Achilles subsequently takes revenge, slaying Hector in combat and desecrating his unburied body—knowing all along that his own death is fated to follow Hector’s. So while Achilles has the glamor of extremity, it is Hector, more than any other character, who feels real to us, bound by competing obligations, anchored to his world and its claims.Many readers are familiar with the poignant choice that Achilles has made—to die young and gloriously rather than live a long, uneventful life—and to a large extent that choice has, since Homer, defined our understanding of what heroism is. Homer poignantly dramatizes this conflict between the warrior’s public and private selves in a famous scene in Book 6.
Another way of saying this is that all tragedy is about the way that we live: slowly uncovering the deeper meanings of things, often long after we can do anything about them.
However extreme its manifestations over the years, the tragic yearning to go back, to get it right this time, to use our present knowledge to understand what we couldn’t understand then, is a vital part of our response to the Kennedy drama—another reason why it remains so insistently alive. himself powerfully recalls a key character from epic—from Homer’s Iliad, the grandest of epics and the source for so many tragic plots. K.’s story resonates strongly for us, it’s because he reminds us of a slightly less glamorous—but equally powerful—character: Hector.
(That other favorite tragic subject.) But the impulse to expose, to bring secret crimes to light, to present evidence of deeds done in the past to an audience in the present, is one that itself lies at the heart of Greek drama.
You could say that all tragedy is about the process of discovery, of learning that the present has a surprising and often devastating relationship to the past: King Oedipus, faced with a plague on his city, is told by an oracle that he must find the killer of the previous king, only to learn, as the play unfolds, that it was he.
After Achilles slays Hector, the hero, maddened by grief for his lost comrade, drags the body back and forth before the walls of Troy (where the dead man’s family and countrymen watch in anguished horror, like the audience of a tragedy) and around the tomb of Patroclus.
The desecration of the dead body, the refusal to obey religious convention and give it back to the family for burial, is a mark of Achilles’ inability to let go of—to “bury”—his own grief.
(A truce is called so that the Trojans can leave their walled city and go into the surrounding forests to cut wood for Hector’s funeral pyre.) As if to remind us of that other world far from the mayhem of battle, the funeral itself is dominated by the women in Hector’s life, who are the only eulogists.
His mother speaks, his wife speaks, and even Helen, whose actions precipitated the war in which he died, speaks.
In the end, the gods themselves insist on what we might call “closure,” pointing out that even a man who loses a brother or a son “grieves, weeps, and then his tears are done.” In the final book of the poem, the aged king of Troy, Priam, ransoms his dead son’s body from Achilles, takes it home to the walled city, and there gives it a proper funeral.
After the trauma of Hector’s death and the ongoing degradation of his body, there is an odd courtliness about the exchange between Priam and the man who killed his son, a sudden, wrenching flowering of civilized behavior.