Achilles Essay, Research Paper
WAR AND PEACE
The Iliad takes place during a fierce war between the Trojans and Achaians.
Almost the entire poem is devoted to the fighting, from an initial overview
of the forces to minute descriptions of combat. The descriptions of battle
wounds and death are shockingly accurate; reading them, we cannot help but
feel the bitterness of war. Since the two major characters–Hektor and
Achilleus–either die or have their death foreshadowed, a sense of futility
is also built into Homer’s chronicle. And yet, posed against the viciousness
is a sense of heroism and glory that adds a glamor to the fighting. Homer
both abhors war and glorifies it.
Against the conflicts taking place on the plain of Troy, the domestic scenes
within the city walls have a sweetness and sorrow. Along with the similes
that tell of peacetime efforts back home in Greece, these scenes serve as
contrast to the war, reminding us of what human values are destroyed by
fighting, as well as what is worth fighting for.
2. THE HEROIC CODE
The concept of heroism and the honor that results from it is one of the major
currents running through the poem. Achilleus’ struggle revolves around his
belief in an honor system opposed to Agamemnon’s royal privilege. In a way,
his struggle is one of faith: can he continue to believe in the ideals for
which he has fought so valiantly and relentlessly? If not, what values can
he hold onto? His conflict is not just with Agamemnon. War itself threatens
the very code it supports. We see fighter after fighter enter the fray in
search of honor; fighter after fighter is slain before our eyes. These men
are certainly heroes: they are strong and courageous and larger than life.
But posed against the backdrop of war, is their struggle worth the sacrifice?
3. ANGER AND RESPONSIBILITY
In the original Greek, “anger” is the word that opens the Iliad–Achilleus’
anger and the destruction it brought to the Achaians. One of the major
themes of the poem is thus Achilleus’ coming to terms with his anger. In a
broader sense, we can read this as man’s need to take responsibility for his
actions and emotions. Viewed this way, the Iliad is a poem of psychological
and emotional growth. Achilleus must learn to civilize his rage. The tragic
stake for this lesson is the death of his closest friend, Patroklos. Similar
to Achilleus’ anger is Agamemnon’s ate, the moral blindness that descends on
him and causes him impulsively to mistreat Achilleus. He, too, must learn
responsibility for his actions and apologize.
4. MORTALS AND IMMORTALS
The gods and goddesses on Olympos, all-powerful and often ridiculous, are
contrasted to the mortals, so seriously engaged on earth. The immortals are
gigantic; they live forever and have nothing to fear. Beside them, humanity
seems small, yet at the same time it gains tragic stature. Though the
mortals are puny in comparison, there is something ennobling about their
struggle to find value and moral meaning in their lives, and something heroic
in the wholehearted way they engage in their pursuit. These men, whose lives
are so clearly bounded by time and the fates, play out their destiny with
fervor and depth of feeling. It is the gods, in fact, who often seem casual
and small-minded. The Iliad shows us a human world filled with struggle and
brutality, a world nevertheless in which mortals exercise will in the face of
divine intervention–to create their lives according to their own terms of
value, to suffer existence and discover its possible meaning.
Achilleus, the son of Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, is the leader of the
Myrmidon contingent in the Trojan War. He is clearly the greatest of the
Achaian warriors, in the judgment of both friend and enemy. The very sight
of him on the battlefield is enough to send the Trojans fleeing in terror.
Part of this power comes from his divine connections (his mother, Thetis, is
a goddess), part from divine favor (at crucial points Hera and Athene look
out for him and help him). This may also be a way of telling us of the
enormous personal resources Achilleus has at his command.
Achilleus’ vast emotional and physical powers are not always at the service
of clearheadedness. Though his initial anger at Agamemnon is based on a
sense of moral justice, his rage transcends his sense of morality. His
emotions motivate him more than his thoughts, for he holds onto his fury even
after Agamemnon offers to return Briseis with an apology. At that point he
is no longer operating for a principle of fairness but is playing out his
anger and punishing his enemies. Unfortunately, his comrades must pay the
price of his passions. Not until his friend Patroklos has been sacrificed
does Achilleus realize he has held his position too long.
Yet he is a complex, vital man. There is little doubt that he is right in
taking a stand against Agamemnon’s arbitrary decisions. He is one of those
people who will fight to the death for what they believe in. Though his
anger is fierce and relentless, there is nevertheless something noble in it.
His sheer intensity demands respect. Because he is the one character
actually to undergo change, the Iliad is really his poem. He loses much
along the way but finally tempers his anger and reaches out in a gesture of
compassion and peace toward Priam. Achilleus is first in the line of great
Greek tragic heroes: his power makes him a hero, and his human blindness
makes him tragic.