Themes in The Iliad
Anger, Strife, Alienation, and Reconciliation
The main theme of the Iliad is stated in the first line, as Homer asks the Muse to sing of the "wrath of Achilles." This wrath, all its permutations, transformations, influences, and consequences, makes up the themes of the Iliad. In essence, the wrath of Achilles allows Homer to present and develop, within the cultural framework of heroic honor (see Critical Essay 1), the ideas of strife, alienation, and reconciliation.
The wrath of Achilles is provoked by Achilles' sense of honor as a result of eris or discord, which leads to the warrior's alienation from the Greeks and eventually from human society. Second, the wrath of Achilles sets him up in clear contrast to his great Trojan counterpart in the story — Hektor. Finally, the assuaging of Achilles' wrath leads to the reconciliation and reintegration of the warrior, first into his own community and second into the larger community of all humanity. When considering these three basic ideas that result from the wrath of Achilles, readers can see a grand design in the work that centers not so much on war as on the growth and development of an individual character.
Achilles wrath is initiated by his sense of honor. Honor for the Greeks, and specifically heroes, as readers have seen, existed on different levels. First, arete: the pursuit of excellence. Second, nobility: on the personal level, men had to treat each other properly; personal regard and honor from one's peers was essential to the proper functioning of society. Third, valor: obtained by a warrior for his accomplishments in battle. Fourth, and finally, the Greeks could obtain everlasting fame and glory for their accomplishments in life. The wrath of Achilles is based on each of these concepts.
Underlying the idea of honor is another Greek concept — strife, personified by the goddess Eris. For the Greeks, life was based on the idea of strife and turmoil. To try to avoid strife was to avoid life. A good life could be achieved by reconciling the factors that produced strife. However, war, nature, personality — everything — contained elements of strife that may not be completely reconcilable. This more elemental strife could lead to evil. Both types of strife are involved in Achilles' anger.
In a most significant way, Achilles' life begins with an attempt to avoid strife. His parents, the goddess Thetis and the mortal Peleus, invite all the gods to their wedding except Eris (strife). Eris, however, like the evil witch in fairy tales, attends anyway and tosses out the golden apple marked, "For the Fairest." Thus, strife enters at the wedding of Achilles' parents and sets in motion the events that will ultimately lead to the Trojan War.
On a more personal level, Achilles himself is an embodiment of stressful opposites. One parent is mortal; one a goddess. Consequently, he knows both mortality and immortality. He knows he must die, but he also has a sense of the eternal. He knows that if he avoids the war he can live a long life, but that if he fights, he will die young. He knows that glory and eternal fame can be his only through early death in war while long life can be secured only by giving up the ultimate glory a Greek seeks. At first, Achilles attempts to avoid the Trojan War by pretending to be a woman; but, as in a number of instances, his attempts to avoid an action lead directly to that action.
In the Iliad, Achilles' initial anger is a direct result of an act that Achilles perceives to be an attack on his personal honor. Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilles. In response, Achilles withdraws from the war, producing greater strife, both personally and within the larger context of the war. Achilles cannot reconcile his desire to fight honorably with his companions with his justifiable, but increasingly petulant, anger at Agamemnon. Moreover, Achilles' withdrawal produces the real strife of war, as the Trojans, emboldened by the absence of Achilles, attack the Greeks and their ships with increasing ferocity and success.
As a result of his inner conflict, his alienation from his society, and his inability to resolve this conflict, Achilles sends his companion Patroklos into battle as an alter ego. Patroklos even wears the armor of Achilles so that the Trojans will believe that Achilles has returned to battle. Patroklos is killed, and the turmoil within Achilles is magnified. Achilles sent Patroklos into battle instead of going himself; now he bears responsibility for the death of his friend. Also, now the Trojans are so empowered that they appear poised to win the conflict with the Greeks.
At this point, Achilles resolves the strife that led to his initial wrath but also begins the even greater wrath that results in the death of Hektor and almost takes Achilles beyond the bounds of humanity. Achilles is torn by his own responsibilities in the death of Patroklos and his hatred of the Trojans, specifically Hektor, who actually killed Patroklos. In the last five books of the Iliad, this conflict is transformed into the superhuman rage that Achilles displays as a warrior. After killing Hektor, Achilles allows his rage to move beyond death to desecration as he mutilates, time and again, the corpse of Hektor. At this point, Achilles is on the threshold of complete alienation from human feelings. Only through the recognition of his own kinship with both the living and the dead is he able to finally resolve the conflict and strife that has motivated his rage.
Reconciliation ends the wrath of Achilles and makes him more than a warrior hero. Achilles' anger occurs in two great waves. The first wave, his withdrawal from battle because of conflict with Agamemnon, ends when Achilles accepts Agamemnon's offer and reaches agreement concerning Briseis. Achilles' second wave of anger is over the death of Patroklos and ends when Achilles returns Hektor's body to Priam.
In both these instances, Achilles' wrath has alienated him from those around him. In the first case, he becomes alienated from the other Achaians, his companions in battle; in the second, from humanity in general. In each case, Achilles achieves a reconciliation that allows him to be reintegrated into both his the heroic community and the larger community of humanity. Even so, Achilles remains a hero who is not easily understood. He becomes accepted, and even admired, but never quite comprehendible in the way Hektor is. Through the process of reconciliation, Achilles becomes a memorable literary hero like Oedipus or Beowulf or Hamlet: heroic and noble, but still somehow apart from others, somehow different.
Through reconciliation, Achilles achieves a tragic dimension. If Achilles does not return to the battle, his anger would be nothing more than petulant selfishness. His return, and knowing that he will die in the war, makes him not only a hero but also a hero touched with tragedy. If Achilles does not return Hektor's body to the distraught Priam, then his wrath concerning Patroklos and toward Hektor's corpse would be nothing more than the rage of mindless vengeance. His kindness toward Priam, recognizing his own kinship with the dead and defeated, makes him not only a tragic hero but also an existential one.
The fact that Achilles does recognize his kinship with those he has killed is what raises the Iliad to the level of existential tragedy. This recognition of kinship by Achilles begins in Book XXII. Before he kills Lykaon, Achilles says, "Come friend, you too must die." Most commentators have seen this scene as a sublime moment in the poem in which Achilles asserts the inevitability of death and suggests a kinship between Lykaon, Patroklos, himself, and all the other warriors who have died or will die in battle. This recognition of death is similar to the recognition by Meursault, in The Stranger, that his execution, his death, is the bond that connects him to all humanity. Like Meursault, Achilles is an estranged person, and his acceptance of the inevitability of death is his ultimate assertion of a common bond with all humanity.
This notion of accepting death reaches its zenith when Achilles returns the body of Hektor to Priam. During the last few books of the Iliad, Achilles becomes more and more aware of his own impending death. Even as he rages against Hektor's corpse, he sees his own demise foreshadowed. At the funeral games he rejoins his fellow Achaians. And with Priam, he rejoins the circle of humanity.
That words such as alienation, existential, and tragedy can be used to describe the Iliad demonstrates the greatness of Homer's achievement. The ideas that underlie the Iliad are the ideas that underlie all great literature. Interestingly, the first great hero of Western Literature is also the first modern hero of Western Literature.
The Individual and Society
The contrast between Achilles and Hektor that weaves its way throughout the Iliad is really Homer's means of developing the conflict between individual values versus societal values. Achilles embodies the individual, alienated from his society, operating within the framework of his own code of pride and honor. He tends to represent passion and emotion. Like so many great epic heroes, he is ultimately not understandable. In contrast, Hektor, the great Trojan hero, is more human. He tends to exemplify reason over passion. He has a wife and son. He fights to save his city even though he knows the basis for the quarrel (Paris/Helen) is not worthy of the resulting destruction. Even in war, Hektor demonstrates more human qualities than Achilles. He hesitates; he gives ground; he is wounded; in the moment of crisis, he runs. Readers see more of themselves in Hektor, the family man who cares about his commitments. Achilles, the estranged loner, lies outside the reader's comprehension.
Homer develops his comparison between the value systems of these two warriors. However, no simple explanation is possible. Achilles defeats Hektor, but Hektor is more understandable, and, in most cases, more admirable. Neither one "wins" in the sense that the ideas embodied in his character predominate at the end of the poem. In fact, the ideals and values of both characters are criticized and extolled. If the contrasting values of the individual versus society produce meaning, it is that both are necessary for a fully functioning community.
In terms of values, Hektor clearly upholds the norms of society. Book VI is justly famous for its presentation of Hektor with those close to him — his mother, Hekuba; his wife, Andromache; and his son, Astyanax. In this book there exists a tenderness and intimacy of feeling that occurs nowhere else in the Iliad. Society depends on the bonds of love and family, and Hektor encompasses and fights for those bonds. Andromache seems to urge Hektor to leave the battle, but fleeing destroys the values of the society even more surely than fighting and losing does.
In contrast, Achilles has only Briseis, a prize of war. She is a slave/concubine, and while she evinces emotion toward Achilles and Patroklos, there is no real relationship between them. Achilles withdraws from battle because of Briseis, but only because he feels cheated of booty. Achilles is the individual, acting on the basis of a personal code, with little concern for how his actions may affect the greater community. Achilles follows his personal feelings without regard for the consequences on the community at large; Hektor sees his actions within the context of the overall community.
In terms of motive, Hektor is once again more understandable. Hektor is motivated by responsibility and obligation. He may want to remain in the city with Andromache and Astyanax, but he knows his obligation is on the battlefield. He impresses the same obligation on Paris. Hektor runs from Achilles, but a sense of obligation, spurred by Athena, makes him turn. Hektor, the societal hero, makes decisions based on reason, and, in fact, his reason and sense of duty can overcome the emotions of fear and panic.
Achilles, in contrast, withdraws from battle over a slight. He returns for revenge. His motivations seem to be superficial, based on booty and more deeply on idiosyncrasy. The individual hero fights for his own reasons that others may not understand. When Achilles determines to fight, the outcome for himself and for others is secondary to his goal. Achilles even argues against eating before the battle, so single-minded is he after the death of Patroklos. Hektor's steadfastness in the face of fear is admirable; but overall, the maniacal manner of Achilles is more impressive and effective.
Finally, Hektor is more human. He questions himself in battle. He is not invincible, as his battle with Aias shows. He longs for peace, and he desperately fears the towering rage of Achilles. In simple terms he is a human hero with human faults. Achilles, in many ways, lacks ordinary human feelings. He remains on the sidelines when his friends beg him to return. In battle he is superhuman with no care for his own safety. He fears ignominious death from the River God but not death. Achilles' only human feelings are revealed when he returns Hektor's body to Priam.
In the end, this contrast between Hektor and Achilles shows the contrast between the values of the individual and the values of society. By the end of the Trojan War, both Hektor and Achilles are dead. Neither warrior by himself embodies the values that result in ultimate success. Perhaps those values inhere that most crafty warrior, Odysseus, who has a more perfect blending of individual skill and human emotion. In the Iliad, we may say that Hektor would make a better neighbor but Achilles a better soldier. Homer shows the need for both.