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.