Oct 042014

From the introduction, Robert Fagles translation:

“The whole poem has been moving toward this duel between the two champions, but there has never been any doubt the outcome. The husband and father, the beloved protector of his people, the man who stands for the civilized values of the rich city, its social and religious institutions, will go down to defeat at the hands of this man who has no family, who in a private quarrel has caused the death of many of his own fellow soldiers, who now in a private quarrel thinks only of revenge, though that revenge, as he well knows, is the immediate prelude to his own death. And the death of Hector seals the fate of Troy; it will fall to the Acheans, to become the pattern for all time of the death of a city. The images of that night assault – the blazing palaces, the blood running in the streets, old King Priam butchered at the altar, Cassandra raped in the temple, Hector’s baby son thrown from the battlements, his wife Andromache dragged off to slavery – all this, foreshadowed in the Iliad, will be stamped indelibly on the consciousness of the Greeks throughout their history, immortalized in lyric poetry, in tragedy, on temple pediments and painted vases, to reinforce the stern lesson of Homer’s presentation of the war: that no civilization, no matter how rich, no matter how refined, can long survive once it loses the power to meet force with equal or superior force.”

Elsewhere it has been argued that the Illiad is not just an epic, but a tragedy, perhaps the first. Case in point, “The Embassy to Achilles,” book 9. The Acheans beg Achilles to return to the fight. Achilles knows his fate is to die in battle and live forevermore in glory and fame. But he seems torn by this fateful trade-off and instead of acquiescing to their pleas for him to return to battle, he gives a powerful soliloquy that challenges the very ethos at the core of Greek hero worship. He is responding to Odysseus, who has been sent by King Agamemnon who stole Achilles’ slave girl whom he loved, this act mirroring the central act of the war: the kidnapping of Helen.

Odysseus has brought Agememnon’s offer: a long list of booty and treasure worthy of a king (including seven brides to compensate for his lost love). Odysseus delivers the offer and implores Achilles to return to battle and bring with him, victory over the Trojans:

“…they will honor you, honor you like a god.
Think of the glory you will gather in their eyes!
Now you can kill Hector – seized with murderous frenzy,
certain there’s not a single fighter his equal,
no Achean brought to Troy in the ships –
now, for once, you can meet the man head-on!”

The famous runner Achilles rose to his challenge:
“Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, great tactician …
I must say what I have to say straight out,
must tell you how I feel and how all this will end –
so you won’t crowd around me, one after another,
coaxing like a murmuring clutch of doves.
I hate that man like the very Gates of Death
who says one thing but hides another in his heart.
I will say it outright. That seems best to me.
Will Agememnon win me over? Not for all the world,
nor will all the rest of Achaea’s armies.
No, what lasting thanks in the long run
for warring with our enemies, on and on, no end?
One and the same lot for the man who hangs back
and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits
for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death,
the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion.
And what’s laid up for me, what pittance? Nothing –
and after suffering hardships, year in, year out,
staking my life on the mortal risks of war.

…Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay seige to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies …
true, but the life that’s left me will be long,
the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

One thing more. To the rest I’d pass on this advice:
sail home now! You will never set your eyes
on the day of doom that topples looming Troy.
Thundering Zeus has spread his hands above her –
her armies have taken heart!” (Robert Fagles translation)

(Another version of this scene in verse):

Cursed is the man, and void of law and right,
Unworthy property, unworthy light,
Unfit for public rule, or private care,
That wretch, that monster, who delights in war;
Whose lust is murder, and whose horrid joy,
To tear his country, and his kind destroy

Long toils, long perils in their cause I bore,
But now the unfruitful glories charm no more.
Fight or not fight, a like reward we claim,
The wretch and hero find their prize the same.
Alike regretted in the dust he lies,
Who yields ignobly, or who bravely dies.
Of all my dangers, all my glorious pains,
A life of labours, lo! what fruit remains?

But what’s the quarrel, then, of Greece to Troy?
What to these shores the assembled nations draws,
What calls for vengeance but a woman’s cause?

Tell him, all terms, all commerce I decline,
Nor share his council, nor his battle join;
For once deceiv’d, was his; but twice were mine,
No—let the stupid prince, whom Jove deprives
Of sense and justice, run where frenzy drives;
His gifts are hateful: kings of such a kind
Stand but as slaves before a noble mind

My fates long since by Thetis were disclosed,
And each alternate, life or fame, proposed;
Here, if I stay, before the Trojan town,
Short is my date, but deathless my renown:
If I return, I quit immortal praise
For years on years, and long-extended days.
Convinced, though late, I find my fond mistake,
And warn the Greeks the wiser choice to make;
To quit these shores, their native seats enjoy,
Nor hope the fall of heaven-defended Troy.

Add to this the passage in book 11 of The Odyssey when Tiresias takes Odysseus into the underworld where he meets his friends and family. His encounter with Achilles is revealing:

The ghost of the splendid runner knew me at once
and hailed me with a flight of mournful questions:
‘Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of tactics,
reckless friend, what next?
What greater feat can that cunning head contrive?
What daring brought you down to the House of Death? –
where the senseless, burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home.’

The voice of his spirit paused, and I was quick to answer:
‘Achilles, son of Peleus, greatest of the Acheans,
I had to consult with Tiresias, driven here by hopes
he would help me journey home to rocky Ithica.
Never yet have I neared Achea, never once
set foot on native ground …
my life is endless trouble.

But you, Achilles,
there’s not a man in the world more blest than you –
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.’

I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –
than rule down here over all the breathless dead. (Robert Fagles translation)

Achilles then goes on, breathlessly, to ask Odysseus news of his son, his friends and family.

The story is not a celebration of Achilles and the glories of war. To read it as such is to mis-read the story badly. This is a Greek Tragedy par excellence. The great city fated to destruction, the great warrior, destroyer of civilization, fated to hell.

 Posted by at 12:59 pm

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