The term doppleganger was first associated with the writer of fantastic tales E. T. A. Hoffmann and suggests that people can have two different and conflicting personalities or selves. Robert Louis Stevenson's (1850-1894) THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886) illustrates the traditional "doppleganger" as a fantastic apparition, uncharted and infernal, hidden behind everyday appearances. The story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has become an icon of popular culture and adapted into twenty different films. The existence of a double personality and metamorphosis appealed strongly to Victorian readers, if only because of the references to Darwinism and colonial control of a non-white world.
The source of such a striking metamorphosis (where an anguish of death dominates and horrific vengeance is carried out with extraordinary intensity) is Homer's tragic hero Achilles.
"The Best of the Achaeans"
In Robert Fagles' translation of the Iliad, Achilles' father Peleus says to his son leaving for war: "Now always be the best, my boy, the bravest/ and hold your head up high above the others." Achilles is the central figure in this epic poem; his essence represents the duality between human excellence and human savagery, the "Best and Beast."
How is Achilles the Best of the Achaeans?
- The Swiftest Warrior--common epithet throughout the poem, as in Book 2, 785.
- The most beautiful Warrior--Book 2, 769-770.
- The youngest Warrior and the shortest-lived. In Book 1, 496-97, Thetis will lament the reality of her son at war: "Doomed to a short life . . . filled with heartbreak too."
- Achilles the healer: within warrior society the healer is celebrated, Book 11, 606-607. Achilles as the "best" includes his ability to heal (Book 11, 990-995). The healer motif illuminates the duality of Achilles: Patroclus tells Nestor: "Well you know, old soldier loved by gods/ the sort of man he is--the great and terrible man" (Book 11, 773-774). The healer (anima, the giver of life) is the antithesis of the warrior's act of inflicting wounds (animus, the soldier of death). Achilles, as the best, represents a balance between his status as a great warrior and his status as a cultural icon of civility, hospitality, and medicinal knowledge.
- Achilles as a singer: When the three ambassadors reach Achilles' tent, he is playing the lyre and "singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes" (Book 9, 223-228). The only other warrior in all of the Iliad to touch the lyre is the Trojan, Paris. This gentle-like quality is also exemplified in the story where Thetis, Achilles' mother, hides her son (disguised as a women) among the daughters of Lykomedes so that he could escape sailing for Troy with Agamemnon and the Greek armies. Odysseus will discover Achilles' true identity by offering him/her a choice between women's clothing and a suit of armor. Achilles gives himself away because he is more attracted to the garments of War. Achilles (in drag) is the opposite of manly behavior, but the story may also allude to Achilles' humanity that will be stripped away by a war gone awry.
Professor Howard Wolman tells a story that offers personal insight into the sadness of the Vietnam era. He discusses Jonathan Shay's insightful book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. These two scholars suggest that the experience of Achilles in the Trojan War is analogous to the experience of the fighting man in Vietnam, demonstrating what happens to warriors when leadership and purpose fail to reinforce "What is Right." War profoundly affects people as William Broyles makes evident in his essay, "Why Men Love War," (Esquire magazine, November 1984). According to Wolman and Shay, a lack of leadership during wartime can compound and accelerate human brutality. Across the vast distances of time, Homer's epic poem, it seems, continues to sing the unsavory truth of our capacity for immorality in times of chaos and decline.
"The Beast of the Achaeans"
There is only one journey. Going inside yourself.
--Rainer Maria Rilke
When Patroclus dies, Achilles will move beyond the realm of simile--the trope that Homer commonly uses to describe the ferocity of warriors--into the realm of pure metaphor where Achilles no longer is like a lion. He actually becomes the lion. The raging beast Achilles says to Hector before the final duel of the poem: "There are no binding oaths between man and lions" (Book 22, line 310).
Three ways of viewing Achilles as the beast:
- Further isolation from humanity. In Greek culture, the anesthetics of the banquet exemplify Xenia or hospitality; the serving and eating of food together among comrades establishes the warrior's connection to his society. In Book 9, Achilles will demonstrate his knowledge of Xenia by welcoming Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax into his tent and serving them a great feast. After the death of Patroclus, Achilles will refuse to eat with the other Greek warriors, which demonstrates the dissonance between Achilles and all other mortal men. In Book 24, Achilles will eat supper with King Priam and therein symbolically affirm his return to humanity.
- Extremes--Achillean behavior is defined by the extremes of brutality and overwhelming power (Book 20, 563-569). This description of Achilles in his chariot is synonymous to the description of Poseidon riding to war in his chariot, Book 13, 32-33.
- Increasingly demonic, not merely human, and therefore it becomes difficult to apply ordinary standards (the heroic code) to Achilles. We move into the realm of transcendence where Achilles becomes the carnage of war personified.
Book 21: Achilles battles the river Scamander. After the similes of the forest fire (Book 20, 554-57) and threshing oxen (558-562), half the Trojans escape over the plain while Achilles drives the other half in to the river and plunges in after them to wreak havoc with his sword. Achilles speaks like the angel of death; death only is purity--the scene with Lycaon, Book 21, 120-149. The river takes the shape of a man and rises up: "Stop Achilles! Greater than any man on earth, greater in outrage too--" (240-241). The river echoes the duality of Achilles. When the river fights it does so as a river; unparalleled elsewhere in the poem, moving into a pure symbolism of the horror Achilles evokes: "I'm choked with corpses and still you slaughter more/ you blot out more . . . I am filled with horror!"(248-50).
Book 23: Achilles slaughters four massive stallions and heaves them on Patroclus' funeral pyre; he slits the throats of two loyal dogs and throws their bodies on the pyre. With his bronze sword, Achilles hacks to pieces a dozen young sons of Trojans and throws them on the pyre. This bloody sacrifice fails to qualm his restless heart. He continues to pace inside his tent unable to sleep; in the fury of that night, grieving without satisfaction, he hitches his mighty steeds once again to his chariot and drags Hector's body three times around Patroclus' funeral pyre.
Book 23 (210-211): Achilles will defile Hector's body until the gods, at Apollo's bidding, become outraged. Achilles says, "Hector/ I will never give to the hungry flames--/wild dogs will bolt his flesh!"
In Book 24, Achilles will ransom Hector's body to King Priam, which figuratively restores Achilles' human dignity.
I would like to acknowledge the scholarly work of Katherine Callen King. Her text Achilles : Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages was the first impetus behind my exploration of Achilles as the Best and the Beast.