Here, Hector comes off the battlefield to seek out his wife and infant son, but the baby recoils in terror from his father, who, still in armor, is unrecognizable to the child.
It’s only when Hector removes his helmet that the family unit can cohere once more.
This dark solace is one that only culture can provide.
Our endless need to replay the events of November, 1963—by which I mean all of the events, from Friday to Monday—is not only about a perverse, almost infantile need to revisit a scene of primal horror (although our own refusal to let go of Kennedy’s body—expressed most strongly in our endless looping of the Zapruder film, which, like a tragedy, turns the death of the king into a kind of entertainment—certainly shows an Achilles-like unwillingness to bury the past).
Achilles subsequently takes revenge, slaying Hector in combat and desecrating his unburied body—knowing all along that his own death is fated to follow Hector’s. So while Achilles has the glamor of extremity, it is Hector, more than any other character, who feels real to us, bound by competing obligations, anchored to his world and its claims.
Many readers are familiar with the poignant choice that Achilles has made—to die young and gloriously rather than live a long, uneventful life—and to a large extent that choice has, since Homer, defined our understanding of what heroism is. Homer poignantly dramatizes this conflict between the warrior’s public and private selves in a famous scene in Book 6.
In the end, the gods themselves insist on what we might call “closure,” pointing out that even a man who loses a brother or a son “grieves, weeps, and then his tears are done.” In the final book of the poem, the aged king of Troy, Priam, ransoms his dead son’s body from Achilles, takes it home to the walled city, and there gives it a proper funeral.
After the trauma of Hector’s death and the ongoing degradation of his body, there is an odd courtliness about the exchange between Priam and the man who killed his son, a sudden, wrenching flowering of civilized behavior.
(That other favorite tragic subject.) But the impulse to expose, to bring secret crimes to light, to present evidence of deeds done in the past to an audience in the present, is one that itself lies at the heart of Greek drama.
You could say that all tragedy is about the process of discovery, of learning that the present has a surprising and often devastating relationship to the past: King Oedipus, faced with a plague on his city, is told by an oracle that he must find the killer of the previous king, only to learn, as the play unfolds, that it was he.