In defense of Ajax

A correction from an expert.

A reader learned in the ancient tongues reproaches me for listing Ajax in the same breath with Achilles, Odysseus, Diomedes, and the other conduct-disorder victims who led the Achaean Viking-raid on Troy. I stand corrected.

In Book VII, Ajax participates in the lottery to see who will fight Hector in the symbolic one-on-one, and he is glad to be the designated fighter– he accepts his lot.

He fights nobly, and, significantly, when darkness is falling and it appears that the two warriors may be an equal match, he is the one who accepts Hector’s offer of a truce, and the two exchange gifts.

In Book IX, it is Ajax who reminds Achilles, bluntly and without flattery, that the warrior is charged not to think too much. His message is essentially “it’s not about you.” He says, you have to play by the rules. Even if your brother is killed and you want revenge, if the killer’s family pays the appropriate amends/fine (hard word to translate) you have to accept it instead of killing in revenge. It’s not about YOU. Think about that.

The battle described in Book XI shows Ajax doing his job, and there is something important in his battle position. I usually went to sleep mentally when the battle symbolism was discussed in class, but I recall that Homer often drew the battle scenes so that the staging was significant. As I recall, there was something in Ajax’s holding down his end of things. But I can’t remember exactly. This book also has a really interesting moment– Zeus, that bastard, puts fear in Ajax’s heart. He allows Ajax to be all alone, overwhelmed with Trojans. But Ajax continues to fight and finally his companions come to rescue him.

I always liked this part because Ajax is shown to be a man. If the male idea of teamwork has any meaning, this is where it is illustrated. Ajax cannot succeed without his comrades, which is exactly what he told Achilles. This also happens in Book XIII when Ajax becomes so fatigued he cannot hold his own shield. Others hold it for him while he fights hand-to-hand. Ajax is a man among men.

And that is really it for Ajax’s role in the Iliad. That he does not die in the war matters, I think. Unlike death penalty proponents, Homer understood that there is glory in death by violence. Ajax is not a battle martyr. To me, Ajax always stood for something important; without the Ajaxes of this world there can be no Odysseuses.

It’s the Hufflepuff thing, you know. You’ve got those Gryffindors with all their courage, and the Ravenclaws brilliantly writing and painting and being literate and intelligent, but it’s the Hufflepuffs who carry the water and use their brains and their courage in displays of loyalty that make all things possible. Never forget the Ajaxes of this world.

Where would we be if the entire population were thinking great thoughts and making daring raids? Someone has to hold down the fort.

I trained a horse when I was a teenager. He was an enormous white animal mottled with gray, not a beauty by any means. He looked like a plowhorse. When I first tried him over fences, he ran straight through them. Smash. Splinters everywhere. That was when I named him Ajax.

I finally showed him what I wanted by having him step over rails on the ground, and raising them inch by inch until he got the idea that it was less painful to jump over fences. Once he figured out what you wanted, he just did it. It was impossible to make him mad. He had this attitude that life was going to happen anyway, so why make a big deal out of it? When I was done training him, the stable sold him to a banker who rode him in foxhunts for years. The man used to say Ajax was a horse with an automatic transmission. Waiting for the hunt to begin, with hounds howling and all the other horses going nuts, Ajax would stand calmly at the side of the field waiting for everyone to get his act together and then when the field began to move, he broke into a slow, steady canter, never even subjecting his rider to a bouncy trot.

He eased into a spot and then did his job. Over fences, through mud, whoops, don’t step on that hound, move aside when some thoroughbred comes raging through. When it’s all over, we get a rubdown and dinner. Fine. Life is good.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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