Writers create meaning as much through the material they exclude as by the tale they explore. In the twenty-fourth book of The Iliad, the poet ends his story of the Trojan war not with broken walls or burning towers but with a scene of reconciliation and human recognition. Nothing could be more dramatic than this extraordinary moment when the aged king drives out in the night to ask an enemy for the body of his son. It beautifully resolves the theme of the wrath of Achilles and perhaps can even enlighten us about the value of literature itself.
Homer sets the stage for this encounter masterfully. The passionate Achilles, grieving over the death of Patroklos, walks by the sea weeping. Occasionally his sorrow flames into anger. Then he mounts his chariot and furiously drags behind it the body of the man who killed his beloved friend. But the gods pity Hektor and protect his corpse from defilement, though he is “only a dead man.”1 Eventually, Zeus sends Thetis to command her son to yield the hero’s remains to the Trojans for funeral rites. Strangely, Achilles agrees with little comment. Perhaps he has begun to see the futility of his rage, or perhaps he simply does not wish to anger Zeus. Whatever his motivation, he assents quickly, and Iris flits to Priam, directing him to give presents in supplication.
As is usual in the epic, nothing is left in obscurity. From the origin of a cup intended as a gift for Achilles to the minutest detail of the mule cart being prepared, everything is explored and illuminated by the uniform light of the poet’s art. All this heightens the suspense, but when the last treasure has been stowed, the fierce old king sets out into the night with a solitary companion seeking the enemy camp.2
As they continue into the darkness, we sense a magical strangeness as if Priam is somehow traveling to the land of the dead.3 When they pause by the swirling Xanthos River to water their horses, a young man approaches. He turns out to be Hermes in disguise, and the god leads them to Achilles’ shelter, casting an enchanted sleep on the surrounding Achaian soldiers.
The king bursts into Achilles’ tent, surprising everyone. Clasping his knees in the traditional posture of a suppliant, he entreats him for his son’s body. He concludes,
“‘Honor then the gods, Achilleus, and take pity upon me
remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful;
I have gone through what no other mortal on earth
has gone through
I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my
So he spoke, and stirred in the other a passion of grieving
for his own father. He took the old man’s hand and pushed
gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam sat
at the feet of Achilleus and wept close for manslaughtering Hektor
And Achilleus wept now for his own father, now again for
And the sound of their mourning moved in the house.”4
It is easy to be enchanted by the bright surface of the Homeric narrative and begin to think of its heroes as perhaps lacking in self-awareness. And this may be true to a certain degree, but here, the undeniable pathos and emotional intensity burst through. Certainly, The Iliad was written in a culture with very different values. But, throughout, we see a great artist shaping materials he inherited from an oral tradition into a work that speaks to our hearts even after three thousand years.5
And in the present scene, we find an amazing transformation in Achilles as he sees in Priam the image of his own father. As Rachel Bespaloff writes, “The killer is a man again, burdened with childhood death. And here, I think, comes one of the most beautiful silences in The Iliad-one of those absolute silences in which the din of the Trojan war, the vociferations of men and gods, and the rumblings of the cosmos are engulfed.”6
Achilles is a fierce warrior from a culture that values glory and victory in war above all else. Yet now, with the enemy king before him, he sees not an adversary, but a man like himself, like his father, like Patroklos. And because of that recognition, he chooses to show pity and have compassion.
We know that this is only a moment. Tomorrow the war will resume. But if Homer had merely wished to celebrate the heroic exploits of his characters, he would have given us a very different tale. He chooses, instead, to select out of the whole cycle of myths surrounding the Trojan war this one incident. And by excluding the rest from the frame, he leaves us with a vision of our capacity for kindness.
And this has always seemed to me the right use of literature itself. For a remarkable kind of magic is contained between the covers of a book. We open it and begin to read, and by that act, we become, for a time, another person, seeing the world through different eyes. We stretch out our souls and become richer for the experience.
But perhaps the real magic begins when we close the book. Having lived and suffered in our imaginations as someone else, we can look up from the page. And in that moment, we may see, as Achilles did, not the face of an enemy but rather a father or a beloved friend.
We are often persuaded by the myth of progress to look indulgently on the works of the past. But Homer is not more primitive than Joyce or Thomas Pynchon. The art of telling tales is Protean. It flits from form to form, suiting its disguise to each new age that it may better teach us how to be human. And here, at the dawn of Western Literature, we find one of its greatest practitioners showing us the way.
1. Homer, Iliad, Richmond Lattimore tr. University of Chicago Press. p.497
2. Many modern scholars dismiss the idea that Homer intends to create suspense. (“The first thought of a modern reader-that this is a device to increase suspense-is if not wholly wrong, at least not the essential explanation.” Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis, Princeton University Press. p.4). However, I feel, particularly in this instance, the long, drawn-out preparations make it likely that this is the poet’s intent.
3. For the similarities between Priam’s journey and voyage to the underworld, see “Priam’s Catabasis: Traces of Epic Journey to Hades in Iliad 24” by Miguel Herrero de Jauregui, Transactions of the American Philological Association Vol. 141, Spring 2011, pp. 36-68
4. Homer, p.510
5. For the relationship between oral poetry and Homer, see The Traditional Poetic Language of Oral Poetry by Millman Parry, Homer, Modern Critical Views, Harold Bloom ed. Chelsea House Publishers, pp. 19-25.
6. Bespaloff, Rachel, “Priam and Achilles Break Bread,” Homer, Modern Critical Views, Harold Bloom ed. Chelsea House Publishers, p.34
The Sound of Their Mourning: Copyright Jonathan Golding 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork: Jerome-Martin Langlois, Priam aux pieds d’Achille, 1809, Public Domain