21 October, 2007

The Heroic Choice

The Iliad, a tale revolving around heroism, culminates in an epic battle between its two greatest heroes as Achilleus and Hektor fight before the walls of Troy. It is a climax predicted again and again, an event made inevitable by the will of the gods.
Yet simple human choice comes into play here as well. Hektor has an explicit opportunity to retreat as he hesitates before the wall of Troy, and when he decides against this course, he seals his fate more definitively than any god or goddess has. If Hektor’s hesitation is indeed the product of a choice, another question comes up: Is Hektor’s choice to stay and face Achilleus a heroic one?

Initially, it would seem that Hektor’s heroism should not even become a point of controversy, and that fate is more domineering in this case than I have given it credit for in my opening. His delay, as “deadly fate held Hektor shackled,” is described at first as the consequence of a divine compulsion (22.5). Later however, Hektor is “deeply troubled” by the choice he sees before him, and in this frame of mind, he debates several courses of action (22.98). While he cannot altogether evade his fated death,, a hero like Hektor seems to be responsible for determining its the “how,” “where,” and “when.” Hektor could delay his doom, or at least attempt to, but he explicitly chooses against this path.

Hektor evaluates three courses of action, distinguishing each from the others according to their varying “honourableness.” He could rush back through the gates of Troy while there is still time. However, this possibility is unthinkable for the Homeric hero who values honour so highly. Due to mistakes in his recent leadership, if Hektor takes this route, he will return to face disgrace among his people, who will “put a reproach on [him]” for his errors (22.100). The second alternative would incur even greater dishonour. Hektor could rush to Achilleus and beseech his mercy through promises to return Helen and all Menelaos’ stolen possessions. But in doing so, he would cast off his dignity as a warrior and offer things that were not by right his to give; after all, Paris stole Helen and the loot, and he alone could rightfully return them (cf 7.365-64). Worse still in Hektor’s mind is the possibility that Achilleus might kill him unarmed as he offers this appeasement, “as if I were / a woman, once I stripped the armour from me” (22.124-25). The third alternative, to stand his ground and fight, is the only one that accords with his standards of honour and is thus the one Hektor chooses. He vanquishes the first two alternatives asking, “why does the heart within me debate on these things?” (22.122).

From a modern point of view, the motives for this choice can seem more selfish than heroic. Hektor’s reasons for rejecting the second possibility are in part practical. It makes little sense to die begging but unarmed when he could put up a fight. But the alternative of returning to the city is not to be so lightly thrown aside. The reasons Hektor gives for discarding this option focus upon the opprobrium he will encounter if the city falls through his fault. However self-centered it may appear by from a modern perspective, however, I believe that this motivation is validly heroic by ancient Greek standards. The Iliad repeatedly emphasizes the importance praise, war trophies, and boasting of daring exploits hold for a hero. Achilleus, the paramount hero of the epic, evaluates honour in such a manner, taking personal prestige seriously enough to pray that his fellow Achaians be killed in droves until it is restored (cf. 1.408-12). Such heroic honour is at stake for Hektor if he returns to Troy in shame.

However, heroism in Homer’s world seems to consist of something more than mere glory. The greatest of heroes in The Iliad carry the burden of a fated life, and their heroism is further displayed in their reaction to fate and the will of the gods. Achilleus has his “double fate” – he carries “two sorts of destiny toward the day of [his] death” but must eventually choose one. His heroism is made dramatically manifest through his choice to die in glory and honour rather than to live unsung and without nobility (9.411). Sarpedon, Zeus’ son, is destined to be sacrificed for the sake of his father’s plan, but his words of encouragement to a companion in the midst of battle reecho as a sort of war cry for mortal heroes: “seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us, … let us go on and win glory for ourselves” (12.326-28).

Hektor chooses to shoulder his destiny in a similarly bold and heroic manner when he makes his decision to stand and fight. Unlike Agamemnon and many other warriors, he does not try to cast responsibility for his previous mistaken actions upon the gods. From this perspective, his decision, and even to a degree his motivations for this decision are veritably noble. He admits that “by my own recklessness I have ruined my people,” that he is responsible for the Trojans’ demise because he did not heed Poulydamas’ advice. He does not attribute this lack of judgment to the interference of the gods, despite the fact that Homer informs us of how “Pallas Athene had taken away the wits” of all the Trojans (18.311). The Trojan warriors had united with Hektor in rejecting Poulydamas’ counsel, yet Hektor takes full responsibility for weakening his city to the point of vulnerability when the moment for his fatal decision arrives. Likewise, he tacitly admits his complicity in Patroklos’ death by not protesting to Achilleus that he was only Patroklos’ “third slayer” – a weak excuse but one which has similarly weak precedent in the excuses of Agamemnon (16.850; 19.90). Hektor could have blamed both these actions on the gods or on fate. Yet he accepts responsibility as though his personal choice and nothing more brought on these catastrophes. In bearing the burden of his fate so deliberately, Hektor shows himself to be truly heroic.

Hektor’s motives for facing Achilleus are those of a man who, mistaken or not in his conception of heroism, acts honestly in accordance with that concept. Although a fated mortal, he accepts his fate with courage. This courage is great enough even to impress the gods and deserve their good will, as demonstrated by the way they carefully preserve the hero’s body during twelve days of battering (cf. 24.411-23). The words with which Hektor greets his impending death – “Let me at least not die without a struggle, inglorious, / but do some big thing first, that men shall come to know of it” – parallel those with which Sarpedon encourages his companions to heroism. And like his fellow hero and nemesis, Achilleus, Hektor chooses not to attempt to escape his fate only to die unsung and dishonoured, but rather chooses to die in glory and honour as a true Homeric hero.

As I'm sure you can tell, this is another paper. Stylistically, the biggest problem here is a slightly deferred thesis. I'm definitely going to watch out for that in my next papers!

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