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Encountering Achilles

Further Thoughts on Parables, Fables, Stories, and Tales

Many literary images have taken up residence in my life: laughing Lucy tossed into the air, safely caught by Aslan’s velvety paws; a gaunt Hamlet confronting a weird, haunting specter; the lovely Scheherazade, spinning a thousand tales for the Persian Šāhe Šāhān (King of Kings); a slave boy, answering questions posed by a curious man drawing figures in the sand; Margaret’s tears gently falling upon a golden carpet of leaves . . .

But there is one that is among the stickiest: a great warrior, once immersed in terrible wretchedness, transformed into a majestic vision. Imagine him as he girds himself in magnificent god-wrought armor. Watch as he lifts a massive, stunning shield which glimmers so radiantly it’s as though it were a bright moon casting a piloting light from afar. The picture is dazzling.

Are not such luminaries guiding lights? Are they not beacons to men who are floundering? Does not this combatant, when he dons his armor and lifts this shield, morph from a miserable man among wretched men into a luminary shepherd who “shines like the sun” for his people in the Iliad?

What man could be worthy to wear such armor and to carry a shield that spreads such light?

The man is, of course, Achilles. Yet here most contemporary readers of the Iliad encounter a conundrum: How can the worthy one be this belligerent warrior, wrapped in wounded self-pity . . . this man who sits by, requesting and then relishing the routing of his countrymen? How can it possibly be this man who engulfs himself in anger-induced ennui? How is it this man who throws his beloved friend, Patroklus, into the deadly fray to die rather than bend his will in the mission for restitution of his honor? How is this the man who is entitled to wield such a beacon?

These are the questions my students and I have wrestled with — the same ones I struggled with among my peers when I read the Iliad as a student for the first time years ago. For many, it isn’t the Achaean champion who is laudable, but rather the Trojan prince Hektor. Some might suggest that Homer is turning the Greek ideal of the hero on its head by providing this contrast between Hektor — whom we admire as a man who sacrifices himself for his family, community, and culture — and Achilles, who frequently seems an unfit “ideal” as he nurtures his aggrieved narcissism. Rachel Bespaloff, in her essay On the Iliad, seems to embrace this view when she writes, “For Hector, love is the forgetfulness of self. For Achilles, self is at the center of love. We, as offspring of the centuries that followed Homer and included the Incarnation, quickly perceive and acknowledge the value of Hektor’s character.

If Achilles’ claim to fame is his capacity for being ego-wounded and bloodthirsty, how is this a humane ideal?

The brilliance of Homer, which Alexander Pope described in the preface to his translation of the Iliad as a “poetic fire that burns everywhere clearly and everywhere irresistibly,” may indeed be suggesting such a thing at the same time as he holds up the Greek vision of heroism in Achilles. But it’s an inescapable truth that the poem is about the Greek ideal. Achilles is offered up as the paragon of ancient Greek culture. Is it not, in fact, the Iliad that is responsible for bequeathing this vision of the Greek ideal to us in the first place?

Many readers of the Iliad acknowledge Achilles as its hero, but do so simply because he is impressive physically and a warrior beyond compare. We can accept this — suspending disbelief if you will — but we struggle to grasp it fully because we have trouble seeing Achilles as praiseworthy. My students complain that Achilles is petulant, self-absorbed, callous, and vengefully willful. If his claim to fame is his capacity for being ego-wounded and bloodthirsty, how is this a humane ideal?

Why, then, do we continue to be drawn to Achilles in Homer’s epic? It’s an incredible — some would say unparalleled — work of poetry in scope, depth, and skill, but why is this hero compelling to us at all? What might Achilles, this ancient neighbor of ours, have to show us about ourselves when he embodies such a startling portrait of the Ideal Man?

Here are the hallmarks of a sticky saying, a story in which something is certainly lurking behind the scenes. This man, whom we in the 21st century struggle to perceive as ideal, is given incomparable armor and shield. It’s war gear that lights the way for others. Not only do the first lines of the poem give preeminence to this man and his wrath, but this man is the one to lift this shield as an exemplar to all.

To seek sunlight in this tale, to catch a glimpse of how Achilles is the one who is entitled to bear the shield, we must first appreciate the source of the light: the shield itself. But before we begin, let’s remember C.S. Lewis’ advice to us in An Experiment in Criticism: “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way . . . ” Let’s remind ourselves that we are stepping into a pre-Incarnation world, where our presumptive ways of perceiving what’s around us need to be put on hold so that we’re better able to recognize the truths to be found.

As readers of this remarkable work, we will read best when we look carefully, patiently, and perhaps even lovingly, at it as we encounter its hero.

Fittingly, the shield itself is parable-like, intriguing because it’s glorious but puzzling in its opposing depictions. It’s a “story within a story.” Its ekphrastic rhetorical form verbally describes a visual artifact which constitutes a sweeping articulation of all of mankind and the creation in which we live, work, love, fight, and perish. Through a dialectical dance of thesis and antithesis the images, as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing put it, portray “the very essence of all that had happened in the world by means of but a few pictures.” I won’t describe all the images on the shield, for the poet expresses it far better than I could ever dream of summarizing it. Suffice it to say that the shield illustrates the scope of man’s experience within creation: “the mass and majesty of this world” as Auden gives a nod to it in his poem, The Shield of Achilles . . . The tragedies and celebrations, the cities and fields, the domesticated and wild, the peace and war, the living and dying.

Note the interplay of opposites that poignantly reveals the excruciating fragility, beauty, and ambiguity of human life. Then notice that this passage is an exquisite synthesis of the arts: The shield itself is a created artifact; it is then described through Homer’s masterful verse; and within the images of the shield there appear depictions of artistic techne and music. The shield which Achilles carries into battle artistically represents all of mankind in virtually every way.

The position of the shield within the narrative is pivotal, further highlighting its significance. The presentation of this protective gear to Achilles is a rite of passage: the point at which Achilles bursts out of the cocoon of his wrath to incarnate the reality of his rage. This moment is the catalyst that brings about the climax of the story. However perplexing this may be to us in the 21st century, this event lifts Achilles from hero to the Greek Ideal Man.

The story of Achilles’s wrath ends with the raising of the shield because there is now only one possible conclusion: the annihilation of Hektor and the utter destruction of Troy. Furthermore, the tension of Achilles’s internal turmoil is simultaneously dissolved; his fate is sealed. His name and the ideal are now forever linked, echoing down through the centuries.

Shields in general were intimately connected with an ancient soldier’s identity. The carrier of a shield had it emblazoned with depictions that meant something to him personally. Shields were also related to valor; the soldier carried a shield as he confronted danger and death, and it stood for who he was and what he represented. Shields were intimately intertwined with an individual soldier’s honor: his name, his family, tribe, or legion. The shield symbolized his nature as a warrior. It’s surely no accident that Homer associates one of the most striking images of Achilles with his armor and this shield.

This armor and shield are also of special significance for Achilles because they replace those which were an inheritance of great value from his father, lost to Hektor through conquest of Patroklus. The masterpiece created by Hephaistos is intended to be “renowned and radiant” but is, in addition, necessary; Thetis tells Achilles in no uncertain terms that he is not to go into battle without it but must wait to receive it. Hephaistos says his gift will be a thing of wonder, and Thetis claims it will be like no other. When it’s completed, it’s obvious that this war raiment is fearful, for even among the Myrmidons none has the courage to look at it. Achilles’ anger is inflamed at the sight of it, and gazing at it satisfies his raging heart. The shield glimmers with light as from the moon, and when Achilles puts on the armor, the splendid, protective covering becomes “as wings” to uphold him. This armor and shield are the incarnational symbols of what Achilles desires the most: to “shine like the sun.”

These armaments provide Achilles with exactly what he wants: Achilles aches to be clothed in glory.

Here we come to the place where we see Achilles as the Ideal Man in that he is a “representative man” for all of us: He embodies the part of us that thirsts for glory. Isn’t it possible that when we hold up this ancient mirror, we see some immutable parts of mankind in general? If we are honest with ourselves, we admit we see Achilles — to varying degrees, perhaps — reflected in the glass. Do we not see in ourselves Achilles’ desire to be center stage, to shine? Can we not identify in us the craving to be worthy of admiration? What else is “success” for most of us if not someplace that we arrive at where we will be recognized and affirmed, where we will be viewed as having a life worthy of being lived, deserving of accolades and honor? Not to mention the horror we have of death and our desire for eternal life?

We can relate to Achilles as he fiercely reaches out to grasp even the barest reflection of eternal honor: the immortal glory of his name. Walk with me further, next time, as we continue our encounter with Homer’s Achilles who gazes back at us in the mirror.

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