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Achilles is the main character in Homer’s The Iliad translated by Robert Fagles. The Iliad is the story of the battle of Troy, in which Greek heroes fight and die, with much interference from the various gods and goddesses. The story ends when Achilles gives Hector’s body back to King Priam and Hector is buried. Homer uses a number of different literary devices to illustrate Achilles’ character development, such as his actions, what other characters say about him, and his appearance.
Throughout this epic poem, Achilles must deal with his conflict of free will versus fate.
Achilles’ first encounter with his ongoing conflict occurs in Book 1 when he is deciding whether or not to kill Agamemnon for insulting him (84). Athena almost immediately arrives and says, “Down from the skies I come to check your rage if only you will yield,” thus implying that Achilles has a choice (84). He can either obey Athena’s orders and earn more treasures in the end or he can go against her orders and suffer the consequences.
In the end, Achilles determines that it’s not a smart idea to go against godly orders and submits. Other characters do not have choices like Achilles does.
In Book 3, Aphrodite rescues Paris from Menelaus and puts him in the bedroom. Then she goes to Helen and orders her to go to bed with Paris. When Helen protests, Aphrodite becomes irritated and threatens her. This shows that Helen doesn’t have a choice, nor do the other characters, with the exception of Achilles.
Also, in Book 20, Zeus says, “If Achilles fights the Trojans—unopposed by us—not for a moment will they hold his breakneck force. Even before now they’d shake to see him coming. Now, with his rage inflamed for his friend’s death, I fear he’ll raze the walls against the will of fate.” (504). Zeus’ statement shows that Achilles is, in some ways, above fate and will destroy the Greek concept of fate unless someone interferes with his plans.
Unfortunately, although Achilles is able to have free will in some aspects, fate still triumphs over him in others. In Book 9, Achilles tells Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax what his mother has told him his fate will be. According to Thetis, Achilles can either choose to go home without glory and live to a ripe old age or he can stay to conquer Troy and earn everlasting glory, but he will not leave Troy alive (265). Consequently, Achilles is presented with two fates; however, unlike others, he is able to choose whichever fate he wants. At this point in the story, Achilles is actually considering going home; thus he is choosing to die old, but without undying glory.
This completely changes in Book 18 when Achilles learns that Patroclus has been killed by Hector. Now, Achilles will stop at nothing to get his revenge on Hector; therefore he is now choosing the fate in which he will never return home, but he gets eternal glory. Achilles’ new choice of fate is emphasized in Book 19 when Hera gives his horse the ability to speak. Roan Beauty says, “Yes! We will save your life—this time too—master, mighty Achilles! But the day of death already hovers near, and we are not to blame but a great god is and the strong force of fate…
Our team could race with the rush of the West Wind, the strongest, swiftest blast on earth, men say—still you are doomed to die by force, Achilles, cut down by a deathless god and mortal man!” (501-502). Yet another way in which Achilles is bound by fate appears in Book 22 when he is chasing Hector around Troy. Homer writes, “But once they reached the springs for the fourth time, then Father Zeus held out his sacred golden scales: in them he placed the two fates of death that lays men low—one for Achilles, one for Hector breaker of horses—and gripping the beam mid-haft the Father raised it high and down went Hector’s day of doom, dragging him down to the strong House of Death—and the god Apollo left him.” (548).
Zeus’ decision sets in stone that Achilles must be the one to kill Hector before his own death. Before Book 22, other characters had only alluded to Hector’s fate of death at the hands of Achilles. One of the main characteristics Achilles exhibits is pride. In Book 1, Achilles is insulted by Agamemnon. Achilles replies, “Staggering drunk, with your dog’s eyes, your fawn’s heart! Never once did you arm with the troops and go to battle or risk an ambush packed with Achaea’s picked men—you lack the courage, you can see death coming. Safer, by far, you find, to foray all through camp, commandeering the prize of any man who speaks against you.
King who devours his people! Worthless husks, the men you rule—if not, Atrides, this outrage would have been your last.” (85). This passage shows that Achilles is proud to battle and finds it shameful when men who claim to be the agathos, or the best, do not prove themselves in battle. In Achilles’ culture, being “good”, or arête, means that you are good at fighting. Achilles is concluding that since Agamemnon is too scared to fight like his inferiors, he must not be arête. Instead, Achilles believes that he is the agathos rather than Agamemnon, since he has proven his arête and Agamemnon has not. However, Achilles’ pride is his downfall up until the point when he learns that his brother-in-arms, Patroclus, has been killed by Hector.
The reason Achilles’ pride was his downfall is because Agamemnon would not give him the respect he deserves; therefore he refused to fight due to his pride and anger. When Patroclus is murdered, Achilles wants his revenge on Hector. Before, in Book 9, Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix are sent by Agamemnon to beg Achilles to save the Achaeans from the Trojans and Hector’s rampages. Achilles refuses to budge because his pride will not allow him to take orders from Agamemnon. He also believes that there is no hope for the Achaeans since Zeus is protecting and urging the Trojans on to victory (259-266).
Achilles could have been honorable and chose to help the Achaeans out, but his pride and anger against Agamemnon over Briseis won’t allow him to do the right thing. In fact, his pride and anger cause him to make minimal appearances throughout the middle books of The Iliad. Achilles’ pride directly relates to his ultimate conflict of fate vs. free will. His pride and lust for glory play a large part in his decisions, predominately during his choice of a long life with no glory vs. a short life with everlasting glory.
Throughout The Iliad, Homer and the other characters describe Achilles as being “god-like”. The gods in Greek culture are all powerful and immortal, but also extremely selfish like egocentric children. They typically do not care about others; they act only to protect their self-interests, such as their favorite cities and their demigod children. Achilles is selfish like the gods and goddesses. When Achilles failed to cease his anger against Agamemnon, he was protecting his own self-interests and not caring about the deaths and struggles of his Achaean allies; thus him being selfish like the gods is a weakness.
Also, part of the reason why Achilles is so selfish is because he is trying to act in a way that will prevent anyone from tarnishing his honor. Likewise, Achilles is trying to prove that he has a legitimate reason to be called the aristos more than anyone else, especially Agamemnon, who Achilles views as a disgrace for a man. On the other hand, in Book 1, Agamemnon says, “Not so quickly, brave as you are, godlike Achilles—trying to cheat me.” (81). Agamemnon is taking note of the fact that Achilles is brave like the deathless gods and goddesses who know no fear. Achilles’ bravery is also shown by the fact that he doesn’t back down from a fight, not even if it’s against a god, like when he battles the river god Scamander in Book 21.
Achilles’ bravery certainly benefits him during the Trojan War, and probably earlier wars too, because he was the only mortal man who wasn’t afraid to stand up to Hector, or anyone else for that matter. Another way in which Achilles is godlike is his appearance and strength. In Book 21, Achilles is talking to King Priam’s son, Lycaon, just before he kills him. He says, “Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you. And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am? The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you, death and the strong force of fate are waiting.” (523).
Here, Achilles is noting that he is as attractive as a god. The fact that Achilles isn’t like other mortals because he can do certain things that only gods and goddesses can do is yet another way in which Achilles can be described as being godlike. Agenor says in Book 21 that “Achilles is far too strong for any man on earth.” (538). In Book 16, Homer says, “And Achilles’ only weapon Patroclus did not take was the great man’s spear, weighted, heavy, tough. No other Achaean fighter could heft that shaft, only Achilles had the skill to wield it well: Pelian ash it was, a gift to his father Peleus presented by Chiron once, hewn on Pelion’s crest to be the death of heroes.” (417). Homer’s words emphasize the fact that Achilles has the strength of the immortal gods.
Furthermore, in Book 10, Odysseus and Diomedes have just captured the Trojan spy Dolon and are talking with him. Odysseus says, “By god, what heroic gifts you set your heart on—the great Achilles’ team! They’re hard for mortal men to curb or drive, for all but Achilles—his mother is immortal.”, again showing that Achilles has strength greater than that of any mortal man (290). One of Achilles’ most obvious characters traits is his defiance and opposition to orders. In Book 1, Achilles says to Agamemnon, “What a worthless, burnt-out coward I’d be called if I would submit to you and all your orders, whatever you blurt out.
Fling them at others, don’t give me commands! Never again, I trust, will Achilles yield to you.” (87). Achilles’ dialogue is a classic example of the fact that the most important thing to Achilles is his honor and thus he strives to prove that he, above all other men, is the agathos. Although Achilles has a few character flaws that ultimately influence his fate, he can still be called honorable in a sense. In Book 1, the seer Calchas tells Achilles that if he reveals Apollo’s prophecy, he will anger a very powerful Achaean. Achilles reassures him, “Courage! Out with it now, Calchas. Reveal the will of god, whatever you may know.
And I swear by Apollo, dear to Zeus, the power you pray to, Calchas, when you reveal the god’s will to the Argives—no one, not while I’m alive and see the light on earth, no one will lay his heavy hands on you by the hollow ships. None among all the armies. Not even if you mean Agamemnon here who now claims to be, by far, the best of the Achaeans.” (80). Achilles has now sworn to protect Calchas from anyone who may try to harm him as a result of Apollo’s prophecy; thus Achilles is demonstrating honor.
Even when Agamemnon becomes angry with Calchas for the prophecy, Achilles defends Calchas to the end, which in turn creates the extensive conflict between him and Agamemnon. Achilles’ actions prove that he is a man who keeps his word; therefore he is honorable by modern-day standards. Achilles’ trait of honor is a strength that works to his advantage and certainly influences his outcome of his definitive battle of fate versus free will. Achilles’ battle of free will versus fate is the central conflict of The Iliad.
The many character traits that Homer makes apparent throughout the narrative ultimately influence Achilles’ actions and choices. Homer just doesn’t base Achilles’ personality traits on his actions. Rather, what other characters say about him gives the reader a clear understanding of who Achilles is and what his motivations are all the way through. Furthermore, Homer has proven that Achilles truly is the agathos.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 1998. Print.
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