Achilles and Agamemnon, Scene from Iliad Book I. Mosaic, Pompeii
As I discussed in my first post on Christopher Logue’s War Music, it is jarring to read an interpretation of the Iliad that does not begin with the first line of Homer’s epic. Logue instead chooses to begin his poem with a concept of kleos, an idea that is central to understanding the motives of the Bronze Age heroes who agree to follow Agamemnon across the Aegean to scale the walls of Troy.
In most English versions of the Iliad, kleos is translated as “glory” or “fame” but these definitions do not fully capture the complexity of this Ancient Greek word. When Logue begins War Music, Achilles is having an upsetting conversation with his mother about Agamemnon’s violation of xenia and his greedy, selfish behavior which has caused fighting among the Greek warriors. In the course of speaking to his mother, Achilles mentions to Thetis the prophecy about his fate in life: he can choose not to fight at Troy, go home and live a long life but no one will remember who he was or any deeds he accomplished. This path will not give him any kleos. However, if Achilles stays and fights the Trojans, he will die bravely in battle and although his life will be cut short, he will have great kleos. When we view kleos in the context of Achilles’s conversation with his mother, we come to understand that kleos is fame or glory that lasts well beyond a hero’s life. Men for generations will remember Achilles and the stories of his excellence (arête) on the battlefield if that is the fate he chooses. Kleos is derived from the Ancient Greek verb kluein, “to hear” so kleos can also be defined as what other people hear about a man, for generations after his death.
In order to better understand kleos, we have to look at the Bronze Age view of the Underworld as it is presented to us in the Odyssey. When Odysseus recalls various shades from the after life, Achilles is one of the old friends he meets and speaks with. Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a slave or a man of humble means on earth than a king of the dead. The Homeric view of the afterlife is a very bleak one, the heroes wander around in a type of limbo and there is no chance for reincarnation such as that presented in Vergil’s stoic version of the afterlife.
So the heroes who fight at Troy believe that they get just one life, just one chance to do something brave and heroic, something that people will remember long after a hero has died. The opportunity for this type of fame, or kleos, presents itself in the form of valor on the battlefield. That is why they agree to cross an ocean to help capture a city that has not done anything to personally provoke them. Helen’s beautiful face many have launched Menelaus’s ship, but getting her back is an opportunity for the other warriors to fight on the battlefield at Troy and earn kleos.
James Redfield in his pivotal book Nature and Culture in the Iliad, argues that there is a social aspect to kleos, a man must earn his kleos from the society in which he lives. Redfield writes:
Kleos is specially associated with the gravestone. Society secures its memories of the dead man by creating for him a memorial to perpetuate his name, and remind men to tell his story. He will not be utterly annihilated. Thus the kleos of the hero is to some extent a compensation to him for his own destruction.
There is one final aspect of kleos that Achilles brings up when his shade speaks to Odysseus from the grave. Achilles is eager to hear about the heroic exploits of his only son, Neoptolemus, and when Odysseus confirms that the young man has proven himself to be a valiant warrior in his own right, Achilles is most pleased. Kleos, therefore, is also carried on from father to son, it is something that is nurtured and fostered and carried on from one generation to the next. A man’s kleos can become greater if his son carries out heroic deeds. Part of Medea’s motivation for murdering her own children is that she will not allow Jason’s kleos to continue on through their son. Also in the Odyssey, Telemachus eagerly awaits the homecoming of his father because it is his paternal kleos that he is eager to carry on.
Logue not only begins War Music with the theme of kleos, but he deftly weaves it throughout his interpretation of the Iliad. Logue captures the notion of kleos on the very first page of War Music, with his fast-paced, heavy hitting poetry. Achilles says to his mother:
You had had me your child, your only child,
To save him from immortal death. In turn,
Your friend, the Lord our God, gave you His word,
Mother, His word: If I, your only child,
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests; here; in perpetuity
Notice that Logue uses some of his favorite poetic devices to emphasize Achilles’s kleos which will be greater than any other man’s. Anaphora, for instance, is used to highlight the fact that Achilles is to Thetis her “only child.” “His word” is also repeated which shows Achilles desperately clinging to the promise made by Zeus himself that he will have kleos. Achilles’ will “be best,” “The best of bests.” And my favorite of Logue’s literary devices, which is pervasive in War Music, is asyndeton. Logue’s elimination of any and all connective words makes this entire speech dramatic and urgent and puts an exclamation point on the reason, the only reason, that Achilles stepped foot on the beach of Troy in the first place—to gain kleos. And finally, attaining kleos is the one thing that keeps Achilles from carrying out his threat launched at Agamemnon to sail home and not help sack Troy.
Why don’t the Trojans just pack Helen up, open the gate and send her back to Menelaus? Their reasons for fighting this war are not simply to let Paris keep his stolen wife or to defend their famous walls. In Book II, Logue turns his attention to the Trojans who also desire kleos. Hector gives a speech in which he says that he is tired of hiding behind the walls of Troy and wants nothing more than to fight the Greeks in combat:
We are your heroes.
Audacious fameseekers who relish close combat.
Mad to be first among the blades,
Now wounded 50 times, stone sane.
Hector wants kleos just as much as any Greek but he does have one additional motivation to fight Greece. Up next, my post will be about Hector, my favorite Homeric hero, and the concept of aidos. And in the future other aspects of War Music that I would like to explore are the role of the gods and fate and the role of women as prizes and wives.
13 responses to “The Best of Bests: Kleos In Logue’s War Music”
Brilliant. Perhaps you should just convert your entire blog into a line by line commentary on Logue; I could read you on Homer all day long.
As someone who thinks about death all the time, I’ve pondered ancient Greek ideas about afterlife and renown rather a lot. It always seemed to me self-contradictory of Achilles to be hellbent on glory at the cost of a short life and to give his little speech to Oddyseus while down under. The little speech seems to imply that ultimately he chose poorly: he ought to have accepted a long life and no renown, because even a bare existence is better than the greatest cloud of glory after death. I’ve always thought this disjunction indicated that Achilles changed his mind in the underworld; that he saw the error of his ways during his long Elysian meditations, and wished he chosen the alternative path for his life. Intriguingly, in this post you present an alternative way of relating the two attitudes. Am I correct when I interpret you as holding that Achilles’ speech to Oddyseus actually affirms the choices he (Achilles) made in life? The idea then is that somehow kleos is a better way of life *during* life, right — because Achilles’ speech obviously states that it’s valueless to the gorious one in death? This is a new way of thinking about it for me. Certainly plausible. I’ll have to ponder.
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Yes, I think you are right that kleos seems like a good thing to a warrior when he is still alive, but once someone like Achilles reaches the Underworld and is reduced to an existence of nothingness he laments his decision. His response to Odysseus, that he who has caused so many people to be enslaved would rather live as one of those very slaves rather than be king of the dead, is striking. He doesn’t say a single positive thing about death or his achievement of Kleos. And his questioning about Neoptolemus is, I think, a chance for him to live for just a few minutes vicariously through his son. This might be reading too much into the Iliad, but I always wondered if Achilles really believed that he would die young. I mean he battles a river for god sake without suffering a single scratch! I always thought he was confident enough in his abilities as a warrior to achieve kleos in battle and go back home and live a long life. And, of course, this type of hubris is the worst sin a Greek could commit.
I’ve thought a lot about death as well especially from the point of view of kleos. What is kleos in the 21st century? I suppose things like writing, teaching, having a child are attempts to be remembered. But those things will never achieve the lasting kleos of someone like Achilles. I don’t know what the 21st century version of achieving kleos might be.
I have at least 4 more posts on Logue that I could do. As long as you keep reading them, I will keep writing them. Thanks so much, Robert!
Fascinating post, Melissa, thank you. I’ll especially look forward to your forthcoming post on the role of the gods.
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Thank you, Anthony. The role of the gods and fate are particularly difficult to understand in Homer. My sense of Logue is that he also understood this and worked fate/gods into his text rather well. I don’t know what others have thought about this aspect of War Music?
I found that this reminded me of a play called Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot. In the play a tempter comes to Thomas Beckett and induces him to seek his own martyrdom with the lines ‘think of the pilgrims standing in line / before the glittering jewelled shrine ‘. Perhaps there is kleos in medieval attitudes to martyrdom.
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Oh that’s a fantastic example of it. It definitely sounds like the concept of Kleos is at work here. Thanks for sharing!
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It’s a great pleasure to find your blog. I especially love your posts on Logue’s War Music. With your permission, may I repost this article on my blog http://theshieldofachilles.net? I’ve just launched The Shield of Achilles and I’m looking for guest posts. This post would be a perfect follow-up to my first post “It all comes together when his head bursts into flames.” I hope you’ll take a look and let me know!
Hi Kathleen, Thanks so much for your kind words. Yes, please do repost, by all means. I just ask that you include a link back to my own site. I did 4 posts on Logue. Feel free to repost any of them! -Melissa
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Thanks, Melissa! Yes, of course I will include a link back to your site, and I will also add a short bio from your “About Me” paragraph on your home page. Hopefully, it will come out sometime tomorrow (friday 4/7/2017) – I’ll send you a link when it’s out. I’m happy you did 4 posts, this gives me more opportunities to share your work in the coming weeks/months.
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