Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1929
Essential Passage 1: Book IX
Why, pray, must the Argives needs fight the Trojans? What made the son of Atreus gather the host and bring them? Was it not for the sake of Helen? Are the sons of Atreus the only men in the world who love their wives? Any man of common right feeling will love and cherish her who is his own, as I this woman, with my whole heart, though she was but a fruitling of my spear. Agamemnon has taken her from me; he has played me false; I know him; let him tempt me no further, for he shall not move me. Let him look to you, Ulysses, and to the other princes to save his ships from burning. He has done much without me already. He has built a wall; he has dug a trench deep and wide all round it, and he has planted it within with stakes; but even so he stays not the murderous might of Hector. So long as I fought among the Achaeans Hector suffered not the battle to range far from the city walls; he would come to the Scaean gates and to the oak tree, but no further. Once he stayed to meet me and hardly did he escape my onset; now, however, since I am in no mood to fight him, I will to-morrow offer sacrifice to Jove and to all the gods; I will draw my ships into the water and then victual them duly; to-morrow morning, if you care to look, you will see my ships on the Hellespont, and my men rowing out to sea with might and main. If great Neptune vouchsafes me a fair passage, in three days I shall be in Phthia.
The war is not going well for the Achaians. In a panic, Agamemnon suggests that they retreat to their ships and give up the fight. Nestor, the wise old counselor, disagrees and comes up with a different plan. He bravely points out that this stage of the war has been brought about by the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, with the former being the biggest offender. Nestor suggests that an envoy go to Achilles and beg him to rejoin the fight, while returning Briseis to Achilles. Agamemnon agrees and the envoy led by Odysseus goes to Achilles. Achilles, however, is still adamant about his refusal to fight. He sees the entire war as ridiculous, simply the result of Agamemnon’s wounded pride. Despite the fact that Achilles himself is now acting out of his own wounded pride, he will not return to fight Hector. He rejects Agamemnon’s apology and remains in his own camp. The envoy thus returns to the Achaian encampment and breaks the news to Agamemnon.
Essential Passage 2: Book IX
“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but my name will live forever: whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me. To the rest of you, then, I say, ‘Go home, for you will not take Ilius.’ Jove has held his hand over her to protect her, and her people have taken heart. Go, therefore, as in duty bound, and tell the princes of the Achaeans the message that I have sent them; tell them to find some other plan for the saving of their ships and people, for so long as my displeasure lasts, the one that they have now hit upon may not be. As for Phoenix, let him sleep here that he may sail with me in the morning if he so will. But I will not take him by force.”
Achilles, in a rage over Agamemnon’s taking of Briseis, the girl he won as a war prize, has left the battle, along with his followers and his friend Patroclos. An envoy has been deputized by Agamemnon to return Briseis to Achilles and to beg him to return to the battle which they are quickly losing. Agamemnon, as well as the other leaders, know that only Achilles can beat the Trojan warrior Hector, thus ending the war. Achilles, in his pride, eventually refuses, but he speculates on the cause of the war. He no longer sees it as a worthy endeavor, resulting in the jealousy and pride of Menelaus over the abduction of his wife Helen by the Trojan prince Paris. He remembers the words of his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, who warned him that if he went to the war, he would not survive, except as a legend told for a thousand generations. However, if he remained at home, he would live, but his name would be forgotten. Placing his honor above his life, Achilles agrees to go, but now his honor has been offended by Agamemnon. Thus he refuses to fight, seeing no honor in this war that is worth his life, and sends the envoy back to the camp.
…Fear, O Achilles, the wrath of heaven; think on your own father and have compassion upon me, who am the more pitiable, for I have steeled myself as no man yet has ever steeled himself before me, and have raised to my lips the hand of him who slew my son.” Thus spoke Priam, and the heart of Achilles yearned as he bethought him of his father. He took the old man's hand and moved him gently away. The two wept bitterly—Priam, as he lay at Achilles' feet, weeping for Hector, and Achilles now for his father and now for Patroclos, till the house was filled with their lamentation. But when Achilles was now sated with grief and had unburthened the bitterness of his sorrow, he left his seat and raised the old man by the hand, in pity for his white hair and beard; then he said, “Unhappy man, you have indeed been greatly daring; how could you venture to come alone to the ships of the Achaeans, and enter the presence of him who has slain so many of your brave sons? You must have iron courage; sit now upon this seat, and for all our grief we will hide our sorrows in our hearts, for weeping will not avail us. The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow; on the floor of Jove's palace there stand two urns, the one filled with evil gifts, and the other with good ones. He for whom Jove the lord of thunder mixes the gifts he sends, will meet now with good and now with evil fortune; but he to whom Jove sends none but evil gifts will be pointed at by the finger of scorn, the hand of famine will pursue him to the ends of the world, and he will go up and down the face of the earth, respected neither by gods nor men.
Achilles has killed Hector in combat, in revenge for the death of his beloved friend Patroclos. Not content merely with his death, Achilles has dishonored his body by dragging it around the plains before Troy. Without a proper burial, Hector cannot enter to an afterlife of peace. Yet the gods have prevented the body of Hector from being damaged, thus signaling their displeasure at Achilles’ action. With the heart of a broken father, Priam comes to Achilles and begs for Hector’s body. He does not appeal to Achilles’ sense of honor, since in this situation Achilles has none. Instead Priam appeals to his emotions, calling him to remember his own father, who has the comfort of knowing his son is alive. Yet Priam is denied this peace and asks Achilles simply to give him Hector to be buried properly, so that at least he may be allowed into Hades and receive rest. Achilles is touched at the mention of his father. He praises Priam for his courage and blames all on the whims of the gods. The inhabitants of Olympus do not care about the sorrows of mere humans. Jove (Zeus) mixes his gifts to man with both evil and good for the most part. Yet the man who receives only evil from the gods will suffer greatly on earth. In his sorrow, Achilles feels he is one of these, cursed by Jove.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Achilles, one of the heroes of the Trojan War, is absent throughout most of the action. The external battle between the Trojans and the Achaeans pales before the internal battle he is waging between his honor and his hubris. At the point at which the story commences, his hubris has taken the ascendancy. Offended that Agamemnon has taken his war prize, Briseis, to replace his own that he was forced to return, Achilles has withdrawn from the battle, taking his army with him. The depletion of their forces has caused the Achaeans to gradually fail in combat. Only the presence of Achilles can grant them victory. Thus the underlying plot to the story is the efforts of fighting a war without a hero and the attempts to win Achilles back to the side of the Achaeans.
Prior to leaving home for Troy, Achilles was approached by his mother Thetis, with the prophecy that, should he go to Troy he would not return home. However, his honor would survive after him, thus making him a legend among the peoples of the earth for generations to come. If he chose to stay home from the war that had nothing to do with him personally; he would live, but would die in anonymity. Thus the choice is given to Achilles—life or honor. To Achilles (and to much of the ancient world) personal honor was the highest prize and must be fought for at all costs. Thus it was that Achilles chose to go to war, even at the cost of his life.
When Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilles, Achilles felt that his honor was being threatened. Since this was what he held to be most dear above all, he could not stay and fight for a man who had dishonored him. The question arises concerning what caused the most dishonor, losing Briseis or his refusal to fight? Was Achilles’ honor taken away, or was he simply being a spoiled child? Was his wrath justified?
Two things cause Achilles to come back into the action. First, his best friend Patroclos is killed in battle with Hector, having donned Achilles’ armor and fought in his place. The loss of his friend, who gave his life for him, causes Achilles to choose to fight Hector after all. Having felt the sting of dishonor, he unaccountably wreaks his revenge on the Trojans by dishonor, dragging Hector’s body around the plains of Troy.
Secondly, Achilles comes to terms with the situation when Priam appeals to his sense of decency, not as a warrior, but as a son. Priam asks for Hector’s body (which the gods have prevented from being fully dishonored as Achilles intended) so that he may be properly buried. It is at this point that Achilles makes peace, not with the Trojans or Agamemnon, but with his own internal battle. His understanding of honor has been clarified. It is not so much what one does during the battle that brings honor, but what one does after. In this, Achilles sets aside his pride and chooses instead honor above all.
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