Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Shield of Achilles

So long as Greece’s finest champion, the favoured Achilles, nursed his wounded pride by the proud Achaean ships, the Trojan War slipped ever close to victory for the mighty city (For background to this, click here). With Zeus the Thunderer himself favouring Priam’s sons, Hector routs battalion after battalion of the Greek armies, throwing Achaea’s finest back against the ships themselves. Not even towering Ajax, cunning Odysseus, powerful Diomedes or Menelaus of the loud war cry could face the godlike Prince of Troy. Hector even manages to set the first Achaean ship ablaze, causing Patrocles, Achilles’ cousin and greatest friend from home, to beg Achilles to allow him to fight. Achilles relents, but commands strictly that he is to return when the Trojans have been pushed back from the ships. Patroclus takes the great warrior’s armour, and leads the Myrmidons against Prince Hector, setting into motion a chain of events which will spell doom for Priam’s citadel...
Patroclus cuts a bloody swathe through the Trojan ranks aboard his great chariot, and the tide of war begins once again to swing in Achaea’s favour. Fleeing in terror before what appeared to be Achilles himself, the Trojans are thrown back to the very walls of Troy itself. Forgetting Achilles’ dire warning not to go beyond the ships, Patroclus soon finds himself faced by Hector himself. This time however, the gods are decided. It is not Hector’s time. So, at the height of his prowess, and with Greeks clamouring for Trojan blood at the walls themselves:

Achilles mourns over the body of Patroclus
Painting by Nikolaj Nikolajewitsch Ge.

“ Death cut him short. The end closed in around him.
Flying free of his limbs,
His soul went winging down to the House of Death,
Wailing his fate, leaving his manhood far behind,
His young and supple strength. ”

A ripple of foreboding tears through both armies. Both sides fight for the body of the young boy, and many times it changes hands. At last, Menelaus manages to bear the corpse away from the fighting, while Hector and Aeneas break the Achaean lines once more. With Greeks fleeing in terror, Menelaus desperately tells a messenger, Antilochus, to send word to Achilles of the fate of his cousin, hoping at last he will be persuaded to rejoin the fighting. With trepidation, Antilochus approaches Achilles’ tent and finds him sitting by the shore. “Patroclus has fallen! They’re fighting over his corpse! He’s stripped, naked – Hector with that flashing helmet, Hector has your arms!”. A black cloud of agony swirls over Achilles, as he lies, broken with grief and rage. He smears dirt and ashes over his fine clothes and writhes in the dust. The women wail with sorrow, as the great runner begins to weep. But then Thetis, the nymph whose son Achilles was, looked down in pity:

                        “ I am agony – mother of grief and greatness – O my child!
                          Yes, I gave birth to a flawless, mighty son...
                          The splendour of heroes, and he shot up like a young branch,
                          Like a fine tree I reared him – the orchard’s crowning glory –
                          But only to send him off in the beaked ships to Troy! ”
                                                 - THETIS BEMOANS THE FATE OF ACHILLES

Thetis pleads to him to leave the war behind, knowing in vain that it is the fate of her son to die at Troy. But her words fall on deaf ears, as Achilles cares not whether he too is to be hurled to the House of Death, so long as he first stains the lands with Hector’s blood. Resigned to the inevitable, Thetis resolves to go to Hephaestus, the god of fire and the Smith, to forge for her son a mighty new suit of armour, one worthy of a demigod, one greater by far than the gear which Hector now bears. Soaring to the Olympian heights, Thetis throws herself at the feet of the god, and pleads for help. Remembering her kindness to him in ages past, when all other gods spurned him for his lameness, Hephaestus vows to craft the mightiest apparel a god ever made for a mortal. What follows is, in my own opinion, one of the finest passages in literature, as Hephaestus forges the Shield of Achilles. Turning his bellows on the fire, crucibles burning to the god of fire’s wishes, Hephaestus takes his great hammer in one hand and with the other grips the metal with his tongs. Laying down five layers of metal, emblazoned with finely crafted emblems, Hephaestus employs all his craft and cunning as he turns to forging the vast expanse of the Shield:

Painting by Rubens.

“ There he made the earth and there the sky and the sea
   And the ever burning sun and the moon rounding full
   And there the constellations, all that crown the heavens,
   The Pleiades and the Hyades, Orion in all his power too
   And the Great Bear that mankind calls the Wagon:
   She ever wheels on her axis, watching the Hunter,
   And she alone is denied a plunge in the Ocean’s baths. ”
                      - HEPHAESTUS LAYS OUT THE SHIELD

But the god does not stop there. On the shield he then forged two great cities filled with mortal men and women. There are weddings and feasts in one of these cities, and with torches brides are brought forth, marching through the streets, as the choirs sing. Young men are dancing in the street, some playing flutes and harps. The god’s hammer brings forth the people massing in the streets to see the procession. In one place, a quarrel has broken out, and two men are fighting. The crowd around them is cheering them on.

Hephaestus presents his mighty gifts to Thetis
Painting by Sir James Thornhill.

But the god does not stop there. Surrounding the other city, a divided army has set up camp, one side arguing whether to plunder the city or share the riches with the people. Within the citadel untold riches bound, and the people within do not surrender. Hephaestus’ toil carves the image of a raid, as the people hope to break the siege, with wives and children cheering them on from the towering ramparts. Ares and Athena lead them on in war, magnificent in their armour. Spying the enemy's flocks of livestock, the besieged try to take them, but the besiegers spot their ploy and ride to the rescue, and both sides hurl their spears, as Strife, Havoc and Death plunge into the field of war.

Thetis bears the magnificent gifts to Achilles
Painting by Benjamin West.
But the god does not stop there. He forges the image of a fallow field, and broad rich plowlands, as teams drive their cattle through. When they reach the boundary of the field, they pour a libation to the gods on high. It was an image forged in solid gold, “such was the wonder of Hephaestus’ work”. A king’s estate next emerges from the metal, where labourers harvest, reaping the grain as young boys pile up the scythed sheaves. The king in the centre, marvelling at the work. Next a thriving vineyard with endless grapes and climbing vines, all awaiting the hands of the workers, who place them in wicker baskets. The workers toil on, as a young boy plucks a lyre, serenading them with song. Next a herd of longhorn cattle, rumbling out of a farmyard along some rippling stream. Nine dogs accompany them, while a pair of lions seize a bull from the front ranks and drag him off in agony. The herdsman yells to his dogs, but to no avail. The crippled god of the Smith then forged a great meadow in a shaded glen, where dwell flocks of sheep and shepherd’s huts. Round the edge of the indestructible Shield, the god forged the Ocean River in its boundless power. His godly work near complete, he creates a breastplate brighter than fire, and a helmet perfectly aligned to Achilles’ temples.
Hephaestus lays the magnificent gear at the feet of Thetis, who loses no time in flashing back down to her son, bearing the most splendid gifts of the god of fire, the final act of the Siege of Troy about to begin...
As the first and arguably greatest work of poetry in the West, The Iliad deserves a place in the bookshelves of us all. The Shield of Achilles, whose description takes up Book Eighteen of The Iliad, is in my opinion one of the finest pieces of literature ever written, and is more than worth reading. The whole work is available very easily and at a low price from Amazon:
United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, my personal recommendation)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Iliad (Oxford World's Classics)
(A translation which omits some of the epithets in favour of 'easier' reading for the casual reader)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Iliad (Penguin Classics)
(A translation which retains much of the poetic meter, my personal recommendation)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Iliad (Oxford World's Classics)
(A translation which omits some of the epithets in favour of 'easier' reading for the casual reader)


  1. You might want to include a reference to the W.H. Auden poem "The Shield of Achilles", with its contemporary resonances to the story