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Achilles vs. Hector in the Iliad

 

In the Iliad, many of the male characters display heroic

characteristics, consistent with the heroic warrior code of ancient Greece.

They try to win glory in battle, yet are often characterized as having a distinctly

human side. They each have certain strengths and weaknesses, which are

evident at many times throughout the conflicts described in the Iliad. Prime

examples of such characters are Achilles and Hector. These two characters

have obvious differences in their approaches to fitting the heroic mold to

which they both try to conform. However, despite their differences and the fact

that they are fighting for opposing armies and meet each other with hatred in

battle, they also have numerous similar traits which logically lend themselves

to a comparison between the two men. They both display behavior that could

be described as heroism. The first way in which Achilles, who fights for the

Greeks, and Hector, who fights for the Trojans, act differently is how they

approach war and the inevitable violence and death which accompany it.

 

Although Achilles knows that he is fated to be killed in battle, when his faithful

and devoted friend Patroclus is mercilessly and dishonorably cut down in

combat, he puts aside his pride and chooses to temporarily forget about his

previous feuds with Agamemnon that have up until now prevented him from

participating in the war. He joins the fighting with a deadly and vengeful

mindset that will likely play a major factor in the outcome of the war.

 

Today,

this lust for revenge might be considered a glaring character flaw. However,

this passion for retribution undoubtedly conforms to the heroic code of Greek

society. Meanwhile, Hector is full of indecision and reluctance about whether

to take part in the war. He too believes that fate has dictated that he will be

killed in battle. He spends much time with his pleading wife Andromache, who

begs him not to go to war, both for his sake and for his familyÕs. He does not

want to die and thus widow Andromache, leaving her "at the loom of another

man." Indeed, when he bids farewell to his young son Astyanax, clothed in his

shining war gear with gleaming helmet complete with plume crest (the

quintessential picture of a bold Greek soldier going off to battle, which today is

a symbol of courage, bravery, and true heroism), Astyanax cries with fright,

showing that bravery and heroism in war cannot coexist with the care and love

that a father shows to his son. Thus, while Hector is indeed heroic is his

departure for the war, his human side is overshadowed by this. Another

situation in which Hector and Achilles use different approaches to behave as

heroes is in Book Twenty-Two, the main section in which Hector and Achilles

and their separate personalities and character traits interact. Hector, now

courageous as ever and boldly confronting his fate, decides to remain outside

the ramparts of the fortified city, within which the rest of his supporters that

might defend him are safely secure. Priam, HectorÕs father, upon seeing the

advancing Achilles, implores Hector to retreat behind the safety of the walls,

but to no avail. Pride and honor play a role in preventing Hector from backing

down. HectorÕs fearless confrontation of his destiny is an extremely heroic

action. However, then Hector flees from Achilles, behavior quite unlike that of

a hero. One might infer that now HectorÕs human instinct of survival is playing

a role. This illustrates a seemingly-common conflict among characters who

might be considered heroes: the internal contest between the heroic code

within the character and the human emotions and instincts that sometimes

present contradictory impulses to the heroic code. Each hero responds in a

different manner to this conflict. Hector, in this case, decides to react upon his

human impulses and flees from Achilles, who instantly gives chase. After a

cunning trick by Athena which causes Hector to decide to stand his ground

and fight, perhaps the most conspicuous contradiction between a warriorÕs

heroic code and the warriorÕs human side is evident. Achilles, vengeful and

bloodthirsty, kills Hector in a manner which, by todayÕs standards, would be

unnecessarily cruel and barbaric. He allows Hector to die a slow and agonizing

death, after which he shamelessly desecrates the body, without caring in the

least about the feelings of HectorÕs family and supporters. These actions are

undeniably consistent with the heroic warrior code of the Greeks, which puts

tremendous value on valiance in battle and merciless retribution.

 

Nevertheless, even the most valiant and stonehearted soldier must have a

human side, which definitely must object to the savage and brutal killing that is

ubiquitous in war. On the other hand, when Achilles and his soldiers get some

type of obscene pleasure and glee from repeatedly and grotesquely stabbing

HectorÕs lifeless and bloody corpse, another kind of human emotion is being

displayed. This is the pent-up anger and hostility that builds up during oneÕs

quest for revenge or simply battle, being directed towards the most apparent

figure or symbol that represents the source of this hatred. So, it might be

concluded that the heroic code and the human emotions might not conflict with

each other after all. The final major decision taken by a pivotal character in

the Iliad is also in need of a careful analysis. When Achilles decides to return

HectorÕs body to his father Priam that it might be honorably buried, he is

violating the unfeeling and uncompassionate heroic code to which he earlier

tried so hard to conform. He has decided to act upon the nobler human quality

of pity and sympathy and anotherÕs loss, even when the loss is that of a hated

enemy. Truly, in this scenario, Priam had to simply draw on the common bond

through which all humans feel linked, for no amount of rational thought would

have swayed Achilles to make this compromise of principle. Ultimately, this is

an excellent way to end the narrative of the Iliad, for it shows that Achilles, the

character with which the reader most often identifies, has exhibited his

independence from the heroic code and that he is capable of making

decisions that have no basis in precedence, and that he is able to choose his

own destiny and live his own philosophy, and one who accomplishes this is

truly a hero by anyoneÕs standards. In conclusion, a careful comparison of the

actions and thoughts of the two characters provides the reader with a perhaps

unexpected insight. It seems that while Hector is indeed possessive of a

human side, in that he is afraid of dying in war, he loves his wife and family,

and does not at first want to accept his fate, Achilles is in fact the more human

one. He uses both his human emotions and the warrior code that he learned

since childhood appropriately and in proportion, so that there is the least

friction between the two and so that the resulting actions are indeed admirable

and praiseworthy. He is able to construct a perfect formula containing both the

heroic code and the human mind that presents the most ideal result. Achilles

seems to have successfully navigated his way through the heroic progression

in this manner. Thus both Hector and Achilles behave as heroes throughout

the Iliad. While they both try to win glory in war for their families, their country,

and themselves, they both have certain strengths and weaknesses in their

character which dictate their very different courses of action and their

thoughts. They are both presented with conflicts and dilemmas throughout the

story, the resolutions of which must be made using both their intuitive human

side and their aggressive heroic side, and it appears as if Achilles meets with

the most success in this difficult task. Therefore, the heroic warrior code and

the human conscience present certain contradictions to which the characters

must respond in order to survive and in order to achieve their goals.

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