David and Achilles: The Duel

This is the second in a weekly series roundup of essays comparing and contrasting two great heroic/epic stories which served similar functions for two dissimilar societies in a similar era. Those two stories are the Story of David from 1st and 2nd Samuel and the Iliad by Homer. This week’s topic, to get this project started, is to discuss, contrast, and compare the openings of the two stories. The first week’s essays were on the openings. My essay was here. The roundup is here.

Next week’s essay will be a little more open, and at a request will be on comparing women. Pick two ladies from each story. Pick a pair of scenes in which they feature (that would be four scenes two for each). As per the usual, contrast, compare, discuss the similarities and differences, and then what this might say to us in our modern times.

David and Goliath. If any story is famous it’s that one. Menelaus and Paris … the story highlights the cause behind the conflict of the Iliad … but their duel is less famous. Both of these stories start by describing the combatants.

  • Goliath

    And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. And he had bronze armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron. And his shield-bearer went before him.

  • Paris

    Now closer, closing, front to front in the onset
    till Paris sprang from the Trojan forward ranks.
    a challenger, lithe, magnificent as a god,
    the skin of a leopard slung across his shoulders,
    a reflex bow at his back and battle-sword at his hip
    and brandishing two sharp spears tipped in bronze
    he strode forth, challenging all the Argive best,
    to fight him face-to-face in mortal combat.

  • Menelaus “Lord of the War Cry” is not described in detail before the battle.
  • David likewise David is given scant description, just “for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance”.

What can we make of this. Both storytellers grant the loser a magnificent description, but lend little time describing the victor. Is there just a chance similarity there, or is a similar storytelling trick at play. To raise up the loser before dashing him down.

The Challenge
From Goliath we have

He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.”
And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.”

For the part of Homer, the duel is more formally challenged. Terms are set by the two leaders of the hosts. In this battle the cause of the war is Paris theft of Menelaus wife. Both hosts hope for the conclusion by allowing these two to come to battle. Hector and Agamemnon both submit that the winner will take Helen and the war will be over. After all, it’s been nine years of conflict and the men on both sides are getting tired of war.

The Action
Both of these battles are short and brief.

When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.

Paris and Menelaus battle is one sided and just a little less brief. Paris throws his spear first, but it lodges (without piercing is a testament to lack of force) and bending the tip (inferior weaponry). Menelaus returns his throw. His spear pierces the center of Paris shield, rips through the breastplate and jabs Paris flank, but the Trojan “swerved aside and dodged black death”. Menelaus raised his sword and smashed it down on Paris helmet, but it shattered presumably stunning Paris. For then Menelaus grabs Paris helmet by the crest and begins dragging (and the strap is strangling) him back to the Argive line. Paris is only saved for a later day by divine action by Aphrodite (and is in fact swept immediately to the bedroom and Helen is coaxed and cajoled/threatened into joining him).

Considering the Implications
Ok, now that the preliminary background has been set let’s try to consider similarities and differences in these two tales and what they might have to tell us modern readers. Outwardly these two stories are very similar. Both tell of a duel between two men which could/will decide the fate of a war. Both fights are between mismatched men, although the obvious outcome is not the result in both stories. Likewise there are obvious differences. David, prior to this battle is an unknown youth, but both Menelaus and Paris are at the root of their conflict. Paris fears this conflict initially (probably wisely) but Hector rakes his brother with insults and stinging taunts which goads him to return to the battle. But that just describes the action. To learn anything interesting, we must delve for motive and perhaps consider the phenomena of dueling.

Dueling is instinctive for men (though perhaps not to the death). Men by nature are competitive creatures. Both of these societies also, we recall from last week, value their patronym. Family honor is something held dear, for if not what does it matter who my father, or father’s father was? Man’s competitive nature, and the value placed on honor leads inevitably to dueling. Today, the fact that we don’t duel makes it clear that, for the modern man, life is valued over personal and family honor. However, when we examine the custom of dueling it is far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all of this was just a big mistake. We must remember that those who partook of those duels were just as smart as we are. Bill Wallo over on his blog, today wonders about technology and if it has made us “smarter” or “too dumb to notice”. The point being, it is rash to think that people were dueling “because they didn’t know better”. Many (if not most) certainly entered into duels with their eyes wide open. Alexander Hamilton died in a duel. It cannot be said Mr Hamilton was ignorant of human nature, poorly educated, or dumber (!) than us. Likewise, dueling should not be dismissed as an activity without any merit.

However, I think these two authors are in accord in their account of these two duels and their understanding of the nature of such activities. Examine the motives of our two weaker men. Why is David fighting in this duel? The author is clear, he is certainly not fighting for altruistic motives. He fights for fame, wealth, and to be part of the King’s family, “And the king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.” In fact, he makes this observation concerning reward and then double checks with the soldiers to confirm this guess. Unlike Hector, Saul tries to talk David out of this conflict pointing out his youth, size, and experience. However David is undaunted, as a shepherd unarmored he has faced lion and bear delivering a lamb to safety from the mouth of a bear. Paris on the other hand, is fighting not for honor and riches but to avoid shame. He is not a man’s man, but a creature of Aphrodite. A “slave to love” as it were. He has been shamed into conflict. I would submit that both of the authors would countenance duels for the first motive and disapprove of the second. The result of the conflict as reported by our authors might be interpreted as support for this thesis.

So we have a number of thoughts from the author of the David story (and Homer) that are not in vogue today, besides the idea of Dueling. David (and the Achaean’s) are not motivated by anything resembling altruism or “higher” principles. They are in fact (all) fighting for their own and their families honor and fame. It would be hard to imagine men in our world dueling. To willingly put at risk their life and their ability to support their family for if they didn’t the consequences would be far worse. I once wrote (two parts) that modern men have lost sight of myth and wonder in this age. We have set aside far more, in favor of hard currency and practicality. I sometimes wonder if we have gained by it?

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  1. […] Mark Olson at Pseudo-Polymath presents David and Achilles: The Duel […]