Essay about Achilles' Influence and Morality in "The Iliad"

Essay about Achilles' Influence and Morality in "The Iliad"

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From the first few lines of the Iliad, Achilles’ influence is evident; the poet describes “…Achilles’ rage, / Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks / Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls / Of heroes into Hades’ dark, / And left their bodies to rot as feats” (1.1-5). The extremity of the chaos described is suggestive of the level of power only a god would have, which immediately distinguishes Achilles from ordinary mortals. In the first book alone, Achilles is visited by Hera, Athena, and Thetis, and through Thetis is able to bring a message to Zeus himself, who respects his honor and grants his prayer. Epithets set Achilles apart: he is “godlike Achilles,” the “beloved of Zeus,” and the Greeks’ “most formidable hero” (1.8, 82, 156). From his superhuman strength in battle to his overwhelmingly influential emotions, Achilles is essentially a god, except for one vital quality: he is mortal.
Achilles is constantly anticipating his own death, for he knows he must choose between two fates: “My mother Thetis ... / Tells me two fates sweep me on to my death. / If I stay here and fight, I’ll never return home, / But my glory will be undying forever. / If I return home to my dear fatherland / My glory is lost but my life will be long” (9.423,424-28). Not only is Achilles mortal, but he is forced to perpetually dwell on his own mortality and try to make sense of it, since he is ultimately granted the power to choose his own death. This choice is a contradiction: determining fate is a godly ability, but death is solely experienced by mortals.
Achilles’ impending death is his defining characteristic, the fatal flaw that separates him from both the gods and the humans. He recognizes his tremendous strength and his resulta...

... middle of paper ...

...melus / Something else from my hut, I will do so’” (23.572-73,575-76). With his godly rage calmed, Achilles naturally slips into the character of a respected leader. His identity seems to finally settle into that of a leader among men, relating to his peers while remaining distinguished. The peaceful, admirable Achilles that surfaces at last is perhaps the most tragic identity of the poem. For Achilles has already chosen his fate by killing Hector, as prophesized earlier by Thetis: “Hector’s death means yours” (18.101). In an ironic twist of cruel fate, Achilles adopts the role of diplomatic leader – the role he could have chosen if he had returned home – immediately after he chooses the alternate fate. It is the death of Hector that returns him to a humane state; it is the death of Hector that eliminates all options, leaving only an inevitable imminent death.

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