Achilleus and Agamemnon quarrel. Agamemnon insults Achilleus. Achilleus is only nineteen, and it shows here. Achilleus declares he will have nothing further to do with the war, and that he is taking his followers and going home.
He seems to be doing this mostly for emotional reasons, but this is in fact a good time to leave. In both ancient Greek and pre-Christian Scandinavian literature, there is a certain point at which one’s Fate becomes sealed. If one knows one’s Fate and acts before that point, then one’s Fate can be changed through a decision. If no action is taken before that point, then there is nothing one can do or avoid doing to change whatever is to happen. Achilleus is fated to die very soon if he remains longer at Troy, and if Hektor dies before Achilleus leaves, then Achilleus will die soon after. Hektor is the foremost warror on the Trojan side, but Achilleus is quite aware of his Fate and that is probably why he has hitherto almost always avoided encountering Hektor. Achilleus can go home now and live the rest of his life honored almost as a God for the deeds he has already done, and having been grossly insulted he can leave now without shame or charges of cowardice. If he would live past nineteen, it’s time to go.
But God has turned against the Greeks and Achilleus is no longer with them and the fighting has grown even more intense than before, it is now what we would consider a real war. There is now a danger that the Trojans will beat the Greeks so badly that they will be able to burn the Greek ships and kill or enslave the whole Greek army. The Greeks are scared, and they have reason to be. Aias, Achilleus’ friend, asks Achilleus to rejoin the fighting for the sake of their friendship, then Phoenix, who has been like a second father to the nineteen-year-old Achilleus, asks Achilleus if he will abandon him to the mercy of a merciless enemy?
Achilleus should be making preparations to leave now, but he does nothing. Every hour he stays brings him closer to death, but he sees men he knows limping wounded from the battle. He cannot act, he paces in his tent. His lifelong friend, Patrokles, finally tells him that there are medicines to heal the wounded men, but there is no cure for the sickness Achilleus has. If Achilleus will not join the battle, at least let Patrokles put on Achilleus’ armor and try to frighten the Trojans into retreat. Patrokles had always been known more for his kindness than for any desire to kill, and Achilleus cannot refuse him. Patrokles fights in a manner that no one ever forgot, but at last he is killed by Hektor—and at that moment Achilleus’ Fate is sealed.
Theoretically he can still go home. Everyone knows he had announced that he was going, he is already late in boarding the ship, he had won so much respect for his previous deeds that failure to avenge Patrokles will be no more than a footnote, an insignificant smudge. Besides, he has concluded that the whole world’s opinion is not worth one moment of life (Iliad, IX, 315-320). Odysseus says something similar in the Odyssey (Odyssey, XI, 489-491). He knows that he will die soon after Hektor, there is no doubt as to what he should do.
And there is no possibility that he will do it; his Fate is already sealed. Like Oidipous and many other Greek culture heroes, he will not act according to what is advantageous or profitable, he will act according to his Nature. His life will not be an expression of what he wants, his life will be an expression of what he is.
He kills Hektor and he honors Patrokles with an elaborate funeral, with athletic contests and sacrificial victims. He has given up everything to do these things and now they have happened, and now what will he do? He wanders, dazed and unknowing. Now and then he drags Hektor’vs body behind his chariot, then he goes back to drifting, not knowing what to do. He has held something to be more precious than life itself, and that thing has prevented him from boarding his ships and it has insured his death. He will not now turn away from that thing, he will go farther still.
Priam, the father of Hektor, has smeared himself with excrement. His most beloved son is dead, his enemy is dishonoring his son’s body. Priam’s army has been defeated, and it cannot retrieve Hektor’s body, and so Hektor cannot be honored with a proper funeral. Priam must go to his probable death and his certain humiliation, he must beg the man who has killed his child. He goes. He steals into Achilleus’ tent and begs for his son’s body. He tells Achilleus that Achilleus’ own father must be the same age as himself, what would the father’s life be worth if anything should happen to Achilleus? Priam has no way of knowing that Achilleus is about to die, and that Achilleus knows he will never see his father again. Achilleus wonders at this feeble old man with the belly of iron, and Achilleus weeps for his father and for Patrokles, and Priam weeps for Hektor. Odysseus would have kept Priam and demanded an enormous ransom for his return. But Achilleus is who he is and he treats Priam with the greatest possible respect, and he returns Hektor’s body to Priam, and he will not allow the Greek army to attack again until enough time has passed to allow Hektor to be honored with a proper funeral.
Achilleus’ life will soon blink out, an arrow will come out of nowhere and take it. But the ancient Greeks understood perfectly well that the forces that make a life Holy are quite likely to destroy it. For Achilleus, all mediocrity has burned away, and he has become completely the power that has killed him, and that is stronger than life itself.