The Glorious Death of Achilles
While Achilles as an epic hero possesses all the characteristics that made him noble including other characteristics that lead to his downfall such as pride and wrath, still these contribute for him to attain a death that is noble and glorious for the sake of comradeship and loyalty, all for Patroclus.
An epic is genre in literature that revolves its plot on heroism such as the lives of Achilles, Odysseus, and Beowulf. As a matter of fact, the history of the epic is traceable to the so called “Heroic Age” as a repository of the wars that has taken place in history. Since the epic is usually set in the heroic age, an epic is known to have given birth to the notion of an epic hero or otherwise known as the tragic hero in literature (Abercrombie 11).
The term epic hero, in general, refers to a person with a superior social status, most often a king or a leader. His physical attributes are usually tall, handsome, and muscular. More than having the body that resembles that of the God statue in Greece, the epic hero is also expected to be preeminent, athletic and more so, imbued with fighting skills. The skills that are contemplated out of him are not only the physical fitness to fight but also the courage and the determination. Moreover, he is also outstanding intellectually and strategically. In order for the hero to display his true nature and abilities, he has to go to a crisis like a war or a quest in which his response to hi predicaments will all that matters in determining his fate (Toohey 10).
There is pattern to the epic hero’s quest in determining his real strength. At first, he had to be at odds with the community. These are for various reasons such as disrespect to the gods and his fellow warriors. This will then be followed by a long wandering to that will allow him to ponder on things and gain an understanding of himself. After contemplated on what he has done and surmounted numerous feats, he will return to his community and will be wholeheartedly accepted by the citizens. After conquering his weaknesses, the hero will now attain loyalty, patience, empathy, and a proper sense of shame and dignity (Toohey 11).
In Homer, the heroic ideal is the “powerful image of the physically perfect young hero dying for fame and escaping maturation by achieving a good death that ends his physical history in combat (Miller 4).” Another heroic ideal that is evident in the epics of Homer is that the hero death is purposely to defend the state. This is often referred to as the glorious death (Miller 5). In Iliad, death is seen as inescapable and final.
Those who incur death through fighting for their motherland achieve glory and outlive finite life (Silk 60). Moreover, the epic hero is not like any other man like us. He is distinct from us. He serves as a paradigm with their ability and courage to risk death. He may be “mortal and so not actually gods, but whether in-human, sub-human, or seemingly super-human, they are remote from ordinary humanity (Silk 62).”
However, despite all these positive traits that an epic hero possesses, he does not remain untarnished. According to Aristotle, the so called “noble hero” in an epic possesses the hubristic tragic flaw. This tendency is drawn upon the belief of the tragic hero in his self not only by reason of his high status in the society but also his god-like ability and mortality.
Because of these hubristic tendencies that he possesses, he is usually destroyed by divine intervention mostly because of his tendencies to anger the gods. These two usually bring the epic hero into his final downfall – death. However, as mentioned earlier, his death would not be a futile endeavor for his death would be celebrated as a noble deed among his country man. Moreover, the predicament of the epic hero brings about catharsis to readers that evoke pity and awe from readers instead of anger or blame (Miller 7).
Achilles is among the great Greek warriors, if not the greatest, in Greece’s war against Troy as chronicled by the epic poem The Iliad by Homer. The characteristics of an epic hero as enumerated above sure fit Achilles. In the first place, he is of superior status. He is “an exceptional hero [with a] suitably special, even alien, background. His mother is a sea-nymph and he was brought up by a centaur Chiron. And during the action these alien connections are evoked by his god-made weapons, his talking horse, his flight with a river (Silk 78).” In terms of physical attribute and fighting skills, there is no doubt that Achilles is one of a kind.
In Homer’s description of him while in wrath he said, “Godlike Achilles, swift of foot, sat by his ships,/ still angry over fair-complexioned Briseis, seized/ from Lyrnessus after heavy fighting./ Achilles had laid waste Lyrnessus and Thebes’s walls, / overthrown the spearman Mynes and Epistrophus, / sons of the Lord Eunus, son of king Selepius (Homer 49).” Moreover, he is known to be fierce in battle. He was endowed by his mother Thesis and invincibility power against attacks. As a matter of fact, he is portrayed by Homer as undefeatable in war.
When Achilles decided to not join the war because Agamemnon had done him wrong, the Trojans were much confident in defeating the Greeks which means they consider Achilles as the bearer of the torch of victory. In the words of Homer: “When Lord Achilles used to go to battle, / the Trojans didn’t dare to venture out/ beyond the Dradanian gates. They feared/ his mighty spear. But now they’re fighting/ well outside the city, by out hollow ships (Homer 117).”
However, just like any other epic hero, Achilles’ downfall is due to his hubristic tendencies. He believes too much in himself. He considers himself as immortal not only because the invincibility power that her mother endowed to him but also because of his strength, courage, and fighting ability. He considers himself an important puzzle piece in the army which he really is. When he was rubbed the wrong way by Agamemnon by taking Briseis away from him, he refused to go to war which was a drawback to the Greeks. Because of his pride and his refusal in joining the army into battle, Patroclus decided to wear his armor so as to suck the confidence among the Trojans now that Achilles is back in the field. However, this act of Patroclus leads to the first stage in the downfall of Achilles.
The death of Patroclus is the very reason why he waged revenge against Hector which was the commencement of his own death. When Patroclus died, Achilles was so devastated that he “will slaughter Hector. From that moment on, / [He’ll] make the Trojans steadily fall back, leaving the ships, until Achaeans take/ steep Ilion, with Athena’s grace (Homer 316).”
Despite the intervention of the gods including his mother’s foreboding of his destine death id he kills Hector, he remained determined to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus. He is consumed with both grief and wrath that he “scooped up soot and dust and poured it/ on his head, covering his handsome face with dirt, covering his sweet-smelling tunic with black ash (Homer 396).” Despite his knowledge that he is going to die after hector dies which means that the death of hector implies his own, he was not taken aback. This is not for the reason of pride for he has already fulfilled his first stage of his downfall. This is where anger consumes him.
However, we would also see Achilles in the positive side of the spectrum which would render him different among other epic heroes. In Achilles, we see a man that will die not only for himself, or his motherland, but also for a friend. When he was warned by his mother that his death follows that of Hector, he did not hesitate.
He did not fear his life for the reason that he is going to risk his life to give honor to Patroclus, his good comrade. Instead of a self-absorbed hero that we see at the beginning of the play, we now see Achilles as someone who will risk his life for someone that is important. Not the kind of sacrifice that he is to do to get Briseis back but the kind of sacrifice that a mother will do for her daughter and a father will do for his son. His death, therefore, is what was discussed above, that of a “glorious death.”
I think this is the reason why Achilles has remained to be one of the most celebrated heroes in the history of epic poetry. He brings about catharsis to readers, a sense of pity and awe which is the final stage of an epic drama. His willingness to sacrifice his life all for the sake of comradeship is the noblest that he has done beyond all the battles that he has won and enemies that he has slain. Despite all his weaknesses — his pride and his anger, his act of risking his life for Patroclus, says it all of his being a hero.
Homer, Johnston, Ian and Crowe, Ian. The Iliad: A New Translation. U.S.A: Richer
Miller, Dean A. The Epic Hero. Maryland: John Hopkins Press, 2000.
Toohey, Peter. Reading Epic: An Introduction to the Ancient Narratives. London:
Silk, Michael. Homer: The Iliad. A Student Guide. London: Cambridge University Press, 2004.