Hector Vs Achilles

The Iliad: Reflections on Books 17 – 20

There are two threads weaving throughout this epic that show up on page 1. The first is the will of Zeus. The second Is the rage of Achilles. Emily Wilson translates this rage as follows:

“Goddess, sing of the cataclysmic wrath
of great Achilles, son of Peleus,
which caused the Greeks immeasurable pain
and sent so many noble souls of heroes
to Hades, and made men the spoils of dogs,
a banquet for the birds, and so the plan
of Zeus unfolded––starting with the conflict
between great Agamemnon, lord of men,
and glorious Achilles.”

This cataclysmic wrath starts between Agamemnon and Achilles and remains there until Book 19. Upon the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ wrath gains intensity and shifts away from Agamemnon and towards Hector, and the entire Trojan army by extension. Achilles’ initial rage caused “the Greeks immeasurable pain,” but this new target will set in motion a more personal death, his own.

The problem is not Achilles’ rage against Agamemnon. The problem is Achilles’ rage. He doesn’t want to be in this war. He doesn’t want to die early. He doesn’t want to be ruled by leaders he thinks are below him. He doesn’t want to lose Patroclus. He doesn’t want to lose Briseis. As the son of a god, he wants to be honored. He’s not getting the respect he deserves. He’s not getting the rewards commensurate with his battle prowess.

Book 19 is the bridge. Achilles says to the Greek council (and specifically to Agamemnon):

“Now, son of Atreus, did this
benefit either of us, you or me––
that we were so upset, so full of rage,
our hearts and minds so eaten up by conflict,
over a girl?”

“Let it go,
despite our grief. We must suppress our feelings
inside ourselves, out of necessity.
I cease my anger now. It is not right
for me to rage with never-ending fury.”

Homer then says “The Greeks were glad the son of Peleus, noble Achilles, had renounced his wrath.”

Oh, but he hadn’t. Achilles had not renounced his wrath. He had simply shifted it. And whereas the earlier wrath kept Achilles safe while the Greeks suffered, this newly intensified wrath will ultimately save the Greeks while Achilles perishes. He will gain his hoor at the expense of his life, that cataclysmic wrath guiding him ever forward.

And here we have what is perhaps the best example of the will of Zeus playing out before our eyes. As Hector and Achilles battle in Book 20, Hector tells Achilles that “everything is in the lap of gods.” That would also include Achilles’ rage. Zeus could use that rage against Agamemnon to give the battle advantage to the Trojans while the noble souls of Greek heroes were sent to Hades. But Zeus could also use the rage against Hector and ultimately the Trojans to honor Thetis’ request that Achilles die with honor.

The Greek council mentioned above also provides an amazing microcosm to the macrocosm of the epic. “Over a girl?” The entire Trojan War is because of a girl. Helen. Could the armies of the Trojans and the Greeks simply “let it go?” Could they suppress their anger and call a truce? The shifting rage of Achilles would say no. The ultimate problem has not been addressed. The rage is still there. And that rage will find a target.

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The Iliad: Reflections on Books 14 – 16
The Iliad: Reflections on Books 21 – 24