From the initial callousness and stubborn temper of Achilles in the first books of the Iliad to the eventual humanization’ of Achilles in his interaction with the grieving father of Hector, whom Achilles himself slew, the Iliad can be seen to chronicle the maturation of the Greek hero during the terrible battles of the Trojan War.
Achilles is a hero in the epic sense, complete with flaws and bad qualities that round out the character, but with passions and convictions that any reader can relate to. Throughout the course of the Iliad, Homer creates the character of Achilles to be that kind of hero in every sense of the word. As the novel begins, we first meet with Achilles in his interaction with the great king, Agamemnon.
It may be said that Achilles shows himself to be a horribly hard-headed individual, and this is obviously true. But, in this encounter with the powerful king, Achilles also shows some of his more respectable qualities; such as courage, honor, and a sense of justice. Achilles does not feel that it is right that he or the rest of the soldiers should be punished for the brashness of their commander. So, as the epic starts to unwind, Achilles is described as a strong-willed, though a bit hot tempered, man.
It is in the following books that Achilles shows some of his not to desirable qualities, yet in these qualities the character of Achilles is ultimately developed. Homer describes the plot of Achilles to avenge his disgrace at the hand of Agamemnon. He has his mother, the goddess Thetis, ask Zeus to punish the Achaeans on behalf of her and Achilles. Zeus reluctantly agrees to this, and Achilles success in having the whole of his people subjected to a brutal and costly war to get his revenge’ on Agamemnon.
As the Trojan War presses foreword, taking countless lives of both Trojan and Achaean alike, Achilles stands by and watches, unwilling to participate in the battle even when an apology from Agamemnon and pleading from his comrades is presented to him. He replies in this fashion, “Love him so well, and you may lose the love I bear you. You ought to help me rather in troubling those that trouble me; be king as much as I am, and share like honor with myself; the others shall take my answer; stay here yourself and sleep comfortably in your bed; at daybreak we will consider whether to remain or go.” (Homer IX 613-620)
Achilles continues to refrain from directly engaging in the fight until his best friend, Patroclus, was killed in battle by the mighty Hector. Achilles is devastated by the loss of his friend, and he vows to revenge this atrocity himself. Achilles returns to the battlefield; and upon finding Hector, Achilles savagely slays the man with a spear into his throat. Achilles then allows the dead body of Hector to be mutilated by the sharp spears of his fellow Dannans. Achilles then proceeds to strap the carcass to his chariot and drags the body along, and ultimate act of disrespect and hatred.
Achilles is over the edge, the death of Patroclus has brought out a rage that can only be quenched with the blood of Hector. Achilles is in the same sense both utterly un-human and the essence of humanity in these actions. His treatment of the noble warrior Hector goes beyond the bounds of normal war customs at the time to quite barbaric levels. Achilles, it seems, draws satisfaction from the defiled corpse of his enemy. Yet, all of this hatred is derived from the very human emotions of sadness, grief, and especially love. The contrast between these two sides of Achilles is hinted at by Homer.
The comments of Achilles likening himself to a human and Hector to a beast can be viewed in both ways. Achilles says, “Dog, talk not to me neither of knees nor parents; would that I could be as sure of being able to cut your flesh into pieces and eat it raw, for the ill have done me…” (Homer XXII 345- 347)
In the last book of the novel, Achilles finally undergoes the final transformation in the story. He listens intently to King Priam’s plea to return the body of his slain son. The appeal works, and Achilles is actually moved by the grief of the father. Achilles is once again humanized, and his development as a classic hero is complete.