Ill-Fitting Armor: Applying Campbell's Hero Pattern to Achilles
Joseph Campbell's explanation of the perennial monomyth is a cyclical journey, wherein the
hero departs from normalcy into adventure, undergoing great trials and crossings of thresholds,
a resolution with the father figure, and a return to the world around him, leaving him greater,
ruined, or wiser than before. Its three Acts, each possessing five or six subsets, effectively
covers many famed heroic myths, so it would seem easily applicable to a classic Greek hero
such as Achilles. Upon review, however, applying to Achilles the three acts of Campbell's hero's
journey--Departure, Initiation, and Return, the "nuclear unit of the monomyth"
(Campbell 30)--seems to require some reluctant
explication, or a straining into a different order.
Certain aspects of Campbell's hero arc are well-fitted, especially in Act One: Departure. The
"Call to Adventure" (Campbell 49) is not hard to find; a war for Troy beckons early on in
Achilles's story, and far be it from a glory-seeking hero to avoid it. The "Refusal of the Call"
(Campbell 59) details the hero's reluctance to pursue the adventure, and this can also be applied
without much hand-wringing. On several occasions Achilles goes against the normal hero's urge and
abstains from combat; he "forthwith declared that we would take no further part in the war. He
... openly avowed his intention of returning home to Greece"
(Bulfinch 216), and claims "I fear, the long
campaign is lost. So home we sail..."
The remaining three parts of the Departure might be applied in several ways, and in more than one
possible order. They potentially take place at widely varied parts of Achilles's life, and
selecting likely candidates to fill the role of "Supernatural Aid" (Campbell 69) would require
different events to fulfill "The Crossing of the First Threshold" (77) or "The Belly of the Whale"
(90). Chiron, the tutor of Achilles, certainly fits as Supernatural Aid, being a centaur and
having aided Achilles's father in winning his mother Thetis as a bride. So, however, does
Achilles's mother herself, "one of the immortals, a sea-nymph, and knowing that her son was fated
to perish before Troy ... she endeavored to prevent his going" (Bulfinch 212). She certainly
comes to the aid of Achilles when he calls for her, effectively arranging for the Trojan War to
continue in a lopsided fashion for the remainder of the Iliad. A third choice does present
itself: his close friend Patroclus, who along with Achilles were "charged ... as the elder, to
keep watch over his friend, and to guide in inexperience" (Bulfinch 218-9). However, as much as
this qualifies as aid, it is not supernatural. If, then, Thetis is the best candidate for
Supernatural Aid, then the First Threshold may well be her attempts to immortalize him as an
infant: the most well-known version claims his immersion in the River Styx, while other versions
have Thetis placing him in fire and giving him ambrosia. It doesn't seem to fit neatly within
the expected concept of the First Threshold, in that it represents the hero's first trepidatious
step into the unknown.
The Belly of the Whale is at first difficult to place, as Achilles does not seem to have an early
journey up high, down deep, or inside a threatening location, until one considers the Iliad,
when he finally decides to rejoin the battle. He is at first balked by the River Scamander, then
outright attacked, "churning, surging, all his rapids rising in white fury" (Il. 21.267). He is
deluged with murderous water, indeed "the only Achaean prince to be immersed in the river
Scamander, which almost takes his life"
(Mackie 330), until Hesphaestus sweeps deadly
flames across the plain, which must also have created a boiling, terrible atmosphere for
All this, according to Campbell, happens while the hero is setting out, and Act Two discusses the
Initiation through which the hero passes, yet Achilles's life is already nearly over at this
point. The Road of Trials (Campbell 97) is meant to be a series of hardships to test the hero's
mettle and temper his resolve, so perhaps one can bring Scamander or even the Trojan War itself
back into play. Certainly war itself is a trial, yet Achilles is so accomplished at the arts of
slaughter--and is fully supported by the majority of the Greek gods to boot--that his one-sided
control of the battles before Troy do not seem to "try" him.
The Meeting with the Goddess (Campbell 109) can be interpreted as a literal meeting with a
goddess, in which case Achilles is already long done with this aspect of Campbell's journey, or
it can be seen as an ideal female, a mate. Polyxena, the youngest daughter of King Priam, does
happen to fit here; Achilles falls in love with her and woos for her hand in marriage, so perhaps
"she is the incarnation of the promise of perfection; the soul's assurance that ... the bliss
that once was known will be known again" (Campbell 111). However, Paris is said to have slain
him at this time with an Apollo-guided arrow, so this meeting is brief. In an odd way, this might
also qualify Polyxena as both Goddess and the Woman as the Temptress (Campbell 120), since it is
her desirability that indirectly brings out Achilles's downfall. The Queen of the Amazons,
Penthesilea, who defeats many in the name of Troy, might also qualify as Goddess or Temptress,
since Achilles faces and slays her without knowing her gender; when he "bent over his fallen foe,
and contemplated her beauty, youth, and valor, he bitterly regretted his victory" (Bulfinch 228).
Yet despite its title Campbell's Temptress seems to focus on the realization that the hero's
acts are confined to impure flesh, therefore requiring resistance and a desire to rise above
the material, so there seems no easy target for these two chapters of Act Two.
The Atonement with the Father (Campbell 126) can be viewed as the (occasionally literal)
conquering of prior authority, or reconciliation with the same. Achilles veers close to both,
in making amends with formerly hated fellow king Agamemnon (Il. 19.63-84), and in his
change of heart after Priam appeals to him for the body of Hector (Il. 24.592-98). There
is no literal Atonement with the father here, since Achilles has always revered his own father;
indeed his change of heart from mindless brutality to respect comes from a reminder of this
This is the closest Achilles comes to Apotheosis (Campbell 149) while alive, in that at least
for a moment he regains clarity, peace and a freedom from murderous prejudice, but he does not
rise to deification or attain any sexless perfection of self. He is the son of a god(dess), but
he is not a god himself; after the end of the Iliad he goes back to what he does best.
Likewise he does little in the form of The Ultimate Boon (Campbell 172), unless giving Troy a
twelve-day reprieve to bury Hector qualifies as an elixir with positive effect or a general
boon to humanity.
It is at this point where Campbell's hero arc begins to most noticeably fail. There is an entire
third Act in his The Hero With A Thousand Faces that details the return of the hero from
his exploits, listing six more chapters of the hero's narrative. It includes his Refusal of the
Return (193), a Magic Flight (196), a Rescue from Without (207), another threshold to cross
(217), a zenlike mastery of the normal world he inhabited before and the heroic world he has won
(229), and a Freedom to Live (238) in both. Perhaps he touches upon a dual mastery when he mixes
grief and respect with his warlike nature, but he seems to outright reject a Freedom to Live in
favor of revenge; in true Greek form, he chooses impending death and glorious permanence over
long, uneventful life. He has no return to make. Perhaps he revels more in an "image of oneself
as an exceptional phenomenon in the world, not guilty as others are, but justified in one's
inevitable sinning because one represents the good" (Campbell 238).
It can be argued several ways why this hero, so often numbered among the proto-champions of
classic literature, wears so reluctantly Campbell's pattern. It may be, perhaps, that Achilles is
not so much a complex hero as a one-dimensional superman; he is close to godhood and a dynamic
element of Homer's great war story, but he does not learn or develop as a primary protagonist.
More likely, however, it is due to his life being cut short. Since Greek heroes can be counted
on to perish at the height of their prowess, a hero like Achilles hasn't enough story arc to
fully flesh out the seventeen chapters of Campbell's life journey.
Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Avenel Books, 1978.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. 1949. Princeton: Princeton University
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Mackie, C.J. "Achilles in Fire." The Classical Quarterly 48.2 (1998): 329-338.
David Elsensohn, October 2006
Return to Essays