X ACHILLES

                                        X

 

His ship and his fellow voyagers waited at Pylos but Telemachus stayed in Sparta for a while longer, because he wanted to hear from Menelaus and Helen the tale of Troy. He stayed many days, and on the first day Menelaus told him of Achilles, the greatest of the heroes who had fought against Troy and on another day the lady Helen told him of Hector, the noblest of all the men who defended King Priam’s City.

‘Achilles,’ said King Menelaus, ‘came from a race that was favoured by the immortals. Peleus, the father of Achilles, was friends with Cheiron, the wisest of the Centaurs, those immortals who are half men and half horse. It was Cheiron who gave Peleus his great spear and when Peleus wanted to marry an immortal, Zeus, the greatest of the gods, made the nymph Thetis marry him, even though marriage with a mortal was against her will. All the gods came to the wedding of Thetis and Peleus. For wedding gifts Zeus gave armour that no mortal had ever worn before. It was wonderfully bright and strong, and he also gave two immortal horses.

‘Achilles was the child of Thetis and Peleus; the son of an immortal woman and a mortal hero. He grew up strong and fast. When he was a young man he was sent to Cheiron, and his father’s friend instructed him in all the ways of war. He became the greatest of spearmen, and on the mountain with the Centaur he gained in strength and in speed.

‘After he returned to his father’s hall the war against Troy began to be prepared for. Agamemnon, the king, wanted Achilles to join the army. But Thetis, knowing that great disasters would fall on those who went to that war, feared for Achilles. She decided to hide him so that no word from King Agamemnon could reach him. And how did the nymph Thetis hide her son? She sent him to King Lycomedes and asked the King to hide Achilles amongst his daughters.

‘So the youth Achilles was dressed as a maiden and stayed with the daughters of the King. The messengers of Agamemnon searched everywhere for him. Many of them came to the court of King Lycomedes, but not finding anyone like Achilles amongst the King’s sons they went away.

‘Odysseus, by Agamemnon’s order, came to find Achilles. He knew that the youth was not amongst the King’s sons. He saw the King’s daughters in their father’s orchard, but could not tell if Achilles was amongst them, for they were all veiled and dressed alike.

‘Then Odysseus went away and returned as a peddler carrying in his pack things that maidens admire—veils and ornaments and mirrors. But under the veils and ornaments and mirrors the wise Odysseus left a gleaming sword. When he came to the maidens in the King’s orchard he laid down his peddler’s pack. The mirrors and veils and ornaments were picked up and examined eagerly. But one of them picked up the gleaming sword and looked at it with flashing eyes. Odysseus knew that this was Achilles, King Peleus’ son.

‘He gave the youth the summons of King Agamemnon, telling him join the war that the Kings and Princes of Greece were about to wage against Troy. Achilles was glad to get the summons and glad to go. He returned to Phthia, to his father’s citadel. There he prepared to go to Aulis where the ships were being gathered. He took with him his father’s famous warriors, the Myrmidons who had never been beaten in battle. Also his father gave him him the armour and the horses that had been the gift of Zeus;the two immortal horses Xanthos and Balios.

‘But what pleased Achilles more than the gift of marvellous armour and immortal horses was that his dear friend, Patroklos, was to go with him as his companion in war. Patroklos had come into Phthia and into the hall of Peleus when he was a young boy. In his own country he had killed another boy by accident. His father, to save him from the punishment, fled with him to King Peleus. Achilles’ father gave them refuge and took Patroklos into his house and brought him up with his own son. These two grew up together and they loved each other more than brothers.

‘Achilles said goodbye to Phthia, and to his hero father and his immortal mother, and he and Patroklos with the Myrmidons went over the sea to Aulis and joined the armies of the Kings and Princes who had made a vow not to return from war until they had taken King Priam’s famous city.’