Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Hector and Achilles

We return today to the thick of the action, as the Trojan War reaches its climactic showdown, culminating in the most legendary confrontation in history - the duel of Hector and Achilles. The end was coming. For ten long years Greeks and Trojans have fallen in their tens and their thousands. For ten long years the mightiest heroes have been hurled to the House of Death. For ten long years strong walled Troy has weathered the storm, Prince Hector standing valiantly between the endless ranks of Greece and the city itself...

Andromache bids farewell to Hector
Painting by Anton Pavlovich Losenko
But the tide has turned, with the slaying of Patroclus, Achilles' own cousin, Hector had sealed the Fates. Now, Greek hordes pour across the great plain of Troy, a lone figure far in front, driven mad with rage. The goddess Athena herself at his side, Achilles thunders across the plain, with Trojan battalion and Trojan god alike blasted from his path. The war has divided even great Olympus itself, with gods and goddesses torn in their loyalties, with many of their own children fighting on both sides. But now not even Ares, the god of war himself, can stand in the way of Fate. Hurling a vast boulder at the god, Athena brings murderous Ares crashing to the ground, Troy's greatest ally at last lying broken in the dust. His glittering form, bearing the armour forged by Hephaestus (for this story, please click here), god of fire and the forge himself, Achilles has no mercy for the sons of Troy, as their blood spatters his magnificent cuirass. Trojans flee in blind terror before the onslaught, desperately seeking the safety of the city, with but one man, Prince Hector, boldly facing down the coming doom. High on Troy's unbreakable walls and wizened with age, King Priam eyes the chaos of the field in despair. Calling his people back inside the walls with urgency, he sees another proud son of Troy rush to confront the carnage. Brave Agenor, another noble soul, incensed at the reversal of Troy's fortune, charges Achilles down. Barely days ago the Greeks were pinned against the beach, desperate, all hope seeming lost, as Hector even burned the first of their ships, and now Fortune had cast Troy a deadly hand. Taunting Achilles for his audacity, Agenor hurls his spear at the golden figure. His aim was true, as the deadly point soared straight at the son of Peleus' thigh. But no! A resounding clang rang out as the gleaming gifts of Hephaestus held true. Achilles' turn, but he is denied his prey, as Lord Apollo, god of the sun deflects his throw. The god spirits Agenor away, defiant against the turns of Fate. Achilles makes hot pursuit, bellowing threats at the god, oblivious to the fact that no man can slay a god.

Hector and Achilles
Painting by Rubens
As the wrathful hero clad in gold bears down upon Troy's gates with irresistible force, King Priam cries out to his son in vain. Having watched so many of his sons slain by Achilles' hands, he cannot bear to watch his favourite fall. Pleading with Hector to retreat within the walls, Priam's shouts are in vain. Moved to deranged grief at the coming judgement, the King of Troy tears his hair out in anguish, his Queen leading the women of Troy in a chorus of tears. But Hector is unmoved. To retreat now and enter the city, why he would die of shame, and disgrace would be heaped upon him. He considers for a moment, a fleeting thought, that maybe he could simply give Helen up to the Greeks, and hand over the riches of Troy to Agamemnon and Menelaus, the sons of Atreus (and grandsons of Pelops, whose story is told here). But no, Achilles will never see mercy, so bent on destruction is he. Any chance to end this war through words has gone, only death can bring that now. Hector, for a moment, cast his thoughts back to the peaceful days:

                                 " But Achilles was closing on him now
                                   like the god of war, the fighter's helmet flashing,
                                   over his right shoulder shaking the Pelian ash spear,
                                   that terror, and the bronze around his body flared
                                   like a raging fire or the rising, blazing sun... "
                                                        - THE HOUR OF HECTOR APPROACHES           

As the sun shone on the glorious arms of the gods bound to Achilles' form,  and the favour of the gods was arrayed against him, the spirit of Hector broke. Overcome with a human fear, a fear for life, Troy's last hope ran, desperate to push back the moment of his doom. Mighty Achilles, however, was relentless, tearing after Hector all the way, never letting up. Three times around the walls of Troy they ran, all eyes fixed upon them, the eyes of gods and men. High on Olympus Zeus the Thunderer looked down in pity at Hector's plight. Adamant, Zeus demands the gods decide once and for all what is to be Hector's fate, shall he be spared from the hand of Death this day, or will Achilles strike him down at last? The King of the Gods wishes greatly to spare Hector, but Athena protests, as if Zeus goes against the will of the Fates, the gods will no longer be loyal to him. Resigned to the coming end, Zeus bids Athena go forth and do as she feels is right, powerless to intervene as he is this time.

The Body of Hector
Painting by Jacques-Louis David
Far below on the Dardan Plain, as the two heroes reach the Gates of Troy for the fourth time, the hour as come. For all the gods to see, Zeus holds out his scales of gold, and within he placed the fates of both men, one for Hector the Prince of Troy and one for mighty Achilles. As the Thunderer raised them high, down fell the fate of Priam's son. As Zeus commanded Apollo to stand down, and all gods loyal to Troy to pull back from the field, Athena triumphantly soared down to Hector's side, and in her cunning took the shape of Deiphobus, another of Priam's sons. Warmed by the sight of his dear brother, the deceived Prince of Troy is heartened that he is no longer alone, blind as he is to the goddess's schemes. Athena speaks with the voice of Deiphobus, and sows fresh courage in Hector's heart, the valour which once broke the lines of Greece. Shouting in defiance of the Fates, Hector turns and faces his enemy boldly. Offering a pact to fierce Achilles, that the victor will return the defeated body of his foe to his friends, and not allow it to be the sport of crows and dogs, Hector appeals one last time to Achilles' mercy, but:

                             " A swift dark glance
                               and the headstrong runner answered, 'Hector, stop!
                               You unforgivable, you... talk not of pacts to me.
                               There are no binding oaths between lions and men..."
                                                    - ACHILLES TO HECTOR

Achilles Triumphant
Painting by Franz Matsch
All words spent, the hour of battle had come. With a godly throw, Achilles cast his deadly spear at the Prince of Troy. Ducking barely in time, Hector was spared the Hand of Death, as the bronze point pierced the ground. Unperturbed, Athena wrenched the weapon from the Earth and returned it to Achilles, hidden from Hector's eyes. Courage building, Hector is elated, if Achilles can miss, perhaps there is hope? For the countless thousands of Troy's sons whose blood stains the Earth now, Hector marshalled all his strength and hurled his own lance, its murderous point soaring through the air. A direct hit! But woe, though the spear struck the Shield of Achilles' dead centre, the craft of Hephaestus was not so easily undone. Not for the first time, with a deafening clang did a spear spin off the armour of Achilles. His strength sapped by his throw, Hector railed with frustration, shouting out to loyal Deiphobus to pass him another spear. But Deiphobus was no longer there, and Hector realised the trickery deployed against him. Embracing his fate at last, the noble Prince of Troy roared, "So now I meet my doom. Well let me die, but not without a struggle, not without glory, no, in some great clash of arms that even men to come will hear of down the years!"

With one last burst of glory, Hector took his sword from his side and lunged at Achilles, as an eagle which has seen its prey high up in the sky soars down to its hapless quarry. With a shout of rage, Achilles dived too, the rays of the sun falling upon his metalled form, as though the hero was aflame. Since Hector wore the armour that Achilles himself once wore, before it was torn from the lifeless form of Patroclus, Achilles' aim was true. With all his might Achilles drove his spear through Hector's throat, as the Prince of Troy at last fell broken to the dust. His lifeblood gushing from his wound, Hector gasped for breath, struggling against approaching Death. With his last efforts, he implores Achilles to give his body to Troy. But no, Achilles, inhuman with anger, savagely taunts the fallen Prince with what is to come. As the darkness begins to fall over Hector's eyes, and he at last begins to know peace, he calls down one last curse upon his conqueror, foretelling Achilles own demise will come, as soon he will join him in the House of Death. As the spirit of Hector is borne to the Underworld, the Greeks explode with shouts of triumph, as Achilles tears the armour from Hector's back. His foe's death alone unable to sate his rage, Achilles pierced Hector's ankles, threading a leather strap through them and binding them to his chariot. With a lash of his whip, Achilles charges around the walls of Troy, the lifeless Prince dragging over the harsh ground, with the eyes of all Troy on this outrage...

As the most famous duel in history, the final confrontation of Hector and Achilles is as legendary today as it ever was in ancient times. The poem which tells its story is one worthy of the epic events themselves. You can find it and read it (and trust me, its worth it) in the Iliad, one of the earliest surviving works of literature in the West. For over 15,000 lines of some of the greatest poetry ever written, for the price of a cinema ticket, you can get it easily of Amazon:

United Kingdom

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

Oxford World's Classics:
The Iliad (Oxford World's Classics)
(A translation which forgoes some of the poetic epithets, more suitable for the casual reader)

United States

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

Oxford World's Classics:
Iliad (Worlds Classics)
(A translation which forgoes some of the poetic epithets, more suitable for the casual reader)

1 comment:

  1. i wanna know hectors wifes opinion on the whol battle between achilles and hector. nobody ever got her opinion