Book 9--The Embassy to Achilles

Achilles will not take Agamemnon's incredible gifts. One explanation is that Achilles sees clearly; he knows he is being asked to submit to Agamemnon--the gifts are merely a bribe. Yet something is awry. If Homeric heroes in the Iliad are capable of change, capable of inward reflection, Achilles is not among them. He is a strange figure, magical, with divine armor, talking horses, and a sea-goddess as a mother. Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax try to move him toward human compassion, toward a life where important decisions are based on social relationships. But unlike Hector, his decisions are a blatantly antisocial--he simply acts directly.

How do we explain the gulf between his three friends' perceptions of what Achilles should do and what he actually does? His conduct, at best, brings him into complete conflict with the entire Greek community. His pact with his mother Thetis, to have Zeus bring destruction down upon the Greeks, is no longer a secret stratagem. Achilles reaffirms his wrath now as public knowledge. And he extends the destruction, for no longer are the gods exactly to blame for the havoc that will befall the Greek army; Achilles himself has taken the very essence of wrath into his own hands. No longer is his rage exactly the same. He cuts himself off from all humanity. The social dimension seems absolutely irrelevant to this warrior's sense of the situation. And this fact leads many readers to condemn Achilles, for at this moment he moves outside the margins of ethical and communal definitions of a hero. Yet he is not so easily categorized as remorseless; he seems to relent his rage (on one level) when he tells his three friends that he will no longer sail away from Troy but wait at his ships in defense. His wrath quells again when he agrees to let Patroclus venture into the fighting wearing his armor. However, when Patroclus dies in battle, Achilles responds in the same characteristic way, forgetting the quarrel with Agamemnon to become totally consumed in his quest for vengeance against Hector and the Trojans. At this point his rage is completely alien. As a hermetic beast, he moves relentlessly down the pathway of vicious destruction that no other warrior can legitimately follow. Achilles becomes war personified and the death of Hector becomes the pathos of the poem.