Achilles is brutal, vain, pitiless – and a true hero
Homer’s idolised demigod in the Iliad has plenty of loathsome aspects – but remains a magnetic figure it’s hard not to admire
Tue 16 Feb 2016
After a week spent discussing the challenges the Iliad presents modern readers, I’m going to try for something more positive. I say “try” because if there’s one thing that reading ancient Greek literature has taught me, it is to beware of hubris. If I were to try to list all the things that I think matter about this book it might well result in a list as long as the catalogue of the ships. Instead, I’d like to focus on just one aspect of the poem: the man who gets its first line and whose wrath sets it all in motion, Achilles.
Achilles does not fit modern sensibilities. He is a killer, arguably a rapist, certainly a pillager. He is sulky, high-strung and oh boy, is he temperamental. He can be pitiless – actively enjoying the iron in his heart – and he can be murderously cruel. Yet there is still something fundamental about him to which we can all relate, even if it is also something particularly hard to rationalise and explain. He is faster, sharper, bigger, brighter and more important than other men. He is more beautiful. He rides on deeper emotional currents (when Achilles is upset, he is seriously upset). He is semi-divine and wholly precious. Other men cannot even aspire to be like him. At his most resplendent, men cannot even bear to look at him. He is just above and beyond.
Achilles in short, is a hero and taps into a need that most of us have to worship and admire. I was recently listening to a very good Stanford lecture about the Iliad by Marsh McCall, where the genial professor suggests that baseball and American football players play a similar role in modern society. There is also a fantastic video of kids meeting their football idols, viewed more than 69m times on social media, which gives an idea of how primal and overpowering such reverence can be.
To speak personally, I don’t feel much beyond the usual admiration for sports players. I also like to think of myself as rational and keen to judge on actual merit and not mythology. But I’m far from immune to the appeal of the hero, and I imagine few people are. One of the many laments I could relate to, for instance, following the recent loss of David Bowie was the simple expression of incredulity that death could catch even him, that someone who had seemed so much bigger than life should actually have to go.
This human need to venerate was something Homer understood and exploited to glorious effect in the Iliad. Most obviously, and brilliantly, he does this by keeping Achilles off the scene. In the first line of the Iliad, Homer may ask the muses to sing about the wrath of Achilles – but the man himself appears in the poem surprisingly rarely. Homer is careful to give him mainly the big moments – the beginning, the climax, and a few crucial turning points. There are books and books in which he is barely mentioned. But, of course, all the time he is off the scene, his presence only grows. Every other feat of arms, every brutal kill, every spear cast invokes a comparison to the absent hero – and is inevitably found wanting. We know that, even at his most terrible and shining, Hector would not have a hope against Achilles. We know that, big as he may be, Ajax’s achievements are dwarfed by the demigod. We know, saddest of all, that Patroclus is but a shadow of his great friend, the armour he has borrowed from him is an all but empty shell, and that where Achilles would sweep all before him, he is doomed to fall. All the killing, all the struggle, all the pain – all is made futile because we know that if Achilles were on the scene it would turn out differently.
This trick works especially well because when Achilles does return to the field of battle, he does so with (literally) god-given style. First in a blaze of glory and accompanied by the terrifying screech of the goddess Thetis. Next, wrapped up in the astonishing armour Hephaestus gave him, burning with fury and effortlessly smiting anyone who stands before him.
Yet it isn’t just Achilles’ supernatural power that makes him such a compelling hero. It’s also his fallibility. Three thousand years ago, just as today, hero worship had to have its negative aspect – the hands reaching up to drag the star from the podium, the mistakes that make the successes seem all the more remarkable. In among all the adoring articles about Bowie, there were a good number of attempts at muckraking. Likewise for many a sporting idol.
Achilles, too, has to spend his time in the muck. One of the most famous passages in the Iliad comes at the start of Book 18, when Achilles learns that his beloved companion Patroclus has been killed by Hector, stripped of his armour (the very armour Achilles lent him before he sent him off to battle) and that Trojans and Achaeans are now fighting over his naked corpse. A dark cloud of grief shrouds the hero and, we are told, he defiles his handsome face with ashes from the fire and collapses, as Caroline Alexander translates, “outstretched in the dust, a great man in his greatness, and with his own hands he defiled his hair, tearing at it”. He’s at his most moving when he’s at his most human, prostrate, weeping, knowing he’s done the wrong thing, knowing that fate is going to pummel him as a result. Even at the height of his fury, Homer also takes the time to render Achilles helpless, sweeping him up in the river Skamander, reminding us that even he has limitations.
But Homer doesn’t just beg our sympathy. We also see Achilles being bad. Above and beyond the aforementioned sulking, and those actions that don’t square with 21st-century morality, are outrages intolerable even in his battle-hardened society. No one, god or Greek, can approve of Achilles’ attempts to defile Hector’s corpse. But again, such actions are a mark of someone who just has to go that bit further, that bit madder with grief, that bit deeper into the maelstrom. What’s more, the troughs Achilles plumbs just make the heights seem all the more exalted. His calm enjoyment of the funeral games and level-headed generosity to the competitors, the sympathetic hearing he eventually grants poor old Priam – both seem all the more impressive after his previous derangement. The Iliad is a masterful investigation of a character whom we just can’t help but look up to: a lesson in charisma for any age.
One final extra thought, while I’ve shied away from listing Homer’s other fine moments in this article, it might well be fun to compile some ideas in the comments. For starters, I’ll chuck in the fact that the poet clearly loves lions, throwing in references to their power and the way they move throughout the epic. And also how Nestor can be both an “in my day” bore and a brave, resolute man, making the moment Achilles offers him an award in his games feel both poignant and satisfyingly right. Oh, and poor old Hecuba … But that’s enough for now. Over to you.