Last Updated on December 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021
Achilles is the greatest warrior in the world, though Malouf emphasizes from the beginning of the novel his more reflective side, his connection to the land and the sea. He is a demi-god, the son of King Peleus of Phthia and the water nymph (a minor goddess) Thetis. He has been fighting at Troy for nine years and finally, at the beginning of the book, kills his chief rival among the Trojans, Prince Hector, son of King Priam. He does this not in a detached military spirit but to fulfill a personal grudge, since Hector has just killed Achilles’s dearest friend, Patroclus, who entered the battle wearing Achilles’s armor. Despite killing Hector, Achilles remains filled with anger and becomes ever more resentful, feeling that the gods are against him. This sense is exacerbated by the way in which the gods protect Hector’s corpse. Although Achilles keeps it unburied and drags it behind his chariot, the body never decomposes.
Patroclus is Achilles’s closest friend, first described by Malouf as “his soulmate and companion since childhood.” He is three years older than Achilles, and the two met when Patroclus suddenly arrived at the Phthian court at the age of thirteen, exiled from his home country of Opus after killing another boy while playing a game. Patroclus and Achilles have grown up together like brothers, and when they go to Troy together, Patroclus initially supports his friend in his quarrel against Agamemnon. When he keeps hearing the accounts of other Greeks being killed, however, he borrows Achilles’s armor and goes into battle impersonating him. He is soon killed by Hector, to the intense distress of Achilles, who weeps over his body, pouring dust over his head for two days. Patroclus visits his friend as a ghost to ask for a proper burial, but Achilles decides that he must first deal with Hector.
Hector is the son of King Priam, foremost among the Trojan warriors. Like Patroclus, he dies at the beginning of the book and is principally described in retrospect, though his corpse is the chief matter of contention. He is described at the beginning of the story “slaughtering on all sides” and fighting his way to the Greek ships. Hector fights and kills Patroclus, then fights Achilles wearing Achilles’s own armor, which he had stripped from Patroclus’s body. Achilles believes that Hector does this to mock him, but Malouf says that Hector’s dying words are spoken to his rival “in a spirit untouched by the old rancour, with an almost brotherly concern.” Hector tells Achilles that he will not live much longer and that they are already preparing to mourn for him in Phthia. After his death, Hector’s body remains uncorrupted, being miraculously restored to a pristine condition after Achilles drags it behind his chariot.
Priam is the king of Troy and comes to the Greek camp at great personal risk to recover the body of his son, Hector. Priam already foresees the defeat of Troy at the beginning of the novel and is in despair, not only at the death of his favorite son, but at the ruin of all his hopes for the city and everything he has tried to achieve as a king. Priam recalls his childhood, when Troy was sacked by Heracles (a story which does not appear in the Iliad , though it is in other classical sources). On that occasion he had narrowly escaped being sold into slavery, and he is devastated to think that his royal career is ending in similar tragedy and failure. Priam is inspired by the goddess Iris to go to the Greek camp and recover Hector’s body. As he does so, he finds himself thinking and acting more as a father and less as a king. He comes to realize that his royal position has actually been something of a prison, insulating him from a more authentic and...
(The entire section contains 1021 words.)
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