Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Achilles (uh-KIH-leez), the son of Peleus and the Nereid Thetis, prince of the Myrmidons, and mightiest of the Achaian warriors at the siege of Troy. At his birth, his mother had dipped him in the Styx, so that all parts of his body are invulnerable to hurt except the heel by which she held him. A young man of great beauty, strength, courage, and skill in battle, he nevertheless possesses two tragic flaws, an imperious will and a strong sense of vanity. Enraged because King Agamemnon orders him to surrender the maid Briseis, whom Achilles had taken as his own prize of war, he quarrels bitterly with the commander of the Greek forces and withdraws from the battlefield. When the Trojan host attacks, driving the Greeks back toward their ships, Achilles remains sulking in his tent. So great is his wrath that he refuses to heed all entreaties that he come to the aid of the hard-pressed Greeks. When the Trojans begin to burn the Greek ships, he allows his friend Patroclus, dressed in the armor of Achilles, to lead the warlike Myrmidons against the attackers. Patroclus is killed by Hector, the Trojan leader, under the walls of the city. Seeing in the death of his friend the enormity of his own inaction, Achilles puts on a new suit of armor made for him by Hephaestus and engages the Trojans in fierce combat. Merciless in his anger and grief, he kills Hector and on successive days drags the body of the vanquished hero...
(The entire section is 2177 words.)
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Achilles is the son of Peleus, King of the Myrmidons, and Thetis the sea goddess; he and his fellow Myrmidons come to Troy as part of the Greek force led by King Agamemnon. Achilles embodies the characteristics of the Homeric Hero, particularly in his apparent lack of character and control and his lust for fame. He is therefore a balance—superhumanly powerful thanks to a relationship with the gods and his mother’s precautions taken when he was a baby, but morally and intellectually flawed. His attitude will be his death after the Iliad ends.
Achilles can’t control his pride or the rage that overtakes him when that pride is threatened; in short, he’s a big, incredibly strong spoiled brat. At one point he even abandons his men and prays that the Trojans will slaughter them because Agamemnon has insulted him. Because of that pride, like many other Homeric heroes, Achilles is driven primarily by an insatiable desire for glory. His spoiled, lazy nature might prefer to live a long, easy life, but he knows that his preordained fate (symbolized by his “Achilles Heel”) will force him to choose between comfort and fame. His ego wins out, and he is willing to sacrifice everything so his name will become part of Greek history.
Achilles doesn’t develop significantly over the course of the epic. Although the death of Patroclus guilts him into reconciling with Agamemnon, his rage doesn’t die, but is redirected toward Hector, the Trojan hero. Such a lateral emotional move doesn’t mark any kind of change, just a transfer of the same anger, pride and hatred that has driven Achilles all along. He doesn’t learn from Patroclus’ death. He brutalizes his opponents, takes on the river Xanthus in a bold, almost suicidal campaign, desecrates Hector’s body after death, and horrifically sacrifices twelve Trojan soldiers at the funeral of Patroclus. Achilles’ rage doesn’t subside until Troy’s King Priam, pleading for the return of Hector’s body, appeals to Achilles’ memory of his father Peleus. However, even in this moment it remains uncertain whether Priam’s actions really transform Achilles or whether this scene merely testifies to Achilles’ capacity for grief and acquaintance with anguish, which were already proven in his intense mourning of Patroclus.
Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, is the son of Atreus and the brother...
(The entire section is 1088 words.)
Son of the mortal Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, Achilles is the best warrior at Troy. He leads the Myrmidons (from the Greek word for “ant,” as their ancestors were created by Zeus from ants after a plague had depopulated part of the kingdom of Achilles’ grandfather, Aeacus).
His mother dipped the baby Achilles in the River Styx, which made him invulnerable. But she forgot to dip the heel by which she held him, which left one place where a weapon could injure him: hence an “Achilles’ heel” is a weak or vulnerable spot.
Thetis knew that her son was destined either to go to Troy, where he would die gloriously as a young man, or to live a long (but dull) life ruling over his people at home. To keep him out of the army, Thetis sent Achilles away to another king’s court dressed as a woman, but Odysseus tracked him down there and convinced him to join the army in spite of his mother’s pleas. Knowing that his time is short, Achilles wants to make the most of it and is very sensitive to any suggestion that he is not the best, most respected man of his age—which leads to the conflict with Agamemnon that starts the poem.
Later Greek tradition held that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers as well as friends, not an uncommon practice in classical times. Bernard Knox suggests, in his introduction to Robert Fagles’s translation of...
(The entire section is 6090 words.)