|Reconstruction of the Shield of Achilles by Kathleen Vail © All Rights Reserved|
If you've really read The Iliad through, slogged through the sometimes horrid tedium of the so called battle books, the deaths of both Sarpedon and Patroclus hit you hard, with all the weight of how different it could have been for them thrown into the scales of Zeus. And now, with Patroclus' death, Achilles' wrath has a cause that even we these days can grasp fully, the needless and unexpected violent death of one we love. The rage that comes soaring up from within him, shouting 'now for wrath, now for ruin, and a red nightfall' as it were, can blow you away. As it did the Trojans, as it did me. (But then fuimus Troes.) Tennyson's version of this explosion of wrath at Iliad 18.202ff. is a marvel. Read it out loud.
Achilles Over the Trench
SO SAYING, light-foot Iris pass’d away.
Then rose Achilles dear to Zeus; and round
The warrior’s puissant shoulders Pallas flung
Her fringed ægis, and around his head
The glorious goddess wreath’d a golden cloud,
And from it lighted an all-shining flame.
As when a smoke from a city goes to heaven
Far off from out an island girt by foes,
All day the men contend in grievous war
From their own city, but with set of sun
Their fires flame thickly, and aloft the glare
Flies streaming, if perchance the neighbours round
May see, and sail to help them in the war;
So from his head the splendour went to heaven.
From wall to dyke he stept, he stood, nor join’d
The Achæans—honouring his wise mother’s word**—
There standing, shouted, and Pallas far away
Call’d; and a boundless panic shook the foe.
For like the clear voice when a trumpet shrills,
Blown by the fierce beleaguerers of a town,
So rang the clear voice of Æakidês;
And when the brazen cry of Æakidês
Was heard among the Trojans, all their hearts
Were troubled, and the full-maned horses whirl’d
The chariots backward, knowing griefs at hand;
And sheer-astounded were the charioteers
To see the dread, unweariable fire
That always o’er the great Peleion’s head
Burn’d, for the bright-eyed goddess made it burn.
Thrice from the dyke he sent his mighty shout,
Thrice backward reel’d the Trojans and allies;
And there and then twelve of their noblest died
Among their spears and chariots.
** Achilles' mother, Thetis, had asked him not to enter battle until Hephaestus made him new armor.
The title of this post of course comes from C.P. Cavafy's allusion to this moment in his poem Trojans.
And go visit Kathleen Vail's Shield of Achilles website. It's worth every minute.
One of the most powerful moments I have ever had in a classroom was discussing The Iliad for weeks, and then watching the 1989 film Glory. I wept. It also gave me the idea for what was my favorite exam question. I quoted the scene in The Odyssey, where the ghost of Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be the slave of the lowest man on earth than king of all the dead, and asked my students if they thought the men of the 54th Massachusetts would agree.