When I tell the story of Achilles, I tell it like this:
Once there was a wedding, goddess to mortal man. She wasn’t very happy about it. Who knows what he thought: when orders come down from Zeus, what idiot says no? But they were married, and there was a child, and that child was almost something more than human.
I say almost because he was still human in the way that mattered most: he was mortal, doomed. Imagine being Thetis, his mother, pale and ocean-eyed, looking down at this tiny scrap of life and knowing you would have to watch it die. I don’t think any mother could stand it. She did what she could to protect him: bathed her baby in the Styx, the river of death, and he had little to fear from ordinary weapons after that. But a mortal is a mortal. Achilles was born to die.
There were two deaths woven for him by the Fates. Achilles could have had a long and happy life, beloved and honoured, surrounded by kin, living in peace and good fortune, dying at the last mourned by children and grandchildren who would honour his memory as long as they lived; and when the last of them was gone, Achilles’ memory would pass away from the world as well, the final embers of a long-banked fire going dim.
That was one death.
The other was simpler: to die young and be remembered forever. A brief bonfire blaze of life and then eternal glory.
How do you choose?
Maybe for you it would be easy. But remember Achilles was young, he was proud, he was beautiful and swift and strong almost beyond what is human, and he lived in a world of brief lives and brilliant deaths, a world of hero-songs and clashing bronze. For him it was not easy.
The war was born on the night Achilles was conceived. You might say he was made for the war, or it for him. It was a very stupid war – people don’t remember that, when they talk about Troy, that it was stupid. Squabbling goddesses, broken marriages, the Greeks camped on the beach for a decade. The bodies of men broken pointlessly on walls Poseidon built, like waves breaking day in and day out on the shore.
Thetis did everything she could to keep her precious son away from the whole mess. The other heroes of Troy had no choice, you see: the Trojans, of course, were defending their home, but the Greek princes were oathbound. Every man who’d courted Helen of Sparta had promised to defend her marriage against adulterers. But Achilles wasn’t one of those. He had no reason to go to war.
Thetis spirited Achilles from his father’s palace in the middle of the night. She dressed him as a girl, and stashed him on an island in a palace full of pretty girls; she had a fairly shrewd idea of what could distract a beautiful boy from the fight. And he was beautiful – the loveliest of the maidens in his long dress, the loveliest of youths when he cast it aside. On that night the Greek commander Odysseus faked a pirate attack to trick him into revealing himself. Thetis hid her son, but Odysseus found him: and Odysseus called him to war, and Achilles went. There’s pleasure in love, but no glory. What boy could bear to be parted forever from glory?
Achilles went to war. He led the Myrmidons into battle. By his side he had his friend Patroclus, dearest to him of all men. He sacked seven cities: he took many prisoners and many treasures: he was the greatest hero of all the Greeks who went to Troy. War bathed him in glory the way his mother once bathed him in the river of death: making him all but divine, making him almost – almost – more than human.
But he still hadn’t chosen his death. Not even then. He could still have changed his mind and gone home to his father, and left that glory to flicker out and be forgotten. Achilles, who was that? What happened to him? Well, he sacked a few cities, but then he went home. Oh, did he? Lucky him.
Achilles thought about it often: home, and his father. This is what you must understand, to understand Achilles: the boy drinking fame from the cup of the immortals and wondering, wavering – should he live? Would it be better after all to turn away from death and glory?
And it was in the middle of all this that the plague came.
It was a divine curse on the Greeks, because their commander Agamemnon had raped a priest’s daughter. When Agamemnon had to give her up, he was bitter because of the humiliation, the loss of face: so he took Achilles’ slave-girl from him. Glory wins you enemies as well as friends. And some people will speak of love when they tell this story, they will try to tell you that Achilles was heartbroken, that Agamemnon had taken his dearest love from him. I say: she was his prisoner and war-prize, and then she was Agamemnon’s, and Agamemnon later swore he’d never touched her – so if I were her I’d hate Achilles more.
In any case Achilles was furious to lose her – whether it was love you can decide for yourself, but certainly it was pride. So he did what any proud boy does when the game stops going his way. He refused to play anymore – let the Greeks try to conquer Troy without him! – and he went and complained to his mother. Here is the greatest hero of Greece, sitting on the beach and sulking, with his mother stroking his hair. Here he is crying in her lap. Does it look like heartbreak to you? No, of course not. He’s having a tantrum.
That’s what it was, a tantrum. Not that Agamemnon was any better. None of the heroes come out of this story looking good.
While Achilles has his tantrum, the Greeks begin to lose.
They lose and they lose and they lose. Men die hour after hour without respite. Their bodies are trod underfoot. The Trojans throw them back from the walls, back down the shore, back to their black ships. Prince Hector, the greatest warrior of Troy, is unstoppable. No one but Achilles is a match for him. Everyone on both sides knows it. But Achilles isn’t fighting, so the Greeks are dying.
This isn’t just the ordinary mathematics of battle, you understand. No, Achilles asked for this. He went to his mother the sea-goddess and he said: Agamemnon insulted me, so I want the Greeks to suffer. Make them sorry.
A tantrum, like I said. But Thetis never denied her son anything. She traded her favours to Zeus the King for it, and Zeus gave his nod, and the Trojans poured out of the city with fire in their eyes and murder in their hands, while Achilles in his tent played his lyre a little, and tried to make Patroclus joke with him, and brooded on his humiliation.
But Patroclus won’t laugh with Achilles. Patroclus watches the Greeks suffer and it burns in him. He begs Achilles for a favour. Not to return to the fight himself: he knows his friend better than that. Achilles’ pride won’t yield now. Lend me your armour, he says. Let me lead the Myrmidons out. If the Trojans just think you’ve returned to the field, they’ll spook. Let me give our side a chance.
And Achilles loves his friend, so he says yes.
Imagine now that you’re Hector, the Trojan prince, the defender of your country. And you thought yourself within moments at last of throwing the invaders off the shores of Asia. You’re Hector, and you see him advance into battle, the polished armour, the sunlight glinting on the helmet – Achilles, greatest of the Greeks at Troy. Achilles, whom only Hector can hope to match. The Greeks fight with renewed courage when they see him coming. His Myrmidons are fresh to the field, restless and eager where your Trojan warriors are exhausted.
Of course you go for him.
The helmet hides his face.
Hector and Patroclus duel. It’s been told better elsewhere.
Hector wins. Only Achilles is a match for him.
And then Hector does what heroes do, in this world of hero-songs and clashing bronze: he strips the shining armour from his enemy’s corpse. It’s better armour than Hector’s own. But when he’s taken it, he sees the face of the man he’s killed. It’s not beautiful Achilles. It’s just the friend.
And the Greeks take up the body of the dead man, and they send someone ahead with the news.
Go. Go and tell Achilles that Patroclus is dead.
Do you want to know when Achilles chooses his death?
It’s there under the hot sun before the walls of Troy, when the messenger comes running light-footed ahead of the corpse to tell him that Patroclus fought Hector and Patroclus died. Achilles knows already. He heard the cry go up. He is standing there before the tent waiting for the message and he knows.
Achilles knows: that Patroclus is dead. That he died fighting an enemy who was too great for him. That he died fighting an enemy whom Achilles could have killed. That Achilles was not there: because he was in his tent, sulking over a slave-girl, brooding on his glory.
Achilles chooses his death. He chooses no homecoming. No father’s embrace. No relief, no comfort, no peace and no wealth; no possessions at all, no hope at all, no children and grandchildren, no life, no future.
Achilles chooses to hunt down and slaughter the man who killed his friend.
I doubt he ever thinks of glory again.
He gets it, of course. A prophecy is a prophecy, and the Fates always abide strictly by the letter of the law. But they do have a nasty sense of humour.
Achilles has no armour now. Hector took it. So Achilles does what he’s always done in the face of a problem: he runs to his mother.
You are Thetis, ocean-eyed, and this mortal child you bore has come to you and asked you to give him the tools he needs to die.
You have never been able to deny him anything.
Thetis has Hephaestus forge the new armour: Hephaestus, smith of the gods, who forges Zeus’s thunderbolts. He might have made something wonderful and strange, divinely bizarre, alien. He might have given Achilles thunderbolts.
But Hephaestus gives him blood-bright bronze. Bronze is the metal of mortals. Hephaestus makes Achilles greaves and a breastplate and a shining helmet, a sword and a spear and a mighty shield. The shields of heroes are cunningly wrought with wild designs. Hephaestus might have chosen any of the hero-songs. Heracles half-divine, in another generation the hero of another Troy: wouldn’t that be a fitting pattern? Or Theseus who loved his friend, or Orpheus who played the lyre so sweetly. All of those are heroes who looked on Death. Each of them in his time descended to the dark beneath the world.
Of course, they all set out on that journey intending to come back.
Hephaestus did not give Achilles those stories to carry on his shield, on his shoulder. He did not give Achilles the stories of heaven either: not the triumph of the gods against the giants, not the glories of their rule.
Achilles’s shield tells no tale of glory at all.
Here is what is on the shield of Achilles: the land, the sea. The sowing and the harvest. The meeting-place where the lawgivers debate. The dancing-place where the youths link arms. The city and the country, the procession and the sacrifice, the sons and the fathers, the faithful friends.
The gods give Achilles all of human life to bear on his arm. That almost-more-than-human arm. He shoulders the shield and the fate of humanity together. Afterwards people tell Achilles’s story with the rest of the hero-songs, but he’s not a hero, do you understand? Hephaestus knew it. In the end, he’s not a hero, not a demigod, not a thing apart. He’s one of us.
Still Achilles has the strength to wear his rage as we all might wish to wear it. He blazes out on the battlefield. The blood of the gods is in him in his fury. He shines like a star. Here he is in his wrath and his grief, calling Hector’s name – Hector! – do you hear it, ragged from his perfect throat, as he cuts down the Trojans like a reaper come to harvest – Hector!
Hector hears it.
Hector has a wife, a son, a father. But Hector would be ashamed to flee. Shame is what happens when you turn glory inside out. So Hector turns to face Achilles. He faces him alone. No one else dares to stand on that field where the last and greatest of the heroes stare at each other.
Hector sees: rage. The rage that knows no pity; the rage that is almost bloody joy. Hector sees a figure blazing with unearthly fire, bearing god-forged arms. The face beneath the helmet is inhumanly beautiful. Hector is a mortal man, and he sees death coming for him with shining bronze.
Now do you remember the armour Hector is wearing? The armour he took from a dead man’s corpse?
The helmet hides his face.
Achilles sees: the man who killed his friend.
Isn’t it strange how nothing helps?
Achilles kills Hector. Murders him, in fact: when the duel is already won, when his enemy is on his knees and begging. Achilles avenges the death of Patroclus on the man who struck the deadly blow. And it doesn’t help.
And after that Achilles vents his rage on the helpless corpse. The body of Hector, who dreaded shame, is dragged in the trampled muck around the walls of the city, is given to the crows and dogs by night – and then again, the next day, and the next, and the next, while his wife looks on from the walls of Troy, his son, his father –
And that doesn’t help either.
And Achilles conducts a funeral for Patroclus, the kind of funeral that best fits a hero, with contests of skill to earn great glory. Achilles acts as judge and prizegiver that day, and he is just and generous, he is splendid, he is everything he should be. Afterwards he offers sacrifice after sacrifice at Patroclus’s tomb, not just oxen but human children, boys and girls of Troy, until even the other Greeks are drawing back in fear from the black pit of Achilles’ grief –
And none of it helps.
The days go by. There is still a war.
It’s a stupid war, but that hardly matters. There has to be a war. War is the crucible of glory.
Hector’s father was King Priam. He had fifty sons and fifty daughters, but none he loved more. After Hector died, Priam watched Achilles mutilate and dishonour his child’s corpse. He could have turned his gaze away, but he did not. He watched it all.
When he could bear it no more he went out by night, alone and unarmed, driving a wagonful of treasure hidden under dirty blankets. The gods speed his way, but perhaps they didn’t need to. How closely would the Greek sentries look at a broken old man?
Priam goes alone and unarmed to the tent of Achilles. He pauses outside. What is he thinking? His son’s body is here, staked out for the vultures. His son’s murderer is here too.
Priam, hesitating, hears the sobs.
Achilles is weeping for Patroclus.
Nothing helps, you see. You can be great, you can be glorious – swift and strong and beautiful – young, bold, proud – but nothing helps. You can do everything a mortal man could possibly do. You can kill the enemy you hate, and honour the friend you love. You can rise out of the pitchy darkness of your grief blazing with rage and shining like a star. You can call on the gods. You can cry to your mother.
But nothing helps.
Priam goes into the tent.
Shall I tell you how he begged for his son’s body? How he offered up his treasures and knelt to kiss those killing hands? Sometimes this story is told as a tale of Achilles’ relenting, and Achilles’ pity. I think it was Priam who pitied first. Priam, old and bent and broken, who if he had only had the strength might have wished to take up bloody bronze in his turn. Priam had mercy first.
Perhaps it was because he was old. Perhaps he knew grief better.
In the tent, kneeling at Achilles’ feet, the enemy king says: look at me. Remember your own father.
Achilles has made his choice. He made it almost as an afterthought. The Greeks in the camp now say: Achilles, who killed horse-taming Hector! He has won a great victory. Eternal glory crowns him. He will never see his father again.
Priam will never see his son again.
So they weep together, these two strangers. They are enemies. Achilles will kill more sons of Priam before the war is done. A son of Priam will kill him, in the end, with an arrow that bites into his heel. Hector’s death sealed both their fates: Achilles’ doom seems to leer over his shoulder, and Priam’s waits for him in the wreck of his city still to come.
But for that one night they sit together in the tent of Achilles – and there is the lyre cast aside, and there are the blankets where Patroclus slept – and they are the same, after all. They are human. And just like us they understand something the immortal gods do not know.