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Achilles Essay, Research Paper

Alex Hastie

The House That Homer Built


Have You Met-A-Physical Journey?

Throughout life, we are all faced with some kind of journey that must challenge us to make us grow up. There are two kinds of journeys; the physical and the spiritual. The physical journey entails overcoming a tangible barrier (e.g. a test of strength or a rite of passage). A spiritual journey causes one to reach a higher level of human consciousness and to find meaning in their journey (e.g. a pilgrimage or meditation). All heroes undergo some sort of physical confrontation, whether it be war or a clash with a supernatural being. However, only great heroes endure both journeys. It is this metaphysical journey, a supernatural journey of the mind and body, of the hero that draws the readers attention. The journeys of Achilles, Odysseus, and Inman portray man’s search for meaning of life.

In The Iliad, Achilles was the greatest fighter among all the Achaeans during the Trojan War. The mere presence of his mighty form caused all opponents to fear for their lives. But suddenly, he stopped fighting. Achilles’ fragile ego had been crushed by the Achaean commander Agamemnon. Agamemnon stole Achilles’ geras and severely damaged Achilles’ time and kleos (all of which crucial to the Iliadic society). Achilles retired from the ranks of war and sulked in his tent while his comrades fell. However, over the course of the epic and his absence from war, Achilles underwent a great change.

In Book One, Achilles was the great warrior, but after being embarrassed by his leader, left the battlefield and returned to the ships. All he could do was pray for his revenge and his chance to redeem his kleos. However, in Book Nine, Achilles no longer cares about the prizes stolen from him. Achilles learned that the possessions he gained from war could only last him so long. He had accepted his fate (whether to live short and be remembered forever or live long and be forgotten). Achilles outgrew his Iliadic wants. Achilles, known for his prowess in battle, in Book Nine now showed excellence in council. The new Achilles outwits the crafty Odysseus. He did not succumb to the guilt of Phoenix. Also, he shrugged off the feeble attempt by Ajax. It would take something more important than Agamemnon’s gifts and well-placed words to make Achilles return to battle.

Finally, it happened. Patroclus, Achilles’ dearest friend, was sent out into the battle under the guise of Achilles’, wearing his immortal armor, but was slain by the Trojan warrior Hector. Since hearing the news, the Achilles of Book One and Book Nine was no more. Achilles the man died and Achilles the animal was born. For the next five books, Achilles raged onto the battlefield, killing everyone in his path. Mercy was no longer a concept to Achilles. Achilles waged on for no country, Achilles killed in the name of anger and revenge. No geras, no dream of time or kleos mattered at all to the animal Achilles. At last, when Achilles had defeated his enemy Hector, he further rejected societal values and defiled the dead body by dragging it three times around the mighty walls of Troy, forbidding the Trojans to give Hector a proper burial. Not until his confrontation with King Priam in Book Twenty-Four was Achilles brought back to his human self. Priam had lost his greatest son, Hector, and Achilles had lost his greatest friend, Patroclus. For a moment the two were equals. The new Achilles of Book Twenty-Four showed compassion, generosity, and mercy to the once great king. Now back to normal, Achilles waited for his life to end and his fate to be completed.

The Odyssey portrayed the story of the great Odysseus on his journey home after the Trojan War. Overcoming countless trials and obstacles, Odysseus learned lessons about himself and about the world. Upon the end of the war the Iliadic Odysseus was not ready to return home. His war-like tendencies for geras and kleos did not work in regular society(in fact it only lengthened his journey, e.g. telling his name to Polyphemus as he was leaving the island of the Cyclops). Odysseus’ journey provided him a means to readjust to society.

Odysseus was both a great man of body and mind. In any situation during the war, he could rely on one or the other to help him. His journey, however, caused Odysseus to reevaluate his feelings about his strength versus his mind. For example, on the island of the Cyclops, the Iliadic Odysseus would have surely died. By using strength alone, Polyphemus would have destroyed Odysseus and his crew mates. Using his wits and invoking the ideas of xenia also failed Odysseus. By using a combination of strength and wits, Odysseus saves practically all of his party. Another thing Odysseus learned about himself was his limitations as a mortal. Some situations just cannot be won. For example, Odysseus’ encounter with the creatures Scylla and Charybdis, any physical confrontation proved to be futile and any attempt at using his wits would prove the same. All Odysseus could do was run and hope he escaped unscathed. Through his journeys, Odysseus learned when to fight and when to run and fight another day.

The Odyssey was more importantly about Odysseus’ search for the meaning in his life. His journey taught Odysseus what was truly important. Like in The Iliad, society believed in prowess in sport, battle, and council (arete) and an excess of geras. Odysseus had the arete, but like Achilles learned to disregard the geras. Possessions could come and go. There was something else more important than things – home (after all, home is where the heart is). Throughout his trials and his “trials” (wink wink), Odysseus could only think of his son and, most importantly, his wife Penelope. After his “death” (his journey to the underworld), Odysseus was “reborn” a wiser man. From the ghost of Agamemnon, Odysseus learned to value a good wife. From the ghost of Achilles, Odysseus learned to enjoy his time on the land of the living and the importance of life itself. Once Odysseus returned to his native Ithaca, he uses all the knowledge he acquired to regain his home. After twenty long years of strife, Odysseus was finally ready to return home (now that he knew what home really was).

Another hero to undergo a metaphysical journey in The Odyssey was Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Telemachus set out to find any news of his father. Over the course of his journey, under the watchful eye of the goddess Athena, Telemachus learns the skills to make him a man. Telemachus learned the art of conversation among guest and host from both Nestor and Menelaus. Telemachus also learned the values and true meaning of xenia (most evidently shown in him kindly rejecting the horses offered to him by Menelaus). Before Telemachus’ odyssey, he was no threat to the suitors. Telemachus carried on within the ranks of the suitors, unable to do anything to stop them. Once he returned from his journey, however, the suitors could no longer neglect Telemachus’ presence in the house.

Cold Mountain tells the tale of a confederate soldier, Inman, after he retreated from the Civil War. The hero, Inman, paralleled the heroes from the works of Homer. Like Achilles, Inman fled from the ranks of war. Like Odysseus, Inman journeyed back to his home before the war. However, there were also differences between the three. Inman did not share the same luxuries as the other two heroes. Achilles spent his days locked away in his ship with all the necessities he could need. Odysseus had his problems at times, but always had something. Inman, on the other hand, squandered everyday for food and shelter. Any scrap he could find, any handout offered, even the slightest bit of generosity Inman would gladly take. Most importantly, the outcome of Inman’s journey was totally different.

All along his journey Inman dreamed of returning to Cold Mountain and his love Ada. However drunks, federal soldiers, and others stood in the way of his journey. Like the other heroes, Inman embarked on a journey of knowledge. Using skills he knew from home and advice he picked up along his journey, Inman learns more about himself and about the world around him. Throughout the novel, Inman dreamed of returning to Ada. But at other times, Inman dreamed of a life without Ada, simply living on Cold Mountain. Once he returned home and saw Ada, the meaning of his life and his journey became clearer. Ada had changed too much since Inman last saw her. Ada had become self-sufficient, no longer needing Inman to help her through any work. Cold Mountain, though, remained the same, mysterious as ever. Inman slowly started to realize this, but unfortunately he died before making his choice.

All three heroes were looking for meaning in a chaotic society. Each had to find the meaning of their journeys outside of civilized society. Achilles left his duty in the Trojan War to search within himself. Odysseus was kept away from all “civilized” places for almost twenty years. Inman was forced through the unyielding forests of the South. Throughout their hardships, they all persevered.

All three attained a state of nirvana, a moment of clarity where everything in life became apparent, where they discovered what was sacred to them. Achilles found comfort with his friends in Book Nine. Odysseus learned through his “ordeals” with Circe and Calypso how important Penelope was to him. Inman, after shooting the bear cub, learned to love nature and everything Cold Mountain meant to him more than he had before.

The metaphysical journey is essentially the search for the meaning of life. The question concerning the meaning of life has plagued man over all of time. Some of the greatest philosophers the world has ever seen have tried to tackle this question. Still today, we have no definite answer for that question. Some believe it to be a successful life (either morally or materialistically). Others think the answer is something deeper or meaningful. Each of the three journeys already discussed show a different meaning for each individuals life. Perhaps the reason no answer can be agreed upon is because there is no definite answer. Everyone has a different meaning for their life.

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