Prologue I.1-7 (I)
Prologue I.1-7 (II)
Quarrel I.8-21 (I)
Quarrel I.8-21 (II)
Quarrel I.8-21 (III)
Agam. I.101-20 (I)
Aga. I.101-20 (II)
Achilles I.147-71 (I)
Ach. I.147-71 (II)
Sceptre I.215-44 (I)
Nestor I.245-84 (I)
Apart I.285-325 (I)
Softer I.325-92 (I)
Softer Achilles (II)
Plea I.393-427 (I)
Vow I.393-427 (II)
Sea I.428-87 (I)
Back I.428-87 (II)
Thetis I.488-530 (I)
Thetis and Zeus (II)
Iliad I.326-92 (I)
Bill Long 1/25/10
A Softer Side of Achilles
Many students of the Iliad join the "command" narrative in lines 318-25, where the heralds were instructed to get Briseis, together with the "performance" narrative in 325-56, where they actually come and take her away from Achilles. But I am splitting my consideration of them primarily because I want to focus on the character of Achilles. He is the most interesting person in this part of Book I, and the dramatic shift in his attitude from the first 300 lines to these lines is highlighted if we look separately at the "performance" narrative. In this chapter,we see a number of things: (1) the taking away of Briseis (326-56); (2) Achilles' invocation of his mother (357-63); and (3) the narration of Achilles' trouble (364-92). Each scene is presented with scrupulous artistic care by Homer; let's listen in as we follow his thoughts.
Taking Away Briseis (326-56)
Agamemnon lays the command on the heralds in 326; the two heralds are already on their way in 327. Like the heavenly King of the Bible, Agamemnon spoke and it came to pass. Yet instead of simply narrating a matter-of-fact story of Achilles' turning over Briseis, possibly with objection, ridicule, etc., Homer paints a brilliantly evocative scene of domestic life, personal struggle and relinquishment. We see emotion--in the heralds, Achilles and Briseis--but we also see what I call the "softer" side of Achilles, especially as he greets and addresses the heralds. And Homer does this through spare and suggestive language which is characterized by rich adjectives and vivid verbs.
We first see the heralds going along the sea towards Achilles' place (327). Two details immediately catch our attention. First, they go "unwillingly" (aekonte). They don't possess the overweening pride and hubris of Agamemnon, who no doubt would have appeared with a flourish and show of strength. Instead, they realize the difficulty of what they are called to do. It is similar to military people who must inform loved ones of the loss of their son or daughter in a theater of war. They have to do it, but they wish they didn't have to. Second, Homer shows us them as they are walking along the "barren" or "unfruitful" (atrugetos--no one is quite sure how to translate it) seashore. This image does two things to the reader. It both establishes a mood and it recalls an earlier sad figure trudging along the seashore, Chryses, after Agamemnon had rudely rebuffed him (33-39).
The mood established is one of pensiveness, foreboding and gloom. The barren or polyphloisboisterous (see line 33) sea is the dominant force here, even though the men are the ones on their mission. In fact, the single word "barren," like the earlier "much-echoing," sets a tone for this scene much as the steep and majestic peaks of Wyoming frame the entire story in "Brokeback Mountain" or the constant fog, chill and wind surround the island of St. Pierre and Miquelon in "The Widow of St. Pierre." We feel the scene and see the lonely heralds on the way to their task. And, we recall the laborious gait of Chryses as he walked away from Agamemnon. All his emotions and words seemed to be swallowed by the dominant sea, even though Apollo heard his prayer.
Thus, we are now in a pensive mood as we accompany the unwilling heralds towards Achilles' tent. Well, they get there, and they find him (329). But a little note of relief or even humor then rises, as we realize that we have an enjamed line in 329-30. The enjambed word is "sitting" (330). Yikes, this is interesting and not a little amusing. We expect to see Achilles accoutred, perhaps ready to tackle the men, to oppose them, at least to be on his feet in a defensive or vigilant posture. But, instead, he is simply sitting. So the flow of the sentence is: "him they found in his tent alongside the black ship....sitting." We smile because we don't expect it. We haven't seen Achilles sitting so far; the first time he is mentioned in the narrative he "stands" (58). He has been standing and sitting since then, but mostly standing....
You sit only if you aren't scared. Thus, he isn't frightened. But Homer is quick to add that Achilles doesn't like what he sees. Instead of saying that he was troubled, the narrative says that "Achilles was not rejoicing" to see them. Homer has cleverly used the verb getheo, employed previously by Nestor to describe the "joy" of the Trojans were they to hear about the conflict of the big guys (255). But now the word denies to Achilles that same joy. Not only is there no joy in Mudville, there is no joy in the Achilles' camp.
The scene then shifts from Achilles to the heralds. They stood there, "being terrified of and honoring the king" (331). Note that the first verb is in the aorist tense, while the second is in the present. They stood terrified and continued to honor the king. Note also that they are the ones with the commission from the real king, the lord of men, yet Homer has them quake before this king. Perhaps they know who the real authority is in this situation. They are the ones with what you might call de facto authority, yet they spoke not a word. It is almost as if they felt they were treading on sacred ground or in the presence of such a superior and "better" being that they simply "froze" or were at a complete loss for words.
Achilles noted their discomfort and graciously broke the ice. They should be the ones in control and completely comfortable, but he is the one who senses their discomfort and saves their embarrassment. We see a different Achilles here. He isn't just railing irrationally at the lord of men; he considerately receives the messengers, and he cares for their needs. So he addresses them. Achilles shows subtlety in addressing them.
"Heralds, messengers both of gods and men," 334.
But, are they really messengers of gods? They are only there in their role as Agamemnon's heralds. By stating first that they are sent by the gods, Achilles is already dispersing their authority, already trying to get them to adopt an alternative construction of what they are about. These words are calculated to destabilize them, to play with their minds, to make them doubt, perhaps, their own role in the matter. Then, if this isn't enough, Achilles gives them a command: "Come closer" (335). Gulp. Closer? To the man whom we reverence? To the man who now is talking the language of gods as well as men? Maybe, to use language of the romantic poet John Keats, they looked at each other "with a wild surmise." What could be happening here?
But Achilles doesn't let them stand there without an explanation of his words. He quickly puts them at ease by saying that he isn't upset at them, but at Agamemnon. Agamemnon is "blameworthy" here (epaitios--literally "the superior cause"). The line is so brief yet so vivid. Indeed, I wonder whether Plato, in crafting his scene of the last moments of Socrates' life, where the jailors come in and apologize for executing Socrates, isn't letting his imagination play a bit by reflection on these words from Homer. Homer may provide the literary "grist" for Plato's wonderfully imaginative mental "mill."
Even though Achilles willingly gives up the girl, he needs to say something else. He speaks the words of someone who is establishing evidence or erecting a verbal monument to a great cause. It is a sort of "mark my words" statement. "You yourselves are witnesses," he says, "before the blessed gods and mortal men and before a harsh king" (339-40). Note the use of the words "harsh king" to describe Agamemnon. They are all the more significant since Homer has just described Achilles as the "king." Who is the real authority here? Well, Achilles wants them to call this experience to mind if ever in the future he is asked to turn away a plague from the Achaians. He will, as it were, call the "cruel king's" servants to witness against the king who sent them. He is, in the language of law, changing them from hostile to friendly witnesses.
One Last Thought
Achilles isn't quite done. Calling on a negative word closely related to one used in the prologue (accursed/baneful-2), Achilles says that Agamemnon rages in his "accursed mind" and cannot see either before or behind him or how to keep the Achaians fighting safely alongside their ships. Homer's prologue told us it would sing about the cursed (oulomenen) wrath of Achilles; here Achilles is saying that Agamemnon's mind is afflicted by that same "curse" or "bane." The God of the Hebrews is worshipped because: "thou dost beset me behind and before" (Ps. 139:5); here the lord of men doesn't know enough to look "behind and before him" (343). The first duty of the king is to keep his troops safe. Agamemnon isn't doing this at all.
Thus, even as Achilles receives the heralds kindly, and removes their discomfort, he certainly wants to reframe their narrative, so to speak, by putting what they are doing in perspective. It is all Agamemnon's fault; they are not responsible. Yet, they are witnesses, and they will be called to witness in the "case" Achilles will make against the lord of men when it becomes evident to all, and not just to Achilles, that Agamemnon can't tell his ass from his elbow and when his beloved people continue to perish.
The actual taking of Briseis happens quite rapidly and almost anticlimactically. Often it is the lead up to a hugely important act that is played up; the actual act is described with unemotional rapidity. It took the author of Genesis several verses to describe the temptation scene in the Garden of Eden, but only a part of a verse to describe Eve eating the fruit (Gen. 3). So here, the heralds are led by Achilles' "beloved" (philos) companion Patroclus to the girl, they take her, and they go with her alongside the Achaian ships.
Then come the emotions. She goes "unwillingly" with them (348). The word used, aekousa, is the same word used to describe the unwillingness of the heralds to make their journey to Achilles (327). People come and go unwillingly, yet the will of the king happens. For his part, Achilles withdraws far off from his companions, sinks to sit on the earth, bursts out in tears, looks out into the boundless sea, stretches his mighty hands in the direction of that sea, and prays/curses/invokes (the verb araomai in 351 means all three) his divine mother. Each of his actions helps vivify our picture of Achilles, and each might call for comment, but to be noted here is, again, the role of the sea in all of this. Even as lines 349 and 351 torridly describe Achilles' actions with vigorous participles and verbs, line 350 slowly stretches out the description of scene of the action. We are again on the seashore, that place of cursing, regret, weeping and polyphloistboisterous waves. Homer gives us two, and not just one, descriptions of this sea--"the briny sea and the boundless sea" (different Greek words for "sea"). Which is the more real actor here? The succession of people whose lives happen alongside the sea, or the sea itself, which seems to obliterate almost all action which happens on its shore? As if to heighten the tension in this question, Homer then turns to Achilles mother, who lives in the sea, whom Achilles now addresses.