29 March 2013
Epic Heroes in the Iliad: Achilles and Hektor
The Iliad, an epic poem by Homer, takes place in the last month of the tenth year of the Trojan War. It is about two warriors, Hektor and Achilles, fighting in the war which was started by Paris, a Trojan prince who kidnapped a Greek princess named Helen. The protagonists of an epic are called epic heroes, and all epic heroes share four traits. First, as World Masterpieces explains, an epic hero is usually part-god or from a royal family. “The epic hero possesses […] a driving desire to immortalize himself through [brave] deeds. All heroes desire eternal glory and fame”(345). In addition, epic heroes often receive help from the gods. Finally, epic heroes experience heroic conflict, which is a choice between duty and desire. “[An epic hero] is faithful to his family, his country, and his god. […] he knows he has responsibilities” (Allen 2). Achilles and Hektor are good examples of epic heroes because they have high birth, desire good reputations, receive divine help, and experience heroic conflict.
As epic heroes, Achilles and Hektor both have high birth. Achilles meets the requirement of having high birth because he is a demi-god and from a royal family. Ovid explains that his mother is a sea goddess and shape shifter. This gives Achilles divine blood. Achilles has even more divine blood though his father, Peleus, who is Zeus’ grandson (XI. 235, 250-252, 235). Peleus also gives Achilles royal blood since he is a king. Like Achilles, Hektor is from a royal family. Hektor’s father is King Priam of Troy, which makes Hektor a prince (World Masterpieces 332-333). However, he is not descended from the gods. Bespaloff explains, “Neither superman, nor demigod, nor godlike, he is a man, and among men a prince” (127). Therefore, both warriors have noble backgrounds.
All heroes experience heroic conflict – the choice between duty and desire – and Achilles must make many choices about whether to do the right thing or what will make him happy. First, Achilles must decide to either fight or leave the war. Achilles has a responsibility to the other Greeks: because he is their best fighter, they really need him. However, Achilles would rather leave the battle to hurt Agamemnon. He tells Agamemnon, “[…] I am returning [home], since […] / […] I am minded no longer / to stay here […] and pile up your wealth and your luxury” (Homer I. 165-167). The fact that Achilles leaves the war because he is angry with Agamemnon shows how selfish Achilles’ decision is. In fact, Achilles is so selfish that as soon as he leaves the war, “[Achilles] convinces Thetis to persuade Zeus to help the Trojans defeat the [Greeks]” (World Masterpieces 343). Eventually, Achilles does decide to fight again. As noted before, it is especially important for Achilles to fight because without him, “the Greeks / [are] hurled in their multitude to the house of Hades […]” (Homer I. 1-3). Although Achilles is doing his duty, he is still acting selfishly because he fights only to gain honor. As World Masterpieces explains, “without exploits, he can only sing glory and eternal fame instead of achieving it by killing or being killed in battle” (332). The third and final time Achilles must choose between duty and desire is when he kills Hektor. At first Achilles gives orders to see if the Trojans will surrender once Hektor is dead, but then he chooses to bury Patroklos instead (XXII. 282-295). Thus, Achilles put his friendship above the lives of his whole army. In every situation, Achilles chooses desire instead of duty.
Unlike Achilles, Hektor always puts duty above desire. The first time Hektor has to make such a choice is when Helen asks him to sit with her (VI. 30-34). Griffin says that in Homer people would rather not fight (92). So it is probably tempting to stay with Helen however, Hektor tells Helen, “[…] you will not persuade me [to rest here with you]. /...