Skip to content

True Heroes Act

Reflections on The Illiad Books I-IV

Agamemnon is no Hrothgar; Achilles is no Beowulf.

That is my first thought on reading the first four books of The Illiad.

It is true, Homer composed The Illiad a millennium and a half before an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet wrote Beowulf. Closer to two millennia and a half separate the historical periods underlying both stories. The moral universe of the two cultures is very different.

Yet, to me, raised in an Anglo-Saxon descended culture, all I can see is a horrible king fighting with a man-child of a hero.

Agamemnon is no “giver of rings” as Hrothgar is described. Instead, he is a petty tyrant demanding the best treasure from raids, be it bronze or women. When offered great riches to ransom Chryseis, he not only refuses, but abuses her father, a priest of Apollo. The priest prays to Apollo. Apollo answers the prayers and strikes the Greeks down with a plague. The plague will end only when Agamemnon returns Chryseis, but this time he must forgo the rich ransom originally offered.

It is here we see the world where such a leader as Agamemnon is a great king. It is the world of the Olympian gods. Agamemnon can be a king who takes the first joint of slaughtered meat instead of the last because his spot is anointed by gods who model the same petty tyranny. Why would not Agamemnon not only demand the best woman, but demand the woman captured by his greatest hero when he must return the one he had taken? To spare the army of the Greeks from suffering, it is not their king who must pay, despite the suffering coming from his refusal to ransom Chryseis and the abuse he heaped upon her father.

No, Agamemnon demands his greatest hero, Achilles, return the woman he won during the raid. Agamemnon takes Briseis by a show of force.

What is Achilles reaction? In the translation I am using 1 , “The Rage of Achilles” is the title of Book I. At first, Achilles rages. He throws the very complaints I have made about Agamemnon in the king’s face. He points out that it is the typical soldier who collects the plunder of a raid, only to pile it at Agamemnon’s feet. At that point Agamemnon takes the choicest bits, leaving the rest for the army. Now he is demanding the army return even that portion to sate Agamemnon’s desires.

Agamemnon has the stones to accuse Achilles of trying to cheat him.

It is here that Achilles’s rage takes an odd turn. Does he demand satisfaction in the form of a duel with Agamemnon? He does not, although in Book III such a duel between Menelaus and Paris with Helen as the prize is enough to end the war. He does not challenge Agamemnon, although he draws his blade to slay the great king. The intervention of Athena is all that stops him. This is the second time in the first book of the poem it is the gods who act, not men.

Achilles, obeying the goddess, determines to break his oath and refuses to fight in the war. In a word, he sulks. He choses not to act on his own behalf at all. Instead, he calls upon his divine mother Thetis for aid. She promises to intercede on his behalf with Zeus himself. In doing this Achilles reveals what I consider the principle failing he, Agamemnon, and all the heroes of the Trojan War have.

They are willing pawns of the gods. The great men do nothing until the gods grant permission. Action or inaction, heroic or base, occurs when they are prodded by the gods. It is a dream sent by Zeus built on a prophecy that the Greeks would win in the tenth year of the war, which causes the hosts to gather and attack in Book II.

In the same way the kings and heroes of the poem are playthings of the gods, the kings and heroes treat their men as playthings. Agamemnon orders his men to betray their oaths as a test and chastises them for following his orders. I wonder if he would have chastised them for obeying their oaths and refusing his order to return to their ships and sail home. Agamemnon’s statement that the test was “according to time-honored custom” 2 only serves to heighten my suspicion. A custom of testing one’s men by giving them an order whose obeying draws condemnation is the game of a petty tyrant, yet Agamemnon’s own master Zeus does the same to him.

The primacy of the gods arises again when Aphrodite steals Paris away from certain death, a death that would resolve the war. This saving of Paris shears the meaning from the oaths of men given to accept the end of the war by personal duel. When Athena, on Zeus’s order, prods Pandarus the Archer to break the truce sworn for the duel what little meaning was left in the duel and the oaths was pierced by the same arrow as Menelaus. Again, the hero’s actions, foolish as they might be, are not his own, but those of the gods.

How are all the named men from the ship list of Greeks in Book II or the review of the Trojan troops and allies in Book III heroes? They do not act. Is not the core nature of a hero to act? In Joseph Campbell’s theory, they go beyond the limits of the world of man to find a needed boon to heal the world. That is acting. Beowulf acts twice, comprising all we know of him. The first time is to honor his oath to save Hrothgar’s kingdom from Grendel and Grendel’s mother. He saves a generous king; he brings himself glory. Against the dragon, he saves a good kingdom, his own, at the cost of his life.

Agamemnon will not save his own army at the price of trading a captured woman for a fortune in ransom. Achilles will not rise to maintain two sworn oaths, to preserve to the husband of Helen’s choosing his wife and, when Paris abducts Helen, to fulfill the first oath.

Agamemnon is no Hrothgar. Achilles is no Beowulf.

  1. The Robert Fagles translation published by Penguin Books published in 1990[]
  2. Book II, line 86[]
Published inUncategorized


  1. BobtheRegisterredFool BobtheRegisterredFool

    I’m of the opinion that if Campbell and the legends of the heroes disagree, Campbell is wrong.

    The Greek word we have hero from is similar to the Latin vir. A man of the aristocracy, perhaps an unusual one, who may be a warrior or a soldier. ‘Hero can be validly defined so narrowly’ is one of my hobby horses. 🙂 Of course, there are other definitions I am willing to use, I just never fell in love with Campbell’s.

    The greek ‘hero’ was influenced by an era when armies might decide to settle the issue with combat between champions. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that Greek culture, or at least Ionian, valued trickery to a degree that dishonest scumbags were a reasonable expression of cultural values.

    I would remind you of the ancient Greek thinking on comic and tragic plays. Agamemnon and Achilles are not the type of ‘hero’ who is a main character that leaves the world (much less themselves) the better for their having striven. Think more men of great ability, destroyed by a flaw that is an inherent part of their essential nature.

    New thought this reiteration of my views on hero: For me, literary theory is less important than if the story works. Campbell, ‘the tragic hero is destroyed by a tragic flaw’, are literary theories. As writers, literary theory may be useful for saving us work figuring out our story designs. But they are ‘use if inspirational’, not mandatory. If I want to use the Bechdel test, fine; if I don’t, fine.

    I’m wrestling with myself about conclusions that I can justify advising others from. My theory of literature lately is that a study of story that is too strongly immersed in the academically established theory can distract from making story that appeals to a wider audience. This is perhaps a bunch of hippie bullshit on my part. Studying story is good.

    For some stories thinking like an anthropologist is helpful, but buying into to whatever version of ‘noble savage’ is currently accepted academic theory might be counterproductive. Other stories, thinking like an engineer might be helpful; some of the theory of engineering may be of interest to the author, and there will also be a great deal of theory that is not a good use of the author’s time and energy. Under normal circumstances, a creative writing project does not have the returns of most engineering projects. Furthermore, the quality of a creative writing project is probably not as sensitive to engineering theory quality as an engineering project is. So an author who spends the time and energy studying engineering that an engineer does is probably making a mistake.

    I’ve been finding out that Weber apparently spent a lot of time talking to defense engineers, and he’s said to have made a load of money from space opera.

    I dunno.

    • In broad terms I agree with your comment on Campbell. I did not bring him up as some holy grail of what a hero must be, but as an easy demonstration of my principle issue. The great heroes, at least through the first four books, do not take meaningful action.

      Think more men of great ability, destroyed by a flaw that is an inherent part of their essential nature.

      The problem is the flaw seems mostly external to them. Menelaus is one of the greatest fighters of his age. Why does he fail to defeat Paris in single combat? Is his flaw he cannot control his rage sufficiently to exercise his skill? Perhaps he is so concerned that he will harm Helen by killing a man she loved enough to run away with him?

      Nope, his fatal flaw is Aphrodite. Unless and until the gods all agree, his actions are meaningless. Even if he wins by great trickery, as you note the Greeks admire, what would it matter unless he also tricks the gods.

      I judge Agamemnon and Achilles inadequate by more modern standards of Hrothgar and Beowulf, which echo into our culture much more than the heroes of the Illiad. I also realize that the Greeks were much more resigned to fate playing a role in life than the writer of Beowulf. Both were much more resigned to fate than most moderns, as the belief if we cower enough we can stop a disease proves.

      But, I retain my position that their larger failure is one of passivity. This Saturday, when we add Book V to the discussion, I’ll mostly be contrasting Helen’s response to Aphrodite to Diomedes. Both stand up to the Gods, but in different ways.

  2. Suburbanbanshee Suburbanbanshee

    The other thing to notice, though, is that Agamemnon wasn’t Achilles’ king, or Menelaus’ king, or anybody else’s king except that of his own men. He led an expedition of near-equals, and frankly, they were doing a favor to his brother and hence to him.

    Also, the word used for Achilles’ rage is the word for righteous wrath, justifiable wrath. He had a legitimate beef, but he let it eat up almost everything else – until we get to the end, and he has forgiveness and magnanimity for the king of Troy, as the loving father of Hector. (I really like this scene in the movie Troy. A lot of other bits are trash, but they really get to the emotion behind that Bronze Age warrior thing.)

    But yeah, Achilles is more on the Cu Chulainn side of things than the Odysseus or any other Schmott Guy side of things.

    • While Agamemnon was not Achilles’s king, he was lauded as the leader of the exception. He is called “lord of men” I/203. At II/62 he “called his ranking chiefs to council’. At II/126 we learn “”he ruled his many islands and lorded mainland Argos”. It was clear he had some authority.

      As for the expedition being a favor, it was more than that. It was based on oaths sworn at Helen’s marriage and again new ones sworn to reclaim her after her abduction. It was those oaths which Agamemnon “tests” at the beginning of Book II.

      But, if accept that Agamemnon is not Achilles’s king and Achilles actions are a favor, then the comparison to Beowulf and the contrast of Agamemnon’s and Hrothgar’s treatment of their heroes is more apt. Hrothgar is not Beowulf’s king. Beowulf is a wandering hero of the Geats, among whom he will later become king, while Hrothgar is the king of the Danes.

      Why, beyond the oaths, would Achilles follow such a king?

      • BobtheRegisterredFool BobtheRegisterredFool

        1) The logic of ‘me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, etc…’ leads somewhat to kings with ancestral connections, joining together to wage war against kings whose previous generation alliances were different. Historic/prehistory Troy appears to have become a wealthy city because of controlling a body of water over which trade occurred. Which trade implies possible development of competing power blocks, that might find it worth the effort to destroy a rival, or simply pirates banding together to plunder a rich source of loot. In Homer’s day, there was a bunch of lore about the event floating around, so he was not free to invent all the details. “They were all dicks, there were economic interests involved, and Agamemnon was able to get the expedition started, but sustaining it was a little beyond his skills” isn’t necessarily a story enjoyable to hear. If a plotless mess without agency was the best way to square the circle, so be it; However, I’m pretty sure the Illiad works well enough as a story of Achilles. See below.

        2) Epic /Cycle/. Contained in the material that Homer didn’t revise into a improved form that has survived to our day as great literature.

        Achilles was born to a woman who was by ancestry part of the hierarchy of Greek divine spirits. When her son was born, not wanting to lose him, she dipped him in water/held him in a fire that burned away the mortality, etc…

        She had him living in disguise as a woman when Odysseus was one of them men going around collecting fighters for the expedition. Basically, Achilles was in an island convent under the name Pyrrha, because his mom knew about the expedition and did not want him taking part. Odysseus tricked Achilles into revealing himself, because of an interest in spears, somehow.

        Then Achilles had the choice; stay home, live a long peaceful life, according to the will of his mother, or go off to fight. Hey, he is immortal everywhere, except his ankle, right? He chooses warfare, see the art of poetry for a description of his character.

        Achilles has two essential types of qualities as a character. a) His personality, etc. If he had been a wise, timid young man, he would not have succumbed to the wiles of Odysseus. b) The mystical semi-immortality bullshit, which kind of makes all of the later divine interventions appropriate to the genre. This is also essential, because his recruitment to the cause would have been less important if his power level was merely the ordinary degree of heroic might.

        So, there was a deeper message, about mother’s love, etc.

        But as for the text itself, the agency problem is an issue of sticking purely to the Illiad. As the tragedy of Achilles, yes, his essential nature propels him through the ten years to his doom. The critical choice is in going on the expedition in the first place.

        Odysseus is the one who survived, won through trickery, and came home, but it took ten years longer because of offending the gods. Which I think is a way for a pagan culture that valued skill in deception, and did not have Christian moral teachings, to acknowledge that trickery as a practice, an evil, can cause other evils.

        Odysseus himself tried to use deceit to avoid the mobilization. He faked madness, until the party recruiting him put his infant son Telemachus in the way of the scheme.

        3) The Pagan Norse probably had some of the same qualities of familial amoralism as the pagan mid-Easterners. And the Greeks of this area were probably culturally close to Mid Eastern populations around Troy. However, it is not clear to me that the familial amoralisms were exactly the same in every detail. If Hrothgar was an accurate depiction of that culture, then perhaps there were important differences in kinship and guest obligations as related to formation of warbands. Even if they were completely identical, we can speculate about Christian influence in the form of audience expectations.

        • 1) I’m well aware of the larger context. I even draw on it. I’m not unfamiliar with the broader story (I’m tempted to say who isn’t, but do they teach any of it in elementary school anymore?). It is based on that knowledge that I contend they were all twice oath bound tot he war, once when they swore to honor Helen’s choice of husband and again when they swore their oath to take her back from Paris.

          In all the discussions I hear about the larger epic, I’m amazed there is not more around the idea that the most desirable woman in the world, the face that launched a thousand ships, was allowed to choose her husband instead of being auctioned to the highest bidder. Where is the feminist literature proclaiming this rare female agency in the ancient world, advertising female choice as a way of avoiding war over her hand, decried as proving the oppression of women because she was only allowed a choice to avoid a war, or some possibility I haven’t imagined.

          2) Again, I am aware of the larger context. But even in that context Achilles’s actions make little sense. Having chosen a short life and great glory by going to Troy, why does he then abandon the battlefield and stay. By leaving he could have the long life with no fame. By staying and not fighting he chooses a short life and no fame.

          Also, why worry about his prize if he came to Troy knowing he would die there and win glory. His prizes will not be carried home by him and are irrelevant to the reason he came.

          Interesting point about Odysseus and the various prices and value of trickery. I suspect that will be a huge topic when I get to The Odyssey next.

          3) Greek vs. Anglo-Saxon pagans.

          While your comments about Christianity influencing Beowulf, I don’t disagree, but I think it can be oversold. We know a lot about related cultures while they were still pagan and even some pagan era evidence for Anglo-Saxons.

          That Hrothgar and Beowulf are a king and hero who are ideals whose real life emulation was mixed is true. However, we see poor reflections of them in Germanic cultures even through the Viking era. A king was measured by the loot he earned for his warriors as much as his displays of wealth. A richly appointed Germanic king with bootliless warriors soon was not a king.

          The pattern of selecting chiefs and later kings by moot is attested in the pagan period and continues through the kingdoms in England to varying degrees. The last Anglo-Saxon king of England insured he was confirmed by a moot even if was a foregone conclusion.

          I’d argue this Germanic influence continues to this day. While the Magna Carta is oversold, I think it is important that even though John still maintain possessions in France (some of which would be maintained for two more centuries) the rights only applied to English lands. It was arguably a continuation of his father’s unification of English law into one system and that was a system inherited from the Anglo-Saxon English. The feudalism of France never fully took hold in England, where yeomanry was much more common than serfdom.

          I know of nothing similar in the East even where there is a through current of Greek thought to 1453. The Eastern Empire never adopted Latin and their law remained as much that of the Alexandrian era as the Latin.

          Based on that I think it is fair to contrast the two ideals of kings and heroes as pagan comparisons.

        • The first sentence in my other reply came off nastier than I intended, I think. I was just pointing out that I was taking what for someone my age was the common public school knowledge of the legend of the Trojan War and that did influence my reading of Books I-IV.

          Also, a new post with other people coming tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.