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Ulysses, or the Scent of the Fox

It was the tenth year of the war. A cloud hung over Troy and the glittering plain before it. The gods, some of whom were for one side, some for the other, unable to step in and decide which way the war should go and under whose banner the coming world was to be organised, sat in rows in the midst of it and looked down on the empty field.

Some of them, after so long, were bored. No longer able to recall why they had supported one side rather than the other, loyalty to the descendant of a son or grandson, hostility to a rival who had already made his choice, they dozed off, or turned aside to discuss other matters or tell stories, not all of them true, of their exploits among mortals. Meanwhile the cloud simply sat, dense and immovable, freighted with the dust that had been beaten up by so many fierce but indecisive encounters, the groans of the dying, the lamentations of the widows and orphans who came out to seek their dead, the smoke of sacrifice, the stink of putrefaction, but most of all the heavy air of inaction that emanated from the Greek camp, where a quarrel had broken out that left Achilles, the Greek champion, moping in his tent.

The Greek commanders, Nestor, Agamemnon and the rest, could do nothing but wait, unheroically, for the cloud to lift from their champion’s brow. Till it did, they dared not move. Achilles was not only the brightest and most feared among them but the subject of a prophecy. Only he would be the conqueror of Troy, but because some of the gods were envious, there was added to this a second term. Achilles would indeed be the destroyer of Troy but at the cost of his life. For through a small accident of omission on his mother’s part, he was not immortal. When she dipped him, as decreed, in the river Lethe, which ought to have ensured this precious quality, his mother, Thetis, had overlooked the place where she held the child by his heel. Achilles was a flawed hero. Very upright and proud, and entirely without fear, he was also spoiled and would brook no crossing of his will. When Agamemnon challenged him over the matter of a slave-girl he retired in a sulk, and till the matter was settled in his favour refused to take the field. Hence this breathless hanging in the balance. The commanders, frustrated by a series of delegations to Achilles that he declined to hear, at last put their scruples aside and called Ulysses.

Ulysses, though the cleverest of the Greeks, was not highly regarded among them: cleverness is all very well but it is not a quality of heroes. And Ulysses had another mark against him. He had not, like the other Greek kings, sprung immediately to the defence of the Hellenes against the Trojan insult, preferring to stay at home in his kingdom of Ithaca and live quietly with his wife and child. He pretended to have lost his wits and when the Greek delegation found him he was in the fields like a peasant, pushing a plough. As a test they laid his young son in a furrow, and of course when he turned the blade to avoid the child he was lost. He joined the war in fact but not in spirit. Even in the savage exultation of it, the blood and clamour, he kept his head, remained a cool outsider. The other leaders among the Greeks distrusted him. He was a fox rather than a lion. But there were times when quickness of mind was not entirely to be despised and strategy was needed rather than brute strength. So they set aside their scruples and sent for the man.

‘The matter is urgent,’ Nestor told him. ‘No doubt, in your clever way, Ulysses, you have considered the thing and come up with a solution.’

Ulysses turned away to hide a smile. They were lions, these Greek kings. He knew what it cost them to sully their presence with the stink of a fox.

‘It is true,’ he admitted. ‘I have considered the matter, I do have a plan. But you, Nestor, and you, Agamemnon, I know how it is with you. You are particular. And my plan, you know, is not quite – ’

‘Yes, yes,’ Nestor broke in, ‘we all know that.’ He was eager to stop the fellow before he said something that would make it impossible, in all honour, for them to go on. ‘If you think it will work, just do what you have to do. No need to – ’

‘But I told you,’ Ulysses insisted, rather enjoying himself now, ‘that you may not like my little stratagem. What will work is one thing. There is also the question of whether it is quite – ’

‘That is enough!’ A flush suffused the old man’s cheek. ‘I’ve already told you. You have our permission. Just do what you must, but do it quickly. No need to go into the details.’

Ulysses dipped his head in acquiescence. The others shifted in their seats and looked away.

Very concerned always where they stood with the gods, who were also, in most cases, their ancestors; caught always between sacred duty and their own honour on one hand, and on the other the crude desire to get on, their minds were a pious fog through which their lives appeared to them only in flashes, in brightly lit episodes of action and noble speech that would come together only when they were joined up at last on the breath of a poet and found their true shape as epic. The hero’s duty, both to himself and to the gods, was to act always in accordance with the stories that would be told about him. Equivocation, they thought, was all very well for a man like Ulysses – he wasn’t a hero and no poet would ever sing his deeds. Mind you, it wasn’t true, as some men claimed, that he was descended from conjurers and roadshow-men. His genealogy, though it did not run to a god, was impeccable – he was, after all, a king; but he put himself in the category of this lower order of beings because his nature for some reason tended in that direction. He was a trickster by temperament and choice. A hero could have no dealings, or not openly, with that sort of thing. Which did not mean that he might not, indirectly, take advantage of it.

Ulysses was a thinker. That was the point. And he had seen that if they were ever to get out of the mire they had stumbled into, if he was ever to get home to Penelope and his fast-growing son, some other agency than mere swagger must get to work. They must use a trick or two. Of course none of this would have a place in the official story, and there would be no place in it for him either, Ulysses the fox. If he wanted a story he would have to invent one of his own; not an epic about honour and force in arms but one involving a new sort of hero, whose special quality would be quickness of mind, the sort of hero who could reinvent himself to meet any eventuality, who was not fixed and contained in a single virtue like the epic hero but shifting – not to say shifty – and always on the move. This is just a little of what Ulysses was turning over in his mind as he went to find Patroclus.

Patroclus was one of the noblest of the Greeks. No one had anything but good to say of him. He was Achilles’ tent-mate and companion, but more than that, he was the hero’s other self, the perfect mirror of Achilles’ noblest virtues, sharer of the food he ate, the cup he drank from, his bed, his sleep, his dreams, and all the motions of his tempestuous but at the same time aloof and self-conscious soul.

They had been twinned at birth but it was a chosen twinship. From their earliest babyhood they had run and wrestled together, fenced, ridden, hunted, and the one great difference between them they had from the beginning set out to ignore.

Achilles was descended from a god; he had a touch of immortality. Patroclus was just a man. Achilles in time forgot this – it was his privilege to forget – but Patroclus, without ever showing it, had not. Ulysses knew this because he knew Patroclus, and he knew it not as a fact but as Patroclus felt it, and the knowledge was useful to him.

Patroclus was not clever – he would not have wanted to be. What he was was transparent. The leading quality of his soul was loyalty, and a love of Achilles that made him feel the weight of inaction on his friend’s spirit as a heaviness on his own, and the smirch to Achilles’ reputation as a personal wound. He would, Ulysses knew, be willing to do anything, endure any risk, to drive off the cloud in which his friend’s brightness was hid.

The plan Ulysses had devised was dazzlingly simple. The Trojans must be tricked into believing that the quarrel in the Greek camp was ended and that Achilles was once again preparing to take the field. Only then would they send out their own champion, Hector. Only then would the plain and the skies above it ring once more with the shouts of battle, the cloud lift, and the war they were in the midst of, Greeks and Trojans alike, move on to its appointed end.

Ulysses’ argument was, that if Achilles himself would not appear, then some simulacrum of him must do so. But one so convincing that the Trojans would be deceived; one so convincing that even the gods might be deceived. And who could this be but the one man who knew Achilles so well that he could put on not just the armour and stance of the hero but his every gesture, the very shape of Achilles’ wrath, the very spirit which, when it sprang forth in noble action, was the hot and visible essence of Achilles’ blood?

A simple plan, but dangerously impious. Dangerous to the life of Patroclus, but even more to the life of his spirit, for it is no light thing to play at being another. The gods may assume disguises and lose nothing by it; step into the shape of a bull, or hide in a shower of gold; go playing like the spirit of life itself through many forms. A god cannot be other than he is. He remains a god whatever shape he appears in and however foolish he may look. But when a man is not himself he is nothing.

Ulysses was asking Patroclus to give up the steady truth he moved in and become a mere impersonator. Even if the part he was to play was greater than his own, it would still make him less than himself.

Ulysses was drawing Patroclus over, and he knew it, to the trickster’s side, and he took a kind of pleasure not simply in the ingenuity of the thing, and the sensation it would create, but in the blow he was striking, light as it might be, at the very notion of the hero, since it was a parody that Patroclus was to present, and what can the hero be if he is open to parody?

He left it to Patroclus himself to convince Achilles. Patroclus was too noble to act without his friend’s permission, and it was, after all, only the Trojans who were to be deceived. Except that Ulysses, in lightly mentioning the gods, had put another idea into Patroclus’ head, and offered him another and perhaps deeper reason for risking himself in so bold a plan. If he played his role well enough, he might attract to himself, as shadow-Achilles, the death that had been laid up for the real one, since once it had been fulfilled, even mistakenly, the decree against him would lose its force. Patroclus kept to himself this deeper part of the plan, this dangerous play with fate, this toying with the power of the gods.

So it was done. Resplendent in Achilles’ helmet and greaves, holding the famous shield before him and reproducing, as only he could have done, since they were twins in spirit, the figure and stance of Achilles, the perfect timbre of his voice as it rang out in challenge, the very breath of his inward being, Patroclus, with all the Greek horde behind him, strode forth onto the field. The Trojans saw and were deceived. The gods stirred and once more grew attentive. The war, with all its press and noise and dust, recommenced and began to roll on towards its end. Never had Achilles seemed so much the model hero, so clearly himself. The Trojan Hector, facing him shield to shield and receiving in his face the very breath of the man, felt in his own heroic nature, which mirrored and equalled Achilles’, no hint of deficiency. When his sword plunged home and the hot blood spurted, and his opponent with a cry sank to his knees, he sent up a shout that was filled with the certitude of triumph. It is finished. The war is over. Achilles is dead. Only when he leaned down and with proper reverence stripped the hero of his helmet did he perceive the truth. He had been taken in by a counterfeit. It was not Achilles he had fought. What he had seen when he looked into his opponent’s eyes and found there a reflection of his own heroic nature, was illusion and trickery. The hero’s part could be played.

As for Achilles – stripped to his shirt and watching from the sidelines, the one Greek who could not take the field – what did he feel when this perfect simulacrum of himself moved away over the plain and in the light of early morning drew every eye, and with a shout from the walls of Troy was recognised and accepted? Did some part of his own nature begin to move away from him? This, after all, was Patroclus, his soul-mate and twin. Did he, in his shirt, without his armour and that second armour which was his role as hero, feel a chill touch his flesh that was more than the dawn wind that is so cold on the plains before Troy? As if it were his soul that stood there naked, and he saw for the first time what, till then, had been unimaginable: that the quality in himself that he had thought unique, his essence as hero, could be imitated, and so perfectly that even the gods were taken in. Would he ever again be able to play himself without thinking of that other performance? Without, in an anxious way, trying to live up to it, if only before himself?

His grief for Patroclus broke the bonds of his heart. His wrath resumed, he put on armour and went out to avenge his dear one’s death – this was the second and real arm of Ulysses’ plan. The war went on. But it was a different war. The time of heroes had ended. Either Patroclus’ perfect imitation had made a mockery of the whole thing, or the anger of Achilles, which had as its goal now only murderous revenge, had changed the terms of war and revealed what had always been there, the naked butchery. Hector was slain, his body, all bloody and bedraggled – a thing never seen before – was tumbled in the dirt behind Achilles’ chariot, and shamed and mutilated, while his father Priam and his mother Hecuba, and his wife and son looked on.

Achilles too was slain. By Paris, the ladies’ man. And once again Ulysses was called upon, and once again, with his expected cleverness, came up with a scheme. A peace-offering was sent to the Trojans and led in triumph through the city gates. Troy was taken and burned, Priam and his sons were slain, the Trojan women went into slavery, the Greek kings sailed home and, faced with domestic trials in which their heroic qualities were of no use, met their death in sordid circumstances on bathroom floors. 

Ulysses too had a bad time of it. His voyage home led him ten years out of the way of his life, into a nightmare world of sirens, monster sheep, caverns where one-eyed giants raged, a witch who could change men into swine. To get by these dangers he had, as in the old folk-tales, to use every form of trickery and time after time shift his shape. Dirty and half-starved, forced, if he were to survive, to adopt lower and more undignified disguises, he wandered further than he could ever have thought possible from his old clear-headed, sceptical self. He thought often, and with a kind of envy, of Patroclus, at ease there in the sunlight under the walls of Troy, in all the splendour of his assured being, in the stance, simple and a little stiff, of the hero; perfect in his perfect falsity. When he did get home at last, to Ithaca his kingdom, he was kicked and howled at. No one, not even his old nurse, not even his wife Penelope or his son Telemachus, knew him. Only the oldest of the dogs stirred from the hearth and trotted out, sniffed Ulysses and licked his knees. She was blind and recognised him by his smell.

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