Wednesday, February 8th, 2012
In my last post, I talked about Vergil’s Pyrrhus as the epitome of the very worst of human behavior. Happily, Sophocles’ Pyrrhus is the opposite: a celebration of our most conscientious, best selves.
The play in which he co-stars, Philoctetes, is cleverly set before Troy falls, before the death of Priam. This allows Sophocles to avoid the entire second half of Pyrrhus’ life—almost as if he is offering a “reboot” of the young man’s story, an alternate line of destiny. Certainly, by the play’s end, it is difficult to imagine Pyrrhus killing Priam as he does in the Aeneid.
The play begins with a prophecy that Troy won’t fall unless Heracles’ bow fights on the Greek side. Unfortunately, Heracles’ bow is with Philoctetes, whom Odysseus had abandoned on an island with a festering wound ten years earlier. Odysseus must go get the old soldier and persuade him to put aside his resentment and aid the Greek cause. He cleverly decides to bring Pyrrhus with him: as Pyrrhus was the only man who didn’t come with them to Troy originally, he is also the only man not implicated in Philoctetes’ abandonment—so Philoctetes may be persuaded to listen to him.
Odysseus tells Pyrrhus that he is to pretend that he hates the Greeks, in order to gain Philoctetes’ trust. If the old soldier will not co-operate, Pyrrhus is supposed to wait until he falls into a festering-wound fit, and then either steal the bow and arrows, or carry him off to the boat while unconscious.
Given what we know of Pyrrhus from Vergil, we would assume that he happily agreed, pausing only to club Philoctetes with somebody’s child first. But Sophocles’ Pyrrhus is a different man. He is appalled by Odysseus’ treachery, and reproaches him for using deceit. Such tricks, he says, are not in his nature, just as they were not in his father’s. He refers here to Achilles’ reputation for honesty, demonstrated by his famous line in the Iliad that he “hates like death the man who says one thing, and hides another in his heart.” Such a man, of course, is Odysseus. He and Achilles are perfect foils—youthful honesty-to-a-fault balanced against practiced, shades-of-grey pragmatism. Sophocles here has Pyrrhus take his father’s place as Odysseus’ opposite.
Yet, because he is young, and impressionable—and because Odysseus is a master at persuasion—Pyrrhus reluctantly agrees to the plan. This is the genius, I think, of Sophocles’ characterization: Pyrrhus is a young man looking to find his way in the world, without a father’s guidance. Although his instinct is to spurn Odysseus’ methods, he has no other model to adopt, besides a vague rumor about his father’s values—a father he has never met. Maybe Odysseus is right, after all. I think it perfectly captures those first, unsure steps into adult identity.
But Pyrrhus is in luck, because for a young man looking for a role model, it is hard to do better than Philoctetes. The two meet, and Pyrrhus finds himself instantly drawn to the older man’s plight, character and dignity. When the moment comes to defraud Philoctetes, Pyrrhus hesitates, torn between his duty to the Greeks and his own instincts. Movingly, he exclaims, “I wish I were back in Scyros!” He feels tainted by the moral compromises of the adult world, and longs to return to the simplicity of childhood. Yet, he cannot return, and is pressed hard on both sides by Odysseus and Philoctetes.
Sophocles stacks the deck against Odysseus a bit here—for although we see Pyrrhus’ dilemma, the right choice seems obvious—if he is to keep his soul, he must help Philoctetes, and reject Odysseus. But playing devil’s advocate, let’s examine Odysseus’ motive, which is, always, to serve the army’s greater good, and to get himself home again safely. If Pyrrhus forces Philoctetes to come to Troy, Philoctetes will be miserable—but an entire army’s worth of soldiers will be able to return home again. In the Iliad, we see the dire consequences of Achilles setting the personal over public good—what does it mean to save a single person at the expense of an entire nation?
Sophocles, however, doesn’t make Pyrrhus suffer the consequences of his choice: as soon as he has agreed to help Philoctetes, the god Heracles appears to pacify his old companion, and order him to Troy. It is almost as if the entire episode were an elaborate test, a moral gymnasium designed to help an young man practice his path.
Pyrrhus—both Pyrrhuses—had an interesting afterlife, including a notable cameo in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When the players arrive, Hamlet recites a speech about Pyrrhus’ killing of Priam, where Pyrrhus stands over Priam with his sword raised and, for a moment, “does nothing.” Here Pyrrhus becomes a stand-in not only for Claudius—killer of the old King—but for Hamlet himself, stuck in his own inaction.
For a more recent portrait of Pyrrhus, I would recommend Mark Merlis’ audacious novel, An Arrow’s Flight, which tells the story of Pyrrhus’ struggle to separate himself from the reputation of his bloody and distant father. I admire this novel not just for its storytelling, but its flat-out daring: Merlis takes the story of Pyrrhus (drawn mostly from Sophocles’ play), and puts it straight into the modern world, while still retaining all the ancient Greek structures, the gods included.
And, by the way, Pyrrhus also makes an appearance in The Song of Achilles. My take on him is decidedly Vergilian.
Thanks so much to myth-lover Susanne for the terrific suggestion! Next week: Ancient Greek romance, just in time for Valentine’s Day….
Monday, February 6th, 2012
It is one of the oldest stories: a famous and powerful man has a son. The son grows up. How will he interact with his father’s reputation? How will he define himself as his own man? It was an even more fraught question in ancient Greece, where no matter how famous a man became, he was called not by his own name, but by his patronymic (his father’s name plus an ending that meant “son of”). So, even though Achilles’ fame far surpassed his father’s, he was still referred to as “Pelides” (son of Peleus). Comparison was inescapable, stitched into one’s identity.
In the stories of the Trojan War, there is a trinity of sons who grow up in the shadow of intimidating paternal legacies: Telemachus, son of Odysseus; Orestes, son of Agamemnon; and Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. All of their stories are worth telling, but I thought I’d start with Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus).
One of the strangest things about Neoptolemus is the fact that there seem, in the myths, to be two of him: two mutually exclusive versions of his story, each championed by a master poet, Vergil and Sophocles. In one, Neoptolemus is a sadistic perversion of his father’s legacy, heir to his strength and capacity for violence, but not his humanity; in the other, he is a heroic young man, struggling to do the right thing. Generally, Vergil’s portrait, from book II of the Aeneid, has proved the more lasting, so that is where I will start.
Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, Thetis, desperate to keep her son from an early death at Troy, dressed him as a woman and hid him on the island of Scyros, in the court of King Lycomedes. But Lycomedes’ daughter, Deidameia, discovered the fraud, and she and Achilles conceived a child—Neoptolemus. Shortly thereafter, Achilles was found out, and sailed for Troy, leaving his wife and unborn child behind, for good.
Neoptolemus grew up with a head of red-gold hair, and so earned the nickname Pyrrhus (fiery, the same root as the word pyre). Of his childhood, we know little other than that he was raised on Scyros by his mother and grandfather, with help from Thetis. Like his father, he was named in a prophecy: Troy would never fall unless Pyrrhus came to fight for the Greeks. When his father was killed in the tenth year of the Trojan War, Pyrrhus sailed for Troy. If the timing seems off to you, it is—even if we give Achilles a few years to get to Troy, Pyrrhus should still only be around twelve, absolute maximum.
All I can say is: that is one creepy twelve-year-old. When he gets to Troy, Pyrrhus takes his father’s place as one of the most terrifying and reckless warriors of the Greeks. He is among those in the Trojan Horse, and according to the Odyssey, the only one who isn’t afraid of being caught. Once inside the city of Troy, he uses an ax—Shining style—to tear his way into Priam’s palace, leaving a bloody trail behind him.
One of the things that I love about Vergil as an author is his profound humanism. Even his so-called villains are worthy of sympathy and understanding—all, that is, except for Pyrrhus. With Pyrrhus, Vergil seems to be doing something else entirely: creating a person with no ability to pity or empathize with others. It is, as far as I can tell, the first depiction of a sociopath in Western literature.
Once inside the palace, Pyrrhus chases down the Trojan prince Polites, killing him in front of his father, the aged King Priam, who has taken shelter at the household alters. The old king, in one of the most moving moments in the Aeneid, rises, trembling with grief and age, to deliver a ringing speech that calls down the wrath of the gods upon Pyrrhus for his double blasphemy: killing a son in front of his father, and defiling a sanctuary. As a further reproach, he compares him to his father, unfavorably: “Not even Achilles behaved so to me. He knew how to respect the laws of the suppliant; he returned my son’s body to me, and sent me safely home again.” This is a reference to the famous scene in the Iliad where Priam goes to Achilles’ tent to beg for Hector’s body, and Achilles relents–a shining moment of mercy and hope in an otherwise bloody work.
But you cannot shame a man like Pyrrhus. His response is sneering contempt: “You can go tell my father about my disgraceful deeds yourself. Now, die!”
He seizes the old man by his hair, and drags him, slipping in the blood of his son, to the altar to dispatch him. Later we hear that Priam’s body has been left on the shore, missing its head, for the animals to eat. It is not enough for Pyrrhus to have killed him, he must also dishonor him—mutilating his body and depriving his soul of its eternal peace. The hope kindled in the meeting between Achilles and Priam is snuffed, utterly, by the son.
Sadly, that is only the beginning. After killing Priam, Pyrrhus goes in search of Andromache, Hector’s wife. When he finds her, he seizes from her arms her infant son, Astyanax, and smashes his brains out against the wall. (In fact, in some lurid versions of the story, he uses the baby’s body to club the grandfather Priam before killing him.) Andromache herself he takes captive, as his slave-wife. It is a horrifying cruelty: forcing her to share the bed of the man who murdered her son, and whose father murdered her husband. Then, before returning to Greece, Pyrrhus sacrifices the princess Polyxena on his father’s tomb.
Perhaps it will be no surprise to hear that such a violent man comes to a violent end. Pyrrhus, upon returning to Greece, decides that no bride is worthy of him except for the daughter of Helen herself, Hermione—even though she is already betrothed to Orestes. Rather than wooing her, or trying to negotiate with her father, Pyrrhus presses forward with his usual method: force. He abducts the girl, and rapes her.
One of the things that is most disturbing about Pyrrhus’ story is that his victims are not, as his father’s were, fellow warriors. There is no Memnon here, no Hector, no Penthesilea. Instead we have people who are powerless: infants, the elderly, women not trained in combat. Vergil’s point isn’t, I think, that Pyrrhus is a coward–we see his fearlessness and ferocity in the sack of Troy– but that he’s unnatural. The things which would normally arouse pity in us mean nothing to him. This makes him a very different kind of villain from someone like Agamemnon, whose faults we recognize: selfishness, cowardice, pride, petty brutality. To me, Pyrrhus is a far more frightening figure, a man who is moved by no boundaries or bonds of affection, who acknowledges no limitation on his behavior. The world is made up only of his own strength and everyone else’s weakness.
So who, then, finally stops this unstoppable force? In some versions of the story it takes the god Apollo himself. But in Vergil’s version, it’s Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, enraged at the violence done to his fiance. Pyrrhus has finally crossed the wrong person, and Orestes cuts him down. A satisfying end, and an interesting one too: Agamemnon and Achilles’ feud has repeated itself in the next generation–only this time, at least for me–with the sympathies reversed.
By the way, at Pyrrhus’ death Andromache is freed and, with her brother-in-law Helenus, able to found a new city in Troy’s image, and live out her life in peace.
Coming on Wednesday: Pyrrhus, part II, the son Achilles would have been proud of.
Monday, December 19th, 2011
Today’s myth of the week is one of my very favorites, though I didn’t discover it until college. When I graduated from high school, my Latin teacher had given me a book of Sophocles’ tragedies as a gift, and I was steadily working my way through it. Somewhere in the middle, I came to one called “Philoctetes.” Who?
This was before the days of Google, so I got out my trusty Oxford Classical Dictionary and learned that Philoctetes had been a close companion of Heracles. Maybe the closest: when Heracles was dying in agony, he begged his friends to put him out of his misery; Philoctetes was the only one who had the guts to do it. In gratitude, Heracles bequeathed Philoctetes his famous bow, with its arrows dipped in the poison blood of the hydra.
But that was just the beginning of Philoctetes’ story. Years later, he joined the other heroes of Greece in pursuing Helen of Sparta’s hand in marriage. By then he was renowned for his connection to Heracles, and also for his deadly archery. And though usually in the ancient stories a bow and arrows are considered the weapons of a coward (as with Paris), you never hear a single word against Philoctetes. Heracles’ bow would have been enormous, and only a true hero could have strung and drawn it.
As a suitor of Helen, Philoctetes must have seemed out of place among the other men. He was a generation, or more, above them, and I imagine him as weathered, dignified, and still full of stoic grief for the loss of his famous friend. It was unlikely that such a man would tempt Helen, and of course he did not. But he did, along with all the other suitors, swear to uphold her marriage to Menelaus.
Which is how, some years later, he found himself summoned to Troy to get her back. Despite his age, Philoctetes upheld his oath and, paired with Odysseus as a sailing partner, the two men and their fleets began making their way to Troy. Like all Homeric journeys, there were frequent stops on islands along the way, and on one such island, Lemnos, Philoctetes was bitten by a terrible viper. He didn’t die, but the wound festered agonizingly, stinking and causing Philoctetes to fall into seizures. Odysseus, practical as ever, didn’t want a smelly, hideous, screaming man on the ship, so he persuaded the other men to abandon Philoctetes while he slept.
When people ask me why I don’t see Odysseus as a straight-up hero, this myth is one of my answers. Odysseus’ pragmatism here seems indistinguishable from ruthlessness: he abandons an aging hero, in excruciating pain, on a deserted island without any supplies of food or water. When Philoctetes wakes, there is only empty beach and his bow. Ten years of lonely, crushing pain follow. In describing these years, Sophocles is at his most moving. As in Oedipus at Colonus, and Ajax, Sophocles once again shows himself the champion of those who have been cast out from society, who feel themselves betrayed and abandoned. Philoctetes’ bitter monologues are absolutely piercing in their indictment of a society that would throw away its elders because they have become inconvenient. No matter how many times I read them, I always find myself caught up anew.
Fast forward ten years, after Achilles has died but before Troy has fallen. The Greeks learn from a prophecy that they will never take the city of Troy unless the bow of Heracles fights on their behalf. In Sophocles’ play, the Greek leaders dispatch Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Achilles’ young son, to go get Philoctetes (in other versions, Odysseus’ partner is the tricksy Diomedes). Odysseus’ plan is to send Neoptolemus in as mediator because Philoctetes doesn’t know Neoptolemus, and is less likely to shoot him on sight. Neoptolemus is supposed to engage the old man in conversation, wait for him to fall into a fit, then steal his bow and arrows. After all, reasons Odysseus, the prophecy never said that it needed the hero, only his weapons.
But Neoptolemus finds himself drawn to the old man’s dignity, and moved by his suffering. When Philoctetes falls into a fit, he does not take the bow, only holds it until Philoctetes recovers, then returns it, chastising Odysseus: “It is far better to be just than wise.” Still enraged by their betrayal, Philoctetes refuses to help the Greeks. Just when all seems lost, the god Heracles appears, urging his old friend to relent, and promising Philoctetes that if he goes to Troy he’ll find a healer—Machaon, son of Asclepius—who can end his agony. Philoctetes, obedient to his friend, agrees. Once at Troy, Philoctetes helps to take the city and, most importantly, kills the prince Paris—one archer slaying another. He survives the war and returns safely home.
What makes this such an interesting tragedy is that, in the end, it isn’t one. Thanks to Neoptolemus, Philoctetes is welcomed back into society. The middle-aged Odysseus is inveterate, set in his ruthless ways, but there is still hope to be found in the innocent and clear-eyed gaze of youth. It also offers hope in the form of forgiveness. Philoctetes could indeed make the Greeks suffer as he has suffered; but in the end, he does not. I love his story so much that I found myself constantly having to battle the temptation to include it in my novel. There are several Philoctetes scenes that got left on the cutting room floor simply because they didn’t fit, but one cameo remains.
I am not the only person who has been moved by Philoctetes’ story over the years. He is the subject of a Wordsworth sonnet, and Sophocles’ play forms the core of the amazing “Philoctetes Project,” which brings this play and others to army veterans. At the other end of the spectrum is Disney’s “Hercules” which features–sort of–Philoctetes as a character. The satyr voiced by Danny Devito was inspired, I can only guess, by some unholy combination of Philoctetes and Chiron, plus some goat thrown in. He calls himself “Phil.”
The Myth of the Week is going to take a vacation next week, but will return in the New Year. I wish you all very happy, myth-making holidays!
Reviews“A startlingly original work of art by an incredibly talented new novelist... a book I could not put down.” Ann Patchett, author of the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto