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In Homer's "The Iliad," translated by Robert Fagles, the central character is Achilles. This ancient Greek epic narrates the events of the Trojan War, where Greek heroes engage in battle, face divine interventions from various gods and goddesses, and meet their destinies. The narrative reaches its conclusion when Achilles returns Hector's body to King Priam for a proper burial. Throughout this epic, Homer employs various literary devices, including Achilles' actions, the perceptions of other characters, and his physical attributes to elucidate his character development.
However, the central theme that pervades the story is Achilles' enduring inner conflict between the exercise of free will and the inexorable influence of fate.
Achilles' initial encounter with his ongoing internal struggle occurs in Book 1 when he contemplates whether to exact revenge on Agamemnon for insulting him (Fagles, 84). Athena promptly intervenes, urging Achilles to quell his anger, implying that he has the agency to make a choice. Athena's presence underscores Achilles' unique position, as he possesses the ability to determine his course of action.
He can either comply with Athena's counsel, potentially earning more rewards, or defy divine directives and confront the consequences. Ultimately, Achilles recognizes the imprudence of opposing divine orders and yields. It is important to note that other characters within the narrative lack such autonomy and choices.
Book 3 offers a stark contrast to Achilles' exercise of free will when Aphrodite rescues Paris from Menelaus and compels Helen to join Paris in the bedroom. This coercion highlights the absence of free will in the lives of many characters within the epic, with Achilles being a notable exception.
Similarly, in Book 20, Zeus expresses concern that Achilles, driven by his wrath over Patroclus' death, may single-handedly bring down the walls of Troy, defying the very concept of fate (Fagles, 504). Zeus' apprehension underscores Achilles' unique ability to challenge destiny unless external factors intervene.
Although Achilles enjoys moments of free will, fate ultimately prevails over him in crucial junctures of the narrative. In Book 9, Achilles discloses the two divergent destinies foretold by his mother, Thetis. He faces the choice between returning home, living a long life bereft of glory, or remaining to conquer Troy and securing everlasting renown, knowing he will never leave the city alive (Fagles, 265). Thus, Achilles confronts two distinct fates, a privilege not granted to most characters in the story. At this juncture, Achilles is inclined to choose a long life devoid of undying glory, indicating his willingness to forsake the prospect of eternal renown.
However, a pivotal shift occurs in Book 18 when Achilles learns of Patroclus' death at the hands of Hector. Determined to avenge his friend, Achilles abandons the path of returning home and instead embraces the fate that promises everlasting glory. This decision becomes even more pronounced in Book 19 when Hera grants Achilles' horse the power of speech. Roan Beauty's words affirm Achilles' chosen fate: "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" (Fagles, 501-502). Achilles, now resolute in his course, refuses to return home, opting for a destiny marked by eternal fame.
This transformation reaches its climax in Book 22 as Achilles relentlessly pursues Hector around Troy. Zeus, the chief deity, intercedes by holding the scales of fate, definitively selecting Achilles as Hector's executioner. The deific decision leaves no room for doubt; Achilles must fulfill this destiny, cementing the irrevocable interplay between his free will and fate (Fagles, 548).
One of Achilles' most defining traits is his overwhelming pride, which significantly influences his actions and decisions throughout the epic. In Book 1, Achilles is provoked by Agamemnon's insult, responding with a scathing rebuke. He chastises Agamemnon for his perceived lack of bravery, alleging that he never personally participates in battles but instead commands from the rear. Achilles believes that true courage lies in direct engagement with the enemy. He ardently defends his own valor, proclaiming himself the superior warrior and asserting that Agamemnon's actions are a disgrace to his leadership (Fagles, 85).
This passage illustrates Achilles' unwavering pride in his combat abilities and his commitment to the principles of arête, the concept of excellence highly esteemed in ancient Greek culture. To Achilles, achieving arête is synonymous with demonstrating prowess in battle. His pride propels him to maintain this reputation, leading to significant conflicts with other characters, particularly Agamemnon.
Achilles' pride becomes a critical factor in his initial refusal to participate in the Trojan War following his dispute with Agamemnon. In Book 9, Agamemnon dispatches Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax to implore Achilles' aid in rescuing the Achaeans from the Trojans. However, Achilles remains obstinate, driven by his pride and his belief that Zeus favors the Trojans, rendering any rescue mission futile (Fagles, 259-266). Although he could have acted honorably and aided his compatriots, his pride and anger towards Agamemnon outweigh his sense of duty.
This period of inaction, fueled by his pride, marks a notable absence of Achilles from many events in the middle sections of "The Iliad." His pride and refusal to acquiesce to Agamemnon's authority become a significant barrier to his own personal growth and the collective success of the Greek forces.
Throughout "The Iliad," Achilles is consistently described as "god-like" due to his exceptional qualities. This designation parallels him with the deities themselves, attributing him with divine characteristics. Similar to the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology, Achilles exhibits remarkable self-interest, reflecting their egocentric nature.
One instance of Achilles' godlike attributes is evident in his confrontation with the river god Scamander in Book 21. Despite facing a god, Achilles does not back down from the battle, displaying the same fearlessness as the deathless deities (Fagles, 21). His audacity, in this case, arises from his unwavering belief in his own exceptional abilities, a trait shared with the gods.
Achilles' godlike physical appearance is another characteristic emphasized in the narrative. In Book 21, during a conversation with King Priam's son, Lycaon, Achilles draws attention to his extraordinary beauty and strength. He cites his divine lineage and the immortal goddess who birthed him, further emphasizing his divine connection (Fagles, 523).
Additionally, other characters in "The Iliad" frequently acknowledge Achilles' unparalleled strength and prowess. Agenor concedes in Book 21, "Achilles is far too strong for any man on earth" (Fagles, 538). In Book 16, Homer underscores Achilles' exceptional abilities by describing his mastery of wielding a unique and formidable spear, emphasizing that only he possesses the skill to do so (Fagles, 417). These instances serve to underscore Achilles' godlike attributes, which set him apart from ordinary mortals.
Achilles' character is notably characterized by his defiance and resistance to obeying orders. His unwavering pride and determination to uphold his honor prevent him from yielding to the directives of others. In Book 1, Achilles adamantly refuses Agamemnon's commands, denouncing his leadership and asserting his own prowess (Fagles, 87). This act exemplifies his commitment to preserving his honor and reputation.
When confronted with Apollo's prophecy in Book 1, Achilles assures Calchas that he will protect him from harm, vowing that no one will lay a hand on him among the Achaean ranks (Fagles, 80). This steadfast defense of Calchas demonstrates Achilles' sense of honor and his commitment to keeping his word, showcasing a form of modern-day honor.
However, his pride and inflexibility hinder his willingness to cooperate, leading to prolonged conflicts within the Achaean camp. His refusal to participate in the war due to his dispute with Agamemnon leaves the Greeks without their greatest warrior, adversely affecting their chances in the Trojan War.
Achilles' character development in "The Iliad" revolves around the complex interplay between free will and fate. His unique ability to exercise free will, despite the overwhelming force of fate, underscores his pivotal role in the epic. Achilles' pride and sense of honor, while defining his character, also contribute to conflicts and consequences throughout the narrative.
His godlike attributes, both physical and behavioral, set him apart from ordinary mortals and align him with the deities. Ultimately, Achilles' defiance, pride, and pursuit of honor culminate in a character who grapples with the eternal conflict of fate versus free will, making him a central and enduring figure in the epic tradition.
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