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Looking at Heroism in 'The Iliad'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1120 words Published: 20th Sep 2021

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In book 9 of The Iliad, the greatest example of heroes, Achilles, questions in mid-way about the heroic code. However, it is just a shattering start for the process in seeking another point of view about what and how to construct a real hero. Through a miserable loss and ability to relate to other characters in the book, finally, Achilles ends up that process with a lesson: Rather than the honor gained in the battle, a hero is also inspired by the connectedness to other people, fighting for the survival of their city, families and companions.

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Achilles’s suspicion about the true value of heroic code brings up a new perspective to the Iliad’s readers, showing them how the heroic world may look from the position outside it. Initially, it seems to make sense that “Nothing is worth my life, not all the riches/ They say Troy held before the Greeks came,” (9.415-16) Achilles said, when he has plenty of possession, and those honor-conferring material gifts are not a worth-while compensation for the loss of his life on the battle. Also, it is hard to object when he criticizes the pointlessness of the heroic system: “Coward and hero get the same reward:/You die whether you slack off or work.” (9.326-27) However, those arguments are only subjective and associated with blindness. The speech of Phoenix, one of the ambassadors and Achilles’ beloved old tutor, fully answers Achilles’ concern and points out what Achilles cannot see. He tells the story of Meleager, a man who was wronged and refused to defend his country. He retired in his room with his beloved wife and stayed out of the fighting until the moment when his city was about to be destroyed. He realized that his wife’s safety could be threatened if his country lost in the war. Therefore, he returned to battle and fought for his city, but at that point Meleager just won little honor. Phoenix’s story responds to Achilles’ accusation that gifts are inadequate compensation for fighting by showing that there are still other reasons besides honor why people lose their lives for fighting. That is because of their family, their close friends, and any bonds of friendship in a small community. At this point, the family concept and the interrelation between individuals become revealing as an integral aspect of heroic code. This idea slowly develops in further Book through Achilles’ relationship to others on a personal basis.

It is only after Patroclus’ death that Achilles realizes what is missing in his previous accusation, which also highlights those above newfound perspectives of human connectedness. A hero, of course, must fulfill his status in combat on the battlefield, to get honored for himself; besides, it is stressed that he has to respect his family, show loyalty to his friends, and protect his comrades. Achilles learns this precious lesson after a miserable loss: “A mist black grief enveloped Achilles/He scooped up fistfuls of sunburnt dust/And poured it on his head, fouling/His beautiful face …” (18.23-26) The word “envelope” is used sophisticatedly as, like a letter is covered underneath another thick paper, Achilles gets stuck in a confusing thinking stream about if his own honor is an ultimate purpose he is seeking for throughout all his lie, or his close relationship with companions matters more to his true heroic value. He gets lost. He conflicts with himself. The image of self-willed man with strong accusation at the beginning disappears; instead, that man is acting unconsciously: “He scooped up fistfuls of sunburnt dust/And poured it on his head, fouling/His beautiful face …” (18.24-26) “Beautiful face” is a nice metaphor for the image of an ideal hero which Achilles mistakenly overvalues for himself, and “dust” can be understood as the force for Achilles to break against that monument and reach the underneath true heroic code. Now, Achilles begins to see life and relationships with other people from a mortal point of view. Patroclus’s death is a strong reminder of those other reasons for fighting that Achilles forgets in his initial undermining of honor. In a material human world, heroes may treasure the reward and social status as a consequence of winning the fighting, but they are also motivated by the patriotism for the city they protect and by the love for family and friend they deeply involve.

Family and deep bond of friendship also take part in constructing the moral aspect in a real hero’s character. This excites the readers profoundly besides many bloody brutal killing scenes throughout the book. In the scene Priam takes ransom to demand Hector’s corpse back for a proper burial, the readers can witness a new side in Achilles’ behavior that never plays out before: full of sincere kindness and sympathy. Compared with the intense savagery when Achilles cruelly drags Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy, this move entirely surprises the readers. “Priam huddled in grief at Achilles’ feet, cried/ And moaned softly for his man-slaying Hector.” (24.547-49) Homer uses the verb “huddle”, somehow in contrast with high status of Priam, a king, to demonstrate that death is no barrier to the honor and glory achieved in life. Priam’s begging does not dishonor him; instead, he does that in the name of his family member. This action truly captures Achilles’ pity and breaks down his resistance. Achilles knows that his fate is to die at Troy and never return home in Phthia. He realizes how desperate his father, Peleus, feels once he knows that heart-breaking news of his son, which might happens to Priam if Achilles does not return Hector’s corpse to him. “And Achilles cried for this father and/ For Patroclus. The sound filled the room.” (24.550-51) Just only any object that is visible and have weight can fill up a space, but Homer uses that verb for “the sound” to show that, this time, Achilles’ tear has value because he already learns his mistake in self-absorption and changes himself to care for other people’s feelings. Finally, he reaches to his identity as a mortal, letting go of his previous bitter outrage, and sharing the grief of loss with other mortals. Generosity, or forgiveness, also constructs a real hero. This is a precious lesson that Achilles learns till the end.

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The Iliad, set aside all of the brutal killing scenes, is a work deeply concerned with the true value of heroic system. Specifically, the questioning of Achilles in Book 9 brings up a new insight for the Iliad’s readers. The hero’s brilliant performance in the battlefield is fundamental to maintain his status. Furthermore, he had to fulfill his responsibility in accordance with his family, friends, and community in general.


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