Mary Angelita Ruiz
Freshmen at my college all read the Iliad during their first two weeks on campus: The black and orange cover of the Lattimore translation is like a big badge that reads, “I am a freshman, and I am probably lost.” By the end of my first week, I had plowed through most of the Iliad, alternately enraptured, amused, and bored. After the thousandth spear plunged through the thousandth mouth and cut the thousandth tongue in two, I was ready to give up, but the thing had to be finished. A new friend in the same boat agreed to read the end aloud with me.
I wound up with book twenty-four, the very last. It was a warm day, reading the Iliad aloud takes some time, and my friend fell asleep, but I kept speaking the words like an incantation into the echo of a hollow, undecorated dorm room. In book twenty-four, Achilleus, the hero of the Greeks, slays Hektor, the hero of the Trojans, then drags Hektor’s body in circles behind his chariot and leaves him to rot unburied in the open air—the ultimate dishonor, and a sign that Achilleus has let his wrath overwhelm his heroic virtue. Priam, king of the Trojans and father of Hektor, sneaks through the enemy Greek camp at night and puts himself at Achilleus’ mercy. He begs, as a father, to be allowed to recover and bury Hektor, saying:
I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.
Then he kisses Achilleus’ hand. Both men weep, and Achilleus relents and gives Hektor’s body to Priam. The poem ends with the burial of Hektor.
The moment I read this is vivid as fire in my mind. Suddenly the whole poem flashed into relief: the rage and vindictiveness of the war, the few calm moments of love and friendship, the contrast between Hektor’s sacrificial sense of duty and Achilleus’ struggle between honor and flaring wrath, and then this moment of naked mercy, toward which the whole poem builds and with which it ends. I got it, for a moment: the strange and wild and humanizing virtue of mercy.
Dappled Things asked four prominent authors: Richard John Neuhaus, Colleen Carroll Campbell, Michael O’Brien, and Peter Kreeft, to tell us about a work of literature that has had a profound effect on them. Here are their answers.