The Emobidment of Human Tragedy in the Illiad
Why raise the curtain on this 45 day by 45 night saga? In a story whose ending everybody knows already, why choose these actions of these characters to expound upon? The Iliad is not a war tale one might tell in which friends love friends, who in conjunction hate enemies, and all fight quite openly for comrades, for righteousness, and for glory—for here wherein lies a single truth? Or a story worth telling? The Iliad instead is a story of confusion, of vagueness, of mixed messages and muddled motivations. And it achieves its primary meaning not through fearless Achilles or great Hector, but through the relatively minimal Patroclus. It is Patroclus who by following his heart challenges the sharply outlined ghost of the war story, who erases neat contours distracting attention from hollowness that allows for such perfection. The flexibility of his character (in comparison to the epic’s traditional heroes) and the misuse of his valiant death (by the epic’s traditional heroes) effectively paint Patroclus as The Iliad’s true tragic hero.
Characters in The Iliad tend to have rather clearly defined attitudes regarding their positions in the current state of war. While most of them are two-dimensional pawn figures who mainly serve the purpose of slaughter, the warriors of focus on either side—Hector and Achilles—also exemplify the horse-in-blinders view of the situation. Hector explains his bloodlust in terms of the surge toward immortality, daydreaming, “‘there’s the mound of men who died in the old days, / one of the brave men whom glorious Hector killed.’ / So they will say, someday, and my fame will never die” (Fagles, 7. 103-105); meanwhile Achilles justifies his stubborn absence from battle as a self-righteous stand against immorality, exclaiming, “when one man attempts to plunder a man his equal, / to commandeer a prize, exulting so in his own power. / That’s the pain that wounds me, suffering such humiliation” (Fagles, 16. 61-63).While those around him are so set in their ways, Patroclus is torn between his loyalty to his friend Achilles, and his loyalty to his comrades-in-arms the Argives; he wishes to purely serve both, to do ill unto neither. When he sees the Trojans bearing down so hard that his fellow Achaeans may break, he does not take the plunge into bloody betrayal by rushing to assist, but does what he thinks is right: goes to Achilles and implores permission to fight. His turmoil over the decision facing him is never more palpable than in this exclamation to Achilles: “Pray god such anger never seizes me, such rage you nurse! / Cursed in your own courage! What good will a man, / even one in the next generation, get from you / unless you defend the Argives from disaster?” (Fagles, 33-36) He obviously does not fully understand Achilles’ actions, the motivations behind his immobility, but he loves his friend so dearly that he has of yet put aside his own doubt and entrusted him absolutely.
As the death of Patroclus illuminates the shady, narrow alleys that are the outlooks of the supposed heroes Achilles and Hector, it likewise shows that war is no glorious transcendence, no abstract pitting of one principle against another—no; war is personal.
Patroclus, in his capacity to see his setting from angles other than his own self-serving attitude, and in his seemingly innate sense of complexity, resonates with listeners, viewers, and readers better than the singular bloodlust and selfishness of his contemporaries. As the narrator notes, “So he pleaded /” (Fagles, 16. 53)—demonstrating his respect for Achilles, that he would first ask him—“lost in his own great innocence…/ condemned to beg for his own death and brutal doom” (Fagles, 16. 54-55)—demonstrating an intrinsic goodness that compels him to defend his fellow soldiers, to share in their cause. And as birds sweeping above, around, side to side through the landscape of war and emotions, the audience (in contrast to space-time stuck characters) benefits from a broader grasp of warring emotions; therefore we identify more easily with Patroclus’ dilemma. I say this realizing that Patroclus’ murderous intentions are no more benign than those of his comrades, and that he is likewise indoctrinated in a culture of war.
But he need not harbor revolutionary ideas about peace and loving the enemy to win our sympathy. Were he so exceedingly unique as this, the spotlight would shine away from Hector and Achilles, and onto him; were he thus too perfectly formed and anachronistic, he would not be a tragic hero—that is, as close to human as we can get. For we know that such strength of love, such ferocity of loyalty in these times of war will lead to nothing but lawlessness and chaos. Nothing but tragedy.
As the death of Patroclus illuminates the shady, narrow alleys that are the outlooks of the supposed heroes Achilles and Hector, it likewise shows that war is no glorious transcendence, no abstract pitting of one principle against another—no; war is personal. Patroclus enters into conflict with the noblest of selfless intentions, as he hoped aloud to Achilles, “I might bring some light of victory to our Argives!” (Fagles, 16. 45) But ghostly tragedy emerges perhaps at the same moment—perhaps in the same form—as the soul of Patroclus escaping in his breath, for the honorable death so founded upon this very breath is abruptly and immediately spun into a vitriolic web of personal vendetta. This violent juxtaposition of Patroclus’ idealistic death against the reactions it elicits—the bloodthirsty pursuit that Hector leads and the vengeful streak that leads Achilles—facilitates the tragedy: these creatures of war use Patroclus.
Before Hector deals him his final blow, he taunts him: “and how he [Achilles] must have filled your ears with orders…/ ‘don’t come back to the hollow ships, you hear? / Patroclus, master horseman— / Not till you’ve slashed the shirt around his chest / and soaked it in the blood of man-killing Hector’” (Fagles, 16. 978-983). He thereby appears to revel in some giddy vision which locks himself in one-on-one combat with Achilles. Indeed this very telling outburst suggests a downright personal obsession with Achilles, which he assumes is reciprocated. Killing Patroclus seems to Hector to be the surest way to wound Achilles, to make Achilles feel Hector’s power and influence. He is right. Achilles’ state is thus described: “Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust / Achilles lay there, fallen…” (Fagles, 18. 28-29). And furthermore, if it were in fact Achilles’ attention Hector sought, he doubly succeeded; for if he did not occupy Achilles’ thoughts before, he certainly does so now. Achilles dons his armor for no other purpose than to avenge Patroclus, to destroy Hector absolutely; says Achilles to the dying Trojan, “And you—the dogs and birds will maul you, shame your corpse / while Achaeans bury my dear friend in glory!” (Fagles, 23. 397-398) So even to his best friend, Patroclus becomes a tool; a pretense; a mere channel through which to express the smothered instincts of a warrior, through which to satisfy rage.
If they cannot value the sincerity of Patroclus’ sacrifice, then, what hope is there for either side in war? Where is hope in senselessness? Where is triumph in hopelessness? That is it—The Iliad is no tale of triumph. We do not leave it with the urge to plunder and conquer. Instead we come away from this story, with its odd beginning and its odd ending, carrying a strange sense of sadness we cannot quite place, seeming to reside perhaps somewhere in the chest, somewhere around the heart, seeming to smother its sounds, as if to keep it from speaking, as if to keep us from listening.
Homer. The Iliad (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition). New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.