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Friday, February 27, 2009

HOMER: The Iliad (Books 21-24)

As The Iliad starts winding down we come full circle to where the story began: the anger of Achilles. In Book 21 Achilles has basically gone berserk over the death of Patroclus and starts slaughtering the Trojans right and left. In fact he kills so many Trojans that the river Scamander becomes polluted red with blood. And Homer says “he would have killed even more, if the river god hadn’t gotten angry and taken on human form…” Then the river says to Achilles “if Zeus has given you the power to destroy all the Trojans, at least drive them out of my stream and do your grim work on land. My clear waters are now filled with corpses and I can’t find any channel to pour myself into the sea for I am choked with the dead, and yet you go on killing mercilessly.”

At this point there’s no reasoning with Achilles. He’s out of control. When he finally comes upon Hector he has become inhuman with rage. Homer is exploring the idea of what it means to be a fully functioning human being. Before they begin fighting Hector offers a request to Achilles: if I kill you I will return your body to the Greeks; if you kill me you will return my body to my parents. Hector’s request isn’t the result of rage from the heat of battle. It’s one human being speaking to another human being to determine a basic level of human decency. Achilles will have no part of it. Instead, when he kills Hector he desecrates Hector’s body. Achilles has chosen to stand outside the circle of human affections and emotions. His rage has driven him to a state of mind that Aristotle once described as a place for “either a beast or a god” but not a human being.

It’s only after the funeral of Patroclus that Achilles comes back down to earth. It isn’t easy for him to do that. His goddess/mother Thetis says “My son, how long will you keep on grieving and moaning? You’re gnawing at your own heart and don’t think about food or sleeping with a woman; and yet…Death is already near.” In other words, act human. Finally Achilles is able to get over his anger and once again return to a calmer state of mind. But it’s too late. The damage is done and Achilles will soon be killed too. It was fated that if Achilles killed Hector then Achilles own death would soon follow. Achilles knew this but in his rage he didn’t care what happened to him as long as he got revenge. This is an old story. It’s the dilemma of the human condition and there are lots of people in prisons because they can’t control their anger. Lives have been ruined because of this lack of self control. One of the reasons this poem still resonates with readers is because they recognize these traits either within themselves or in other people they know. The anger of Achilles and the pride and arrogance of Agamemnon are still with us. They’re just acted out in different people this time.

Question: what is The Iliad about? Answer: it’s all about Achilles. Were the Greeks noble for trying to rescue Helen? Maybe. Were they just a bunch of pirates out for plunder? That’s possible. But the war is really just a sideshow. The main story’s all about Achilles. But in a larger sense it’s about us too. Achilles isn’t the only one who’s ever had to deal with anger. We all do. Agamemnon isn’t the only person who’s ever acted badly. We all have. Hector isn’t the only parent who’s ever had to defend his family. Parents still do it all the time. Priam isn’t the only father who’s lost a son. Life is hard sometimes and the poet in Homer shows readers just how hard it is to be fully human.


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