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There is a minor ambiguity in this title, which must be clarified for the purposes of this essay. The emphasis on an impression of the characters changing as you read more of the poem, may indicate the effect on a reader’s initial interpretation of the narrative. Initial reading of the Iliad and Paradise Lost is unlikely to reveal the subtleties of character development, the motivations behind their actions and the contexts in which the poets were creating their characters. A judgment based on the superficial content of these two poems would clearly not do justice to two of the most interesting characters in epic literature.
Similarly, the first time reader would probably not feel able to define their own opinions about Achilles and Satan after reading poems so dense with meaning just once. In the case of Satan the matter is more complicated because most readers would bring to the text a preconceived set of ideas concerning Satan and the image of him being simply the embodiment of all evil, as set out in Christian belief. Therefore I shall assume that the title refers to analysis of character progression in the narrative rather than the effect upon an initial reading of the poems.
The Iliad and Paradise Lost, it has been argued by C.S. Lewis , occupy two ends of the epic spectrum. Although the Iliad is set at the end of the Trojan War (an undeniably monumental event), its immediate subject matter is the action and the effects of the action of one man. Achilles’ wrath stimulates the war to the extent that the fall of Troy becomes inevitable after the death of Hektor, but in the process many heroic warriors are killed and the balance of power is shifted so that mediations on the values and ethics of human conduct are highlighted.
Paradise Lost, alternatively, deals with the human condition and its relation to the divine on the grandest scale possible. Satan’s quest against God provides the central focus of the poem, and it is his actions which drive the events in Paradise Lost and which makes his role adopt the heroic quality of Achilles’ in the Iliad. Hence, these two characters are central to either end of the great European epic tradition and their significance to Western literary values becomes paramount.
The insinuation in the title is that the reader will start by regarding Achilles as being morally wrong due to his refusal to fight after Agamemnon has ordered that Briseis be taken from him. Agamemnon is the leader of the conglomerate of Greek forces and is universally accepted to be so. It can be argued that coming from the House of Atreus and enjoying the favour of Zeus, his position should not be challenged insubordinately by Achilles. On a simple level, this position is quite clear; Achilles should acknowledge Agamemnon’s authority and acquiesce with his wishes, but the political implications of Achilles’ action are much greater than this.
Nestor, who can be seen to be an impartial and wise judge of affairs, stresses the importance of remaining loyal to his leader early in Book 1; “Nor, son of Peleus, think to match your strength with the king, since never equal with the rest is the portion of honour of the sceptred king to whom Zeus gives magnificence. Even though you are the stronger man, and the mother who bore you was immortal, yet is this man greater who is lord over more than you rule”. This is a plea from Nestor for the two great men to resolve their differences, for earlier in his speech he commented how Priam and the sons of Troy would be happy to see them quarrelling. Unity in time of war is essential even if it means the sacrifice of personal gains, a maxim which is as true today as it was on the Trojan battlefield.
However, if Achilles had continued to fight for the Achaian cause, the heroic code would have been broken by Agamemnon, for Briseis was awarded to Achilles for his bravery in battle, so Agamemnon should not take her from Achilles because of his own error in incurring the wrath of Apollo. This slight to Achilles’ honour is so great, that to simply accept it would also upset the status quo by denigrating his own stature as a hero. Agamemnon’s ignorance of the heroic code and his discourtesy towards Chryses causes the problem for he has a symbiotic relationship with Achilles whereby his political status has to be combined with Achilles’ martial prowess for the Achaian effort to be successful.
Nestor’s censure was not restricted to Achilles, for he also pleaded with Agamemnon to “not take the girl away but let her be, a prize as the sons of the Achaians gave her first”. The paradox of Agamemnon’s rule is such that his authority must be respected although his orders in the Iliad are often self-centred, and unwise; for example, the suggestion that they retreat in Book 2 and the test of his troops’ morale in Book 4.
This situation cannot be directly compared to a modern ethical dilemma because the structure of a modern army is such that insubordination is not tolerated in any fashion, i.e., the self has to commit to the combined effort (this applies to both Agamemnon and Achilles). Moreover, a modern war would not be fought for the motives of the Trojan War, i.e., the seduction of Helen by Paris. Achilles’ participation in the war is partly due to his quest for honour and fame and partly to help restore the honour of Agamemnon and his brother Menelaos (Helen’s husband before Paris).
He was not tied to the oath of Tyndareos and as he points out, he has no desire for revenge against the Trojans, for they have done nothing against him, so the disrespect of Agamemnon degrades his honour on two levels. For Achilles the problem of a loss of honour is more pressing than most as he is aware that his death is pending. He does not expect to ever see his father again and so the Trojan War is his last opportunity to gain the only immortality available to him – that of fame. With this knowledge the reader should consider what Achilles’ responsibilities towards the rank and file of the Greek army are.
The disrespect of Agamemnon makes it difficult for him to gain honour and fame, leaving his responsibility towards a conglomerate army of Greek states as an ethical problem for Achilles to deal with. It is this ethical dilemma that leads modern readers to see Achilles as being stubborn, sacrificing the lives of many warriors for his injured pride. Nestor is decidedly vituperative towards Achilles when he relates the battle of Book 11 to Patroklos; “Achilles, brave as he is, cares nothing for the Danaans nor pities them …Achilles will enjoy his own valour in loneliness” . But this statement was made after Agamemnon’s appeal to Achilles in Book 9. If the reader should feel sympathy for Achilles’ dilemma in Book 1, then opinion regarding Achilles probably reaches its nadir after Achilles’ rejection of the ambassadors.
The idea of Agamemnon weeping at the beginning of Book 9 is a tremendous Homeric image; “Agamemnon stood up before them, shedding tears, like a spring dark-running that down the face of a rock impassable drips its dim water”. Agamemnon’s acceptance that Achilles must be honoured is a considerable shift from his stubbornness of Book 1 and would indicate that with the restoration of honour to Achilles he will return to the battle. The Party of ambassadors which is sent to Achilles’ tent is a prestigious one which includes Odysseus, Aias and Phoinix and the gifts Agamemnon offers are truly great, including wealth and land, the marriage of his daughters, the honour of kings and most importantly Briseis whom Agamemnon swears he has not lain with.
Achilles greets the ambassadors with great hospitality, following the code that means he must grant his petitioners hospitality and security under his own roof. He is genuinely pleased to receive his friends but despite their pleas he refuses Agamemnon’s gifts; “all that you have said seems spoken after my own mind. Yet the heart in me swells up in anger when I remember the disgrace that he wrought upon me before the Argives”. He assures them that he will slay Hektor once the fighting reaches the Greek ships, leaving the reader to assume that Achilles’ ego is enjoying the supplication, knowing that his return to the battle at any point will bring him what he seeks; fame and honour. He seems quite prepared to sacrifice the lives of his comrades for his own gains.
This lack of pity is commented upon by Aias who observes that the just conduct of a true hero would be to honour those who honour him and accept the gifts as equivalent recompense for his lost honour in the same custom which demands a ‘blood price’ for a slain man; “Achilles has made savage the proud-hearted spirit within his body. He is hard, and does not remember that friends’ affection wherein we honoured him by the ships, far beyond all others”. Up to the point of the embassy, Achilles’ abstention from the battle can be reconciled against the conduct of Agamemnon, and the natural progression of the narrative would indicate that Achilles would accept the gifts in a heroic manner and return to the battle to save the Achaians from destruction.
However, Homer prolongs the dispute, making Achilles’ eventual return all the more poignant in the wake of Patroklos’ death and a low point for Achilles’ behaviour whereby his reintroduction into the heroic world involves more than simply the restoration of his honour. The selfish behaviour of Achilles can also be found in Satan’s character. He too has lost favour with his ruler (albeit more dramatically with a three day celestial battle and a nine day descent from heaven to hell) and embarks on a campaign of revenge, though his is a campaign of action rather than abstention.
That the reader should be initially attracted to the character of Satan is not surprising. That anyone should challenge God’s will is a tremendous prospect and one that evokes a sense of mischievous inquisitiveness, the equivalent attraction of watching a modern day horror movie which thrills us to suggest that the evil and grotesque can triumph. The magnificence with which Milton presents Satan is most apparent with his addresses to the legions of fallen angels in Books 1 and 2. The magnificence of Satan’s rhetoric is combined with a shared sense of injustice amongst his followers. Satan’s ability to raise the morale of his followers, to see glory where there was failure (“that strife / Was not inglorious, though th’ event was dire” ) and his commitment to the construction of Pandemonium and a quest against God is phrased in truly heroic language; “For since no deep within her gulf can hold / Immortal vigor, though oppressed and fall’n, / I give not Heaven for lost … we now return / To claim our just inheritance of old”.
Like Achilles, Satan desires a restoration of lost honour, although he and his rebels have an actual belief that God is morally wrong and therefore to submit to his rule would be cowardly and an injustice. Whether or not God’s rule is unquestionable by any being beneath him (i.e., all beings) is the pivotal question that determines the moral justification for Satan’s quest, but as William Empson commented, “Whether the rebels deserve blame for their initial doubt of God’s credentials, before God had supplied false evidence to encourage the doubt, is hard for us to tell; but once they have arrived at a conviction they are not to be blamed for having the courage to act upon it”. Empson compares the rebel’s renunciation of God’s divine right to the same radical choice that Milton made in renouncing Charles I’s.
It is impossible to assess the justice of the pre-creation heaven from which Satan was expelled. Without human affairs to preside over, the ethics and values of heaven at this time are even more difficult to compare to modern human conduct than that of the Trojan War. It could be argued that we are in no position to question Satan’s right to rebel and his reasons for doing it; however, the conclusions of the infernal debate in Book 2 do not shed favourable light on the intentions of the rebels as the rebels’ desire for justice in fact emerges into desire for self promotion and the establishment of a substitute heaven where divine values are substituted for infernal ones.
Satan emerges as a monarchist in Book 1; “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” , and the arguments arising from the debate in Book 2 range from Moloch’s desire to demonstrate the power of the infernal forces in what would probably result in senseless destruction, to Memnon’s wish to create a society in hell whereby laws and values of good and evil can simply be made to suit their own needs, rivalling heaven in power. Both of these ideas are based in a selfish desire, which can be translated into relevant human terms concerning fair and just government. The eventual decision, suggested by Beelzebub and endorsed by Satan is to respect the impenetrability of heaven and to attack God’s will so that “Some advantageous act may be achieved / By sudden onset, either with Hell fire / To waste his whole creation” . Thus Satan’s quest has become one of pure destruction, talk of liberty and justice disappears to be replaced by mere revenge for “a sense of injur’d merit” .
This analysis of Satan’s motives is, however, only seen through the magnificence of Milton’s poetry, designed to give Satan all the grandeur that a quest against God must have. When no one volunteers to seek this new world of Man, Satan volunteers himself. Milton’s language and sense of scale elevates this event above base motivation to a truly heroic act; “Satan, whom now transcendent glory raised / Above his fellows, with monarchal pride / Conscious of highest worth, unmoved thus spake … I abroad / Through all the coasts of dark destruction seek / Deliverance for us all” . On a purely superficial level, the reader would not want Satan’s mission to progress, but such a completely awesome scene as this invites the reader to dare to consider what the effects of this mission will be. When Satan meets Sin at the gates of Hell the reader wants Satan to be released to seek Man. Whilst his particularly gruesome heroic quest may be abhorrent, it is also fascinating.
Once Satan is operating exclusively, the reader’s view of his quest inevitably changes. In Book 4 we begin to understand that his aims are cowardly in the sense that his true aim of attacking God is one he cannot bring himself to do, therefore the attack on Man is the revengeful act of a flawed hero, a hero unable to carry out his true aims of overturning the alleged tyranny of an almighty ruler. The absence of his presence in Books 6, 7 and 8 allows the reader an insight of his character through the (probably biased) eyes of Raphael. Whilst describing the war in heaven to Adam, Raphael relates one of Satan’s speeches in which he rallies his armies and reveals the underlying aim of their rebellion; “Found not worthy of liberty alone, / Too mean pretense, but what we more affect, / Honor, dominion, glory and renown” .
Although this statement cannot be taken at face value, for Satan is a master of propaganda and the story was related by a celestial angel, Milton uncovers for the reader Satan’s essential motivation that had been suspected earlier. Additionally, the reader has become acquainted with pre-Fall Man. Adam’s conduct and his mediations on God and the universe present a very favourable picture of God’s creation. When Satan is reintroduced in Book 9, the reader’s opinion of his quest has altered as the deceit of his attack upon such pure beings as Adam and Eve becomes appalling without the mask of his early magnificent speeches (an egotist such as Satan needs an audience to perform to). The destruction of human innocence is (of course) highly relevant today, in the 17th century and any time back to the Eden.
With Satan’s mission complete, the reader’s inquisitiveness has been satisfied and God’s demonstration of his power by turning the boasting Satan into a hissing serpent is more than welcome. C.M. Bowra acknowledged the change in Satan’s heroic status and the ideas about Milton’s theology that changed with it when he said: The puritan in him condemned Satan and all his ways, but the artist wanted a redoubtable antagonist to God and endowed Satan with heroic qualities of courage and endurance. It is true that in the later books of Paradise Lost Satan becomes less heroic, but the first impression of sublime grandeur is ineffaceable and quite alien to the theology preached elsewhere.
If it is the actions of Satan which lose him favour with the reader, then it is Achilles’ return to the battlefield that redeems his excessive pride demonstrated by the rejection of the embassy in Book 9 of the Iliad. The two most emotionally charged events in the Iliad are the mourning of Achilles over Patroklos and Priam’s supplication to Achilles for the return of Hektor’s body. The conduct of Achilles in both cases evokes sympathy from the reader as he realigns his ethical standpoint and reassimilates himself back into the Achaian army. His reasons for allowing Patroklos to enter the battle in his armour are pluralistic.
He appreciates Patroklos’ desire to help the Achaian effort, but he realises that Patroklos can win honour for himself; “But obey to the end this word I put upon your attention so that you can win, for me, great honour and glory”. In warning Patroklos not to advance too far he justly warns him about reverence for Apollo, but he also does not want Patroklos to diminish his own honour by lessening the importance of his abstention from the war.
After the death of Patroklos, Achilles’ desire for revenge on the part of his friend presides over his constant self-referral. The mourning of Patroklos is put into context by comparisons with lament for his father, whom he knows he will never see again and who will die in old age. The mourning for Patroklos is particularly poignant, as they are not blood related (as compared with Agamemnon’s premature grief for Menelaos in Book 3, as they are brothers). The death of his friend awakens emotions within Achilles that go beyond his quest for honour and fame, and before re-entering the battle he recognises the relative lack of importance of Agamemnon’s insult; “So it was here that the lord of men Agamemnon angered me.
Still, we will let all this be a thing of the past, and for all our sorrow beat down by force the anger deeply within us” . The reconciliation between Agamemnon and Achilles is genuinely warm-hearted, but Achilles is now consumed with a desire for revenge and is keen to enter the battle. As the narrative reaches a climax, so Achilles’ martial prowess comes to the fore, as he shows no mercy when dealing with the Trojan warriors. During his combat with Hektor, Achilles is described in animal terms and his treatment of Hektor’s corpse would not gain favour with the reader aware of the nobility of Hektor’s character.
If the Iliad were to end in Book 22 then Achilles’ character would only receive a partial redemption in the opinion of the reader. His conduct appears to have developed a conscience for the Achaian cause, but at the expense of mercy and respect for heroes favoured by the gods. The resolution provided in Books 23 and 24 enables Achilles to be seen off of the battlefield and allows him to display the heroic qualities expected of him. Achilles’ tactful judgment in presiding over Patroklos’ funeral games is an impressive demonstration of his leadership and social ability, but it is the meeting with Priam which restores harmony to the Iliad and favour to Achilles.
Priam’s supplication to Achilles for the return of Hektor’s body impresses Achilles because of the personal danger within which Priam places himself. Achilles’ greater appreciation of honour than mere personal gain means that Priam’s personal appeal gains favour with Achilles, as compared with Agamemnon’s absence from the embassy in Book 9. Both men are in grieving for those closest to them and both are facing imminent downfall with Achilles’ understanding of his looming death and the inevitable Fall of Troy. The problems that they share transcend the war in their mutual respect and empathy.
Priam also appeals to Achilles’ lament for his own father and the image of ageing Peleus evokes tenderness for Priam and consequently favour from the reader; “He took the old man’s hand and pushed him gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled at the feet of Achilles and wept for manslaughtering Hektor and Achilles wept now for his own father, now again for Patroklos”. Achilles is in a very powerful position with Priam under his roof, but he acknowledges the correct conduct as a host by not informing Agamemnon of his guest’s presence and observing the code of hospitality as set out by Zeus.
The image of the two urns of Zeus is seen by Graham Zanker as being what Achilles offers “as the “theological explanation” of Peleus and Priam’s suffering [being] vitally important for the perspective it gives on the view of life that Achilles has now reached. It tells that the gods allot man either a mixture of good and evil fortune or bad fortune alone” . Achilles’ experiences in the Iliad have changed his views to the extent that his past indiscretions can be forgiven. The death of Patroklos can thus be seen as a positive force in shaping a respect for others in Achilles. As Zanker concludes; Achilles’ experience in the Iliad is unique amongst all the warriors, he alone can find companionship with Priam and his understanding of life and death may even be greater than the gods, whose immortality prevents them from seeing what he sees.
As in the Iliad, Paradise Lost achieves a sense of resolution, but one where the original protagonist has been relegated comprehensively to the role of anti-hero, leaving Adam and Eve to face a world of unknown pleasures and horrors. Both poems contain characters who transcend the ill-morality surrounding them: for Achilles it took death to appreciate life, and whilst Satan’s false quest may have fascinated temporarily, his favour with the reader is doomed with his selfish desire for destruction.
Bowra, C.M. Tradition and Design in the Iliad. London: Oxford University Press, 1930.
Empson, William. Milton’s God. London: Chatto & Windus, 1965.
Homer. Iliad. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Lewis, C.S.. A Preface to Paradise Lost London: Oxford University Press, 1942.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. New York: Longman, 1998.
Zanker, Graham. The Heart of Achilles. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1997.
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