Friday, November 21, 2008

The Iliad discussion: Books IX - XII

The Ambassadors to Agamemnon Visiting Achilles
Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Picture source

Book IX begins with Agamemnon declaring that Zeus has tricked him and he is planning on going home. Unlike Book II’s ruse, this time he seems to mean it. This is an interesting time for him to feel that way. Things have gone badly during the recent fighting and it is clear that both the Trojans and Achaeans believe Hector and his troops have the upper hand, but the outcome is far from determined. Diomedes’ speech declaring he will stay and fight sets the stage for Nestor’s council to Agamemnon. Agamemnon agrees that he was wrong to insult Achilles and allows the selection of three emissaries to offer gifts to the warrior for his return tp battle. The gifts, the men chosen, and their arguments all bear close attention.

The gifts include tripods, gold, horses, seven women plus Briseis (untouched) brought to Achilles immediately. In addition, if the Achaeans take Troy Agamemnon offers twenty Trojan women, more gold and bronze, the choice of Agamemnon’s daughters for marriage, and a dowry including land and cities to rule. It is interesting to note that these gifts echo the choices given during the judgment of Paris (wealth, power and women), although there is no direct reference to the precursor to Helen’s abduction in The Iliad (the judgment story may have come after the poem, which means there is not a timing question regarding Achilles’ age). The chosen emissaries are an interesting mix as well as providing insight to the warrior code. Note that Agamemnon does not go himself, but assumes that significant timê will automatically make everything better. He also assumes the usual parts of the code will persuade Achilles to resubmit to Agamemnon, the older man and greater king. Phoenix represents a familial tie, having helped raise Achilles in addition to being Peleus’ proxy during the war. Ajax, being a great warrior, can appeal to duty and comradeship. Odysseus’ oration skills were commented on by Priam, a great tactician in speech as well as in the field. While Agamemnon seems to assume the gifts are enough to convince Achilles to return, Nestor’s choice of emissaries is meant to ensure no angle is overlooked.

The speeches follow the general reasons each emissary was chosen. Odysseus lays out the military situation, recites the list of gifts offered, and adds a short postscript of his own. Odysseus realizes that Achilles may still hate Agamemnon, but calls on his sense of duty and comradeship to assist the other soldiers. In doing so, Odysseus stresses the kleos Achilles will earn. Achilles’ reply stands the warrior code and the entire concept of kleos on its head. “The same honor waits / for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death, / the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion.” The entire speech is masterful as Achilles works through his new feelings. His argument is roughly that we are all going to die so what does it matter how we meet death? Agamemnon has made timê irrelevant since he arbitrarily grants it or takes it away. Achilles essentially declares the code and shame culture no longer have meaning to him. Even more astounding is the revelation on the alternative fates available to him (as relayed by his mother): die fighting Troy but earning kleos, or having his glory die but living a long life at home. Not only is it uncommon for a mortal to know his fate, but to have a choice of fates is essentially unheard of. The second fate lies outside the codes and standards of the day, but it is the one Achilles says he has chosen. This floors the emissaries—they do not know how to respond to this although they try, using their prepared speeches even though Achilles has made it clear that he is beyond their reasoning.

Phoenix makes a nice try, cloyingly recalling Achilles' younger years and his role in raising the young warrior. Phoenix mentions his own fight with his father over a mistress and leaving home over the dispute, the reason he found himself in Achilles’ household. (A fight over a concubine with an older male authority figure—that sounds familiar doesn’t it?) Phoenix adds a story demonstrating the need for timely acceptance of gifts when they proffered. The use of an older story, meant to provide guidelines on appropriate action, does not reach Achilles who has made it clear he is beyond such guidance. Ajax addresses the comradeship and friendships that Achilles is turning his back on, which finally makes a partial dent in Achilles’ pride. He declares he may eventually fight, but not until the Trojans have fought to his ships. Odysseus relays Achilles’ responses to Agamemnon but he does not include Achilles’ comments to Ajax, mentioning that Achilles still intends to leave first thing in the morning. The Achaeans have no response to this, they are all struck dumb until Diomedes rallies them to rest before what promises to be a long day of battle.

A few quick notes on some highlights (to me) from the last three books in this section…
The sortie by Diomedes and Odysseus in Book X occurs that evening. Their execution of Dolon is the second plea for ransom that has been denied (Menelaus’ killing of Adrestus in Book VI was the first). Diomedes raises the point that Dolon would eventually return to battle, so killing him cuts short the possible annoyance. Dolon is a character we can pity, but to Greek audiences he was probably beneath contempt with his sniveling and cowardice. There are a couple of deaths in The Iliad that I remembered long after my first reading, and Dolon’s is one of them:

With that, just as Dolon reached up for his chin
to cling with a frantic hand and beg for life,
Diomedes struck him square across the neck—
a flashing hack of the sword—both tendons snapped
and the shrieking head went tumbling in the dust. (Translation by Robert Fagles)

As Diomedes finished, Dolon was intending
to cup his chin with his strong hand in supplication.
But with his sword Diomedes jumped at him,
slashed him across the middle of his neck, slicing
through both tendons. Dolon’s head rolled in the dust,
as he was speaking. (Translation by Ian Johnston)

People die in every conceivable manner, graphically detailed, but that image still haunts me as does the question of the denied ransoms. The kleos associated with the timê offered in each case would be great, yet after over nine years of war are they moving beyond a desire for war? Is it a comment on the true nature of war and the human cost involved on all sides? Or is it simply foreshadowing what happens after Troy's fall? Killing their captive appears to be acceptable under the rules (and provides its own honor), but that choice instead of gifts and honor stands out for me.

The dawn at the end of Book X leads to a long day, both in terms of action and pages. Early in Book XI, Agamemnon has his glory on the field, but that fades as he and the other Achaean leaders are wounded. Achilles shows interest in finding out about a casualty, but not out of concern for their well-being but instead wondering whether he will be begged to return. I had forgotten two details regarding Patroclus’ visit to Nestor. The description Patroclus gives of Achilles (when telling Nestor he does not have time to sit) echoes Homer’s descriptions of the gods with words like “awesome,” “quick to anger,” “great and terrible”. It is easy to forget at times that Achilles is only half human and how other humans around him view that status. The second detail comes when Nestor plants the idea in Patroclus’ mind to wear Achilles’ armor. While this excites Patroclus and ultimately leads to his death, the contrast with Achilles is apparent both from wanting to help his fellow soldiers by fighting with them as well as helping Eurypylus with his wounds.

I don’t have much to say about Book XII right now, although maybe more so in the context with the next section (Books XIII – XVI). The entire work is suffused with acknowledgment that the Trojan War occurred in a different age, calling to mind Hesiod’s different ages of man, and there are a couple of direct references in this book. During this story, gods interact directly with men, gods and mortals have offspring, and mortals were more powerful. The epics exist for several reasons, such as providing examples and guidelines on how to act or even simply to supply entertainment. But at times there is a wistful “they don’t make ‘em like that any more” feel within the story.

The next post should cover Books XIII – XVI, which continues this long day of battle and ends with Patroclus’ death.


Bill said...

In "The Best of the Achaeans" Gregory Nagy has some interesting observations on the embassy. Nagy believes that Achilles didn't like Odysseus. He suggest that Achilles snubs him all through the embassy by using the dual tense when speaking to them instead of the plural. This makes since particularly when Achilles talks about them (Ajax and Phoenix) being old friends. Why would Agemmenon said the one guy that everyone else knew was the worse choice?

Dwight said...

Bill, in case I haven't done so already, thanks for your comments.

Odysseus seems to be a choice for two reasons. First, his reputation for cunning and wit should have helped in swaying Achilles. But he seems to be phoning his speech in to Achilles, almost as if he doesn't care if he rejoins (at times that's how it seemed to me). The second reason would be that each man was chosen to appeal to a different aspect and Odysseus makes perfect sense for the military angle.

I guess there are more reasons, such as Odysseus making a good foil for the speech Achilles responds with.