroes, and too proud to seem to defer to anyone.  The only authority he could possibly bow to is that of Agamemnon, his commander and military "father," and the pride of his strength requires that his deference carry no hint of servility.  When Agamemnon replaces leadership with tyranny by taking Briseis back, Achilles nearly reverts to his own authority--that is, to force--to redeem his honor.

Agamemnon's insult is twofold.  First, his despotic claim deforms the structure of authority which allows the other Achaeans to follow his lead without sacrificing their sense of independence or their honor.  In stripping Achilles of Briseis, Agamemnon forces him to submit to his command, rather than to serve freely as his ally.  Second, by reclaiming the woman whom we later learn Achilles might have married--the woman who pointed Achilles towards a life as a husband and father, beyond the purely masculine world of warfare--Agamemnon thrusts him back into the status of an immature youth.

Thus, Achilles has been both outraged and belittled by the only father he has at hand.  Of course Agamemnon isn't a very good father to his actual children either: as we know from other sources, he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia at Aulis, in order to raise the wind so the Greeks could sail to Troy.  Indeed, his own father Atreus served his uncle with a stew made from his cousins, and his ancestor Tantalus prepared his own son as a banquet to the gods, and was damned for it.  At any rate, having lost respect for his commander and resigned his place in the Achaean army, Achilles has nothing to sustain him but the brittle honor of an overgrown stripling. Moreover, since he refuses to submit to Agamemnon as war leader, there is no honorable action open to him.  Stymied into the passivity of a leaf-spring under tension, he broods in his tent, waiting for Agamemnon's regret to blossom.

Later, when Hector and the Trojans are pressing the Greeks hard, Agamemnon does send an embassy to Achilles, offering him riches and captive maidens and even the hand of his daughter, if he will take up arms again.  This refreshes his sense of insult: riches and women cannot repair the injury his trust has suffered.  As for "his daughter--I will marry no daughter of Agamemnon," he says, which is easily read as, "I shall never again think of him as a father."  Far from rejoining the fight, Achilles announces that he plans to sail back to Phthia the next morning:

                                                                                                      Mother tells me...
                                                              that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
                                                              If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
                                                              my journey home is gone but my glory never dies.
                                                              If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
                                                              my pride, my glory dies...
                                                              True, but the life that's left me will be long.

Then Telamonian Ajax speaks, first as if directing an aside to Odysseus, then directly to Achilles:

                                                               He's made his own proud spirit so wild in his chest,
                                                               so savage, not a thought for his comrades' love...

                                                               Why, any man will accept the blood-price paid
                                                               for a brother murdered, a child done to death...
                                                               The murderer has paid enough, and the injured kinsman
                                                               curbs his pride, his smoldering, vengeful spirit,
                                                               once he takes the price...

                                                                                             You--the gods have planted
                                                               a cruel, relentless fury in your chest!  All for a girl,
                                                               just one...
                                                               Put some human kindness in your heart--
                                                               ...we long to be your closest, dearest friends.

Achilles relents: he won't sail away, but he won't fight the Trojans either, unless they get as far as his own ships.  Why does he relent?  An older man whom everyone respects, one of Achaea's greatest warriors, having assured him that he's loved and honored, has scolded him--but not to his face--for putting his own sense of wounded entitlement ahead of the aims of their fellowship.  Ajax speaks with the moral authority which Agamemnon could not muster, the same moral authority which allows coaches to give orders to players twice their size and fathers to help their sons into responsible manhood: the fatherly guidance which Achilles yearns for as he yearns for his fatherland.  Nevertheless, however chastened, he still refuses to fight under Agamemnon's command.

When Patroclus dies, Achilles is finally free to go into battle on his own account, and his spring is released.  Focused by the guilt of sending Patroclus out in his place, all his wounded pride and the rage of honor long-thwarted launch him like a leaf-bladed javelin through the Trojan companies at Hector. The Trojan commander is the only fighter on either side who approaches his own quality, and the only man suitable to stand in for the two people whom Achilles hates most: Agamemnon and himself.  As I said in my earlier essay, however, Achilles returns to war not as a warrior but as an avenger, not as a human being but as a berserker.   The Auden poem "The Shield of Achilles," from which I quoted earlier, evokes the desolate inhumanity of Achilles's inner landscape unforgettably:

                                                                       A ragged urchin, aimless and alone
                                                                       Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
                                                                       Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone.
                                                                       That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
                                                                       Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
                                                                       Of any world where promises were kept,
                                                                       Or one could weep because another wept.

Hector is the anti-Achilles: a great warrior who doesn't glory in war, he is both strengthened and softened by being husband, father, and citizen.  In the end, great-hearted as he is--and with everything to lose--he cannot outfight or outrun a killer whose hate has left him no longer human, or as Homer depicts it, who fights with the gods at his side.  And of course, since the living Hector is not the cause of Achilles's psychic wound but merely a substitute, his actual death cannot sate the anger of Achilles, who wants to go on humiliating him: he drags Hector's body behind his chariot as a funeral-offering to Patroclus, and spends the next nine days furiously dragging it around the tomb while Apollo preserves it from damage and decay.

Finally Zeus has had enough of this impious disrespect. "In deathless wrath/ that [Achilles] in heartsick fury still holds Hector's body," he overrules Troy's enemies Hera and Athena and sends Thetis to order her son to surrender the body to Hector's grieving father Priam.  Of course Achilles bows to paternal authority, "if Olympian Zeus himself insists in earnest," and Hermes conducts Priam to his tent.  How does Priam approach him?  He kneels, saying

                                                               Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles--
                                                               as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!
                                                               ...no one [is] there to defend him...
                                                               No one, but at least he hears you're still alive
                                                               and his old heart rejoices, hopes rising, day by day,
                                                               to see his beloved son come sailing home from Troy...
                                                               Revere the gods, Achilles!  Pity me in my own right,
                                                               remember your own father!
                                                               I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.

A father kneels in supplication to Achilles: a father who loves his son, a father who asks Achilles to revive the pity he has repudiated, a father who reminds him that he too has a father who loves him.  Reunited in thought with his real father, whom he knows he will never see again,

                                                               Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire
                                                               to grieve for his own father.  Taking the old man's hand
                                                               he gently moved him back.  And overpowered by memory
                                                               both men gave way to grief.  Priam wept freely
                                                               for man-killing Hector... as Achilles wept himself,
                                                               now for his father, now for Patroclus once again...

At last, "one could weep because another wept."

                                                               Then, when brilliant Achilles had had his fill of tears
                                                               and the longing for it had left his mind and body,
                                                               he rose from his seat, raised the old man by the hand
                                                               and filled with pity now for his gray head and gray beard,
                                                               he spoke out winging words, flying straight to the heart:
                                                               "Poor man, how much you've borne--pain to break the spirit!
                                                               what daring brought you down to the ships, all alone,
                                                               to face the glance of the man who killed your sons,
                                                               so many fine, brave boys?..."

Fated never himself to flower into husband, father, citizen, but reminded that he too is a son beloved by his father, Achilles has renounced the berserker and recovered his generosity and tenderness, a man once again like other men.  So ends The Anger of Achilles.

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