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 satisfying life.
Hecuba is Priam’s wife, mother of Hector and queen of Troy. Like her husband, she is devastated by Hector’s death and is shown crying for him throughout the night. She was closer to her children than Priam was and seems to have been less imprisoned by her royal duties. Nonetheless, she opposes his going to retrieve Hector’s body because she thinks this course of action beneath the dignity of a king, as well as believing that Achilles will never agree.
Somax is the only character in the novel created by Malouf. He is a cart-driver who is tasked with driving Priam into the Greek camp. He is a simple, pious man, fond of telling stories which his audience often fail to believe. All his children are dead, and he is therefore able to sympathize with Priam, who initially seems to have nothing in common with him at all.
Hermes is the messenger of the gods. He first appears in disguise as a Greek soldier who offers his services to Priam as a guide and helps him to ford the Scamander River on his way to seek Achilles. Later, he reveals himself as a god, which causes Priam to take heart, since it shows that the gods support his plan and are protecting him.
Peleus is the elderly father of Achilles. His age is emphasized by his marriage to the immortal Thetis, and Achilles often thinks of him. When he first sees Priam, he thinks for a moment that he is Peleus, and Priam later asks whether Peleus wouldn’t act in the same way that he now is if Achilles had been killed in battle. This reminder of his own elderly father and the similarities between Peleus and Priam helps to persuade Achilles to give up the body.
Neoptolemus is the son of Achilles. Achilles will never see his son again but has a vision of Neoptolemus, after his death, killing Priam. Virgil and other classical authors depict Neoptolemus as a thuggish brute, but Malouf shows him as an awkward boy living in his father’s shadow, trying (and failing) to live up to the legend of the great Achilles.