Read an Excerpt
From Bruce M. King’s Introduction to The Iliad
The Iliad, then, even as it sings the immortality of its heroes, suggests an end to their imagined era and to the political order that is located there. Indeed, one of the great feats of the Iliad is to pose a critique—centered upon the withdrawals and speeches of Achilles—of the heroic order and the possibilities that it offers for mortal happiness. From this point of view, the essential work of the Iliad is one of negation—again, the epic is unjust with respect to the old, but potentially beneficent with respect to the future. The old heroic order—for all its blinding beauties and exaltations, for all its aspirant motion toward the realm of the aesthetic—is also revealed as unable to quell strife and its attendant violence, as conducive to no just stability and, finally, as a desolation to its own greatest heroes (as the complaints and career of Achilles will dramatize). To the extent that it thematizes the obsolescence of the old heroic order, the Iliad reveals an orientation toward the future; the poem cannot invent the forms that will govern the future, but it can present to the future a kind of tabula rasa, upon which the poet’s audience might reinscribe new meanings out of the wreckage of the old, upon which the heroes might be reassembled and once again directed toward human ends.
If the warrior order is permanently unmade over the course of the Iliad, it is upon the Shield of Achilles (XVIII.540–681) that the poet depicts a collective way of life closer to the historical experience and communal ethos of his late eighth- or seventh-century audience. The Shield is forged by Hephaestus, the god of craft, at the request of Thetis, Achilles’ mother. This new and immortal shield replaces Achilles’ prior shield, which he had given to his beloved Patroclus, who lost it—along with his life—in combat with Hector, the Trojan prince and defender. In a distillation of pure fury following the death of Patroclus, Achilles has resolved to return to battle to avenge the death of Patroclus, with the full knowledge that his return will necessitate his death at Troy. When the Dawn-goddess delivers the gift of the Shield down from Olympus to Achilles’ camp, his companions, upon seeing the images worked upon the Shield, are struck with fear and avert their gaze (XIX.16–18). They cannot look upon the “splendor” of the Shield, for in the depiction of the way of life there—which is that of the poet’s own audience—the heroes see their own obsolescence. Achilles, however, gazes long upon the brilliance of the Shield with a combination of adrenal anger and deep pleasure; his eyes gleam back in response, as if themselves afire. The vision that he sees upon the Shield—of a world without heroes, of a world without the relentless martial strife of the Iliad itself—is the source of a renewed, visceral anger for Achilles because it is a world whose possibilities are not meant for him. Yet the vision is also a source of pleasure to him because it is of a world that his own great paroxysm of killing rage in the final quarter of the poem will usher in. In his pleasure at the sight of the Shield, Achilles can, as it were, acknowledge his own role in the foundation of the world to come, even if his role is preeminently one of extraordinary negation: Achilles is the hero whose discontent fully lays bare the failures of the heroic order from the point of view of mortal happiness, while his surpassing strength permits him to make that discontent murderously actual, as he devastates much of the heroic order itself in the final books of the poem. His perfection is such that he is both the culmination and the destruction of the traditional form.
Among the images upon the Shield, it is the depiction of the wedding procession and, in the passage immediately following, of a communal process of adjudication in a case of murder that are foundational for the city-state (XVIII.554–560 and 560–574); both images appear on the second ring of the Shield, in the city at peace. In the wedding procession, the “high-blazing” torches illumine a scene of music and revelry; the sight provokes wonder: The promise of the wedding—which we do not see concluded, but always in motion—is one of social unity, the joining together and mutual strengthening of families withinn the city. In the Iliad itself, such unity is always in pieces, defended in speech even as it is sundered in action. The Achaean cause at Troy is, of course, the recovery of Helen, whose wedding to Menelaus is overturned by her flight, whether compelled or voluntary, to Troy. The martial expedition to Troy presents itself as a defense of the conjugal union and, by extension, of the social work that the wedding accomplishes—primarily, the joining together of families and the establishment of a new social unit that might, in turn, offer guest-friendship to others and to outsiders, thus creating further links of social exchange and comity. And yet, as Achilles complains with great and piercing sarcasm in book IX, the larger social principle epitomized by the defense of Helen and her marriage has been granted no general applicability, but seems to apply only to Agamemnon and Menelaus.