Homer’s Iliad: Book XIX
Questions for Book XIX:
- How does Agamemnon justify his earlier alienation of Achilles in front of the Greeks when Achilles is about to return to the war?
- When Achilles, ready for battle, calls upon his horses to do better this time and bring back their charioteer (him) when the fighting is over — not to leave him lying there as they did with Patroclus — what is Xanthos’ (a.k.a. Roan Beauty’s) response (besides “okay”)?
Grieving over Patroclus, Achilles indulges in thoughts about the grossness of death:
“the carrion blowflies
will settle into his wounds, gouged deep by the bronze,
worms will breed and seethe, defile the man’s corpse —
his life’s ripped out — his flesh may rot to nothing”
The notion seems to bug Achilles, and no wonder: he has to come to grips with this human side of himself. So notice the Hamlet-like obsession with the nauseating physicality of death. His mother Thetis finds him sobbing and wailing over Patroclus’ corpse when she delivers the new armor made by Hephaestos. She also stuffs Patroclus’ nostrils with ambrosia and nectar to preserve the corpse.
Achilles repeats a moment we’ve seen a couple times before in which he gets himself riled up and consciously tries to beat down his emotion: “Now, by god, I call a halt to all my anger” (19.77). Again, that’s not the way it works; this is no solution to rage-aholism.
Agamemnon, meanwhile, has elaborated on his story about the events in Book 1:
“I am not to blame!
Zeus and Fate and the Fury stalking through the night,
they are the ones who drove that savage madness in my heart,
that day in assembly when I seized Achilles’ prize —
on my own authority, true, but what could I do?
A god impels all things to their fulfillment:
Ruin, eldest daughter of Zeus, she blinds us all”
He reiterates his new dynamics of blame: “that maddening goddess, Ruin, Ruin who blinds us all … the Ruin that blinded me from that first day” (19.151-162). Odysseus advises a very public re-alliance between Agamemnon and Achilles, and a banquet setting for it, but Achilles is too consumed with wrath.
“You talk of food?I have no taste for food — what I really crave
is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men!”
It’s still wrath; it’s just to be directed elsewhere now. So he adds fasting to his list of extreme behaviors (19.249f). Most of the gifts Agamemnon promised Achilles some time ago are brought forth, with the insistence that he did not have sex with Briseis. Briseis, presumably a female ideal here, goes into the grief melodrama when she sees Patroclus dead:
“she flung herself on his body, gave a piercing cry
and with both hands clawing deep at her breasts,
her soft throat and lovely face, she sobbed”
Achilles is so intense that all but the key Greek captains take off. Achilles notes the absurdity of fighting over “that blood-chilling horror, Helen” (19.387). Athena sneaks some nectar and ambrosia into Achilles’ system to give him the strength he’ll lack from his starvation.
Finally, the arming of the horses includes Achilles’ address to them and Xanthos’ response.
“And Roan Beauty the horse with flashing hoofs
spoke up from under the yoke, bowing his head low
so his full mane came streaming down the yoke-pads,
down along the yoke to sweep the ground …
The white-armed goddess Hera gave him voice:
‘Yes! we will save your life — this time too —
master, mighty Achilles! But the day of death
already hovers near, and we are not to blame
but a great god is and the strong force of fate”
Achilles is a bit snippy in response, but he’s now facing stage one of his final fate: he’s bound not to live long after Hector’s death. So even horses blame Fate! This may throw some light on how we are to take Agamemnon’s cheesy excuses, if Homer is showing the irresponsibility of blaming Fate and the gods and is mocking this inclination, since it resides even in horses. And yet, why did he unnecessarily blame the gods for otherwise the natural response the Trojans had to Hector a couple books ago?