Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Wrath of Achilles

Wrath—one of the most famous first words in all of world literature. The word sets the pace, the tone, the content of the Iliad, shaping the plot of all there is to come.

Wrath—Sing, Goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and the birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
(Iliad, 1.1-8; trans. Robert Fagles with some changes)

The first word is menis. It is not just “anger” as the magisterial translation of Richmond Lattimore has rendered it. It is sustained anger, almost godlike in its intensity and singularity. Thus, Robert Fagles’ “rage” more clearly fits the bill. Yet I prefer the terminology of “wrath.” It reminds me of the wrath of God, which it approximates, that it is headed toward, and almost achieves, but never fully so, since Achilles is still only human. Yet it is a rage that in its legendary greatness cannot be replicated by any other human—it is the most godlike rage a human can achieve. Thus, I prefer wrath.

The wrath of Achilles defines him, and the entire plot of the Iliad unwinds from its vicissitudes. Achilles’ wrath is singular, flattening him as a character, making him nearly unidimensional (Achilles does have his other moments in which we see another side barely break through), but its focus and unidimensionality make him an unbeatable warrior. His monolithic quality makes him wrath’s embodiment; or, put another way, literally transfigures him into wrath. He becomes, as it were, a mortal god, defined by a singular characteristic, much like Ares is the personification of war, or Athena, wisdom or cunning. Unbeatable in combat, yet ultimately mortal. It is his greatest trait, and his ultimate doom, bringing down everyone with him into Hades.

This wrath motivates the story. The plot unfolds based upon the direction that Achilles points his wrath. As the introductory stanza indicates, he points it first to his own side, Agamemnon, the son of Atreus. He is the king of Mycenae (Mykenai), and the king of kings, the leader of all the Achaeans in this war. When he took the captive Briseis from Achilles, Achilles turned his wrath toward Agamemnon, refusing to fight. And, without this force of nature, wrath incarnate, fighting, the Trojans, led by their Tamer of Forces, Hector, began to push the Achaeans back to their ships. Hector, like all of the Trojans, is really the "Breaker of Horses" but I like to consider this in the aspect of taming wild forces, bringing them into civilized society, which Troy itself represents, in contrast to the wild force and fury of unattached Achilles.

Hector is a much more interesting character in my opinion than Achilles. Hector clearly is the second greatest warrior in the Iliad, but unlike Achilles who is unidimensionally wrathful, Hector is multidimensional. He is Hector, the prince of Troy, the beloved son of old King Priam, devoted husband to Andromache, a father with a young child, and responsible for the safety of the entire city of Troy. They all depend upon his strength, his courage, and his leadership. He is universally beloved, and considered universally kind. Fighting for a cause that he does not believe in—the folly of judgment of Paris, his younger brother—he is now forced to defend all those he loves, and fights to the death to do it.

If there is any other shaper of events in the Iliad, it is the judgment of Paris. Well known from the overall story of the Trojan War, it only plays a small part in the Iliad itself, which focuses on a small segment of the larger story. Only partially alluded to in the Iliad, three very powerful goddesses—Hera, the queen of the gods, Athena, and Aphrodite—asked Paris, the most beautiful of men, to judge the fairest. He chose Aphrodite. In the story of the involvement of the gods in the Iliad, Aphrodite always sides with the Trojans—as does, most notably, Apollo. Hera and Athena consistently support the Achaeans. The judgment of Paris explains this—Paris chose beauty and lust before wisdom or cunning, unlike cunning Odysseus who is favored by Athena. He chose this instead of respecting family responsibilities. In short, the most beautiful man chose the most beautiful woman (Helen, queen of Sparta, wife of Menelaos), who in turn may have chose him as well. Both are favored by Aphrodite, in fact. Both ignore family responsibilities respected in that society. Both ultimately like the wrath of Achilles, bring down so many souls to the house of death on both the Achaean and Trojan sides, giving the wrath of Achilles a place to roam, leading to the destruction of Troy.

Yet Paris lacks the courage to take responsibility for his actions. He cannot beat Menelaos in one-on-one combat, as happens in the Iliad. He cannot save Troy from his own actions. Only Hector can, but Hector cannot escape Achilles’ wrath should it ever turn directly with intense focus towards him. Once Hector, the Tamer of Forces, is gone, Troy will be doomed. In fact, it is in his attractively textured multidimensionality as a character that one finds his own undoing. With all the web of responsibilities to his family and to his city resting on his shoulders, he cannot possibly maintain the singular, almost adolescent and yet divine wrathful focus of the unattached Achilles.

Indeed, once Achilles equivocates, allowing his beloved Patroclus into battle, wearing Achilles’ own armor, Patroclus dies by the hand of Hector. It is this act that finally turns Achilles’ wrath from Agamemnon, the Lord of Men, to Hector, the Tamer of Forces. It is this act that transfigures Achilles’ adolescent wrath against Agamemnon to godlike wrath, complete with a fiery nimbus and a divine roar (with the aid of Athena), against Hector. This might explain why this takes place in the tenth year. Achilles nearly divine wrath had not been fully awakened by his enemy. Now no force can stop him, not even the Tamer of Forces.

Hector, realizing he had mistaken Patroclus for Achilles, knows what is coming, is driven back, waits for Achilles, and, in the end, loses his nerve. Eventually forced to take a stand, he fights Achilles. But he is no match for godlike wrath, so intense that almost nothing can abate it. Achilles, as wrath personified, kills Hector, presaging the destruction of Troy itself, dragging his body and leaving it unburied, an insult unbearable to Hector’s family, the Trojans, and even the gods. The gods, recognizing the heroic greatness of Hector, keep his body undefiled. Indeed, Achilles wrath is not abated until King Priam, in the most touching scene in the Iliad (and much of all ancient literature), sneaks into the Achaean camp, into Achilles’ tent, and the great king begs for his son’s body from the man who killed him. Now ends the wrath of Achilles, now ends the Iliad.

Although this is not my usual fare in posting, I am teaching Literature of the Humanities this year, and so expect such notes and meditations on classic literature to begin to emerge in my postings.


jodi said...

See also "the wrath of Khan"-- for an entirely different set of important world literature :-)

Jared Calaway said...

Would this be Genghis Khan? I just saw a movie about him.

Ben_D said...

No man he is talking about Khan the nemesis of John Cena on wrestling television, classic wrestling eh?

Too bad Achilles couldn't have read Sun Tzu, he MIGHT have seen where his rage was a weapon he gave to his opponent to be used against him?

But I digress, while hindsight is 20/20 there are many times we live out Santayana's oft repeated quote in regard to history or as I say "Why must we rediscover fire and reinvent the wheel?"

book/daddy said...

Actually, Achilles' rage doesn't make him entirely 'one dimensional' because it comes from sorrow and loss. Much of Hector's contrasting expansiveness of character comes from the fact that we see him with his family, in his home town. All Achilles has, after Patroclus' death, is his goddess mother.

Unknown said...

I am not, nor have I ever been a student of yours.

Your take on Achilles is interesting and thought provoking.

Achilles is one of the most memorable characters in all literature in my mind. (Id have to go with Odysseus for #1)

Well done