I finished Book Nine of The Iliad last evening. What a significant chapter. One that, I think, really gets to the heart of what The Iliad is really about.
This book is titled The Embassy to Achilles and it covers the moment when Agamemnon sends his most trusted advisors to broker a treaty with Achilles. At this point, the Achaeans have been fighting pretty seriously for quite some time in the renewed battle and they are exhausted. Achilles has been nursing his rage and wounded pride in his tents. The Achaeans really need him. And Agamemnon comes out with an offer that seems pretty fair. He’s not only willing to give back what he unjustly took from Achilles, he’s willing to bestow a myriad of other gifts as well. In essence, he’s agreeing to magnify Achilles’s kleos to a significant degree.
It was the loss of this kleos that we are meant to believe is the whole reason why Achilles has been abstaining from the war. Except in this chapter he refuses Agamemnon’s offer and admits to a more troubling reason altogether:
Mother tells me / the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet / that two fates bear me on to the day of death. / If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, / my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. / If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, / my pride, my glory dies… / true, but the life that’s left me will be long, / the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.
What a decision Achilles has to make. Long life and no glory or accept that a glorifying death will come to him soon and he’ll be revered as one of the greatest fighters of all time. I know that Achilles will eventually be impelled to join the fighting when he loses his friend Patrocles, but I find his hesitancy and his fear in these chapters quite touching. Who wouldn’t stop a moment and really think about how to proceed? He hasn’t seen his homeland in nearly ten years, it seems natural to me that he might be more than a little homesick. And that he might kindof prefer the idea of a quiet death surrounded by his loved ones.
Achilles is a fascinating character because he’s half god and half human. I think The Iliad makes a careful exploration of this idea by rendering him more human as the story gains momentum. Wrath – which removes him from his fellow soldiers, is such a god-like emotion. Fear – which keeps him away, is much more human. And grief – which will eventually drive him right back into the thick of the fighting, is even more so.