and his eyes glittered terribly under his lids, like sunflare.
He has found an answer to the question first asked in Book 1 and repeated in Book 9: What have the Trojans done to me? The war has acquired a cause that concerns him and only him. Yeats, who often used Greece as a metaphor for Ireland, said in 'Easter 1916': 'A terrible beauty is born.' The oxymoron is singularly appropriate to the status of Achilles once he re-enters battle. He stands in the shadow of death, and the poet surrounds him with an aura that marks him off from all others. But, although no human adversary can resist or escape Achilles, even his course of victory is not without obstacles, and it is precisely at the point at which he rages with an elemental force that he meets the most radical threat to his heroic destiny. In the most daring 'almost' of the poem he is confronted with the indignity of death by water.
The threat occurs at a morally significant point. Achilles has pursued the Trojans into the river that is reddened by the blood of his victims. There is no comparable image of carnage in the Iliad, but the slaughter is not the ultimate expression of Achilles' violence. He takes twelve prisoners alive to be sacrificed at the grave of Patroklos (21.26). More than even the most violent form of battle death, the stylised ritual of that sacrifice expresses the extremity to which Achilles has been driven by his grief. The very formlessness of death by water may be a response to that stylisation. The river pursues Achilles and undercuts his very being. He who is 'swift of foot' not only must use his feet in flight rather than pursuit, but the river attacks the source of his strength and makes him lose the ground under his feet (21.269). Never before has Achilles suffered such helplessness, and in his appeal to Zeus he envisages an unheroic end far worse than his fantasies about returning to Phthia:
But now this is a dismal death I am doomed to be caught in,
trapped in a big river as if I were boy and a swineherd
swept away by a torrent when he tries to cross in a rainstorm.
At this point the poem touches for a moment on the mythical and supernatural sphere. Achilles is not a monster-slayer like Beowulf. Heroes of that type are familiar to the Iliad, but they belong to a past from which the epic distances itself. Achilles' return to battle, however, involves a deliberate straining of natural limits. The hero's arms are made and brought to him by gods. His horses speak to him. And Achilles emanates a terror that is systematically associated with many forms of fire. Because Achilles is a kind of fire he is threatened most radically by water, and aid comes to him from the god of fire himself, not in his guise as master-craftsman but in his elemental shape. The river, though it comes close to extinguishing the fire of Achilles, is no match for the fire god himself and, as in the other instances of 'almost', the narrative rebounds from its false turn and moves towards its resolution with greater force. Will Hektor be a match for an Achilles whose fire has successfully defied the quenching power of water?
Hektor after the Death of Patroklos
Whereas through much of the Iliad the courses of Achilles and Hektor converge on paths of error, Achilles' recognition changes the pattern of convergence. Hektor's confidence…