Philoctete is one of the most interesting characters in this poem. He doesn't figure prominently in large chunks of the text, but he is conceptually complex—right down to his name. Like Achille, Philoctete has a culturally inappropriate name. (We can probably assume that he got it in the same way Achille got his—for more on this, check out Achille's page elsewhere in this section.) But appropriate or not, the name is definitely telling.
In keeping with the epic nature of the work, Walcott chose the name of Greek royalty for this character. The original Philoctetes appears in Homer's Iliad (surprise, surprise) and was the subject of several ancient plays. As a suitor for (Homer's) Helen's hand, the young archer is obliged to take Menelaus's side in the Trojan War.
But on his way to the front lines, Philoctetes gets a festering wound to his foot and is abandoned by his people on the island of Lemnos. Thanks, guys. He is eventually redeemed and healed, and goes on to become one of the most successful warriors on the field.
Like the ancient Philoctetes, Philoctete represents deep suffering and isolation, the pain inflicted not just by a physical wound, but by psychological damage—in this case, left by slavery.
There's suffering and then there's suffering, and Philoctete suffers in a seriously major way. He doesn't just have a little sore on his leg that can be covered until it goes away—nope, instead it is a "radiant anemone" (II.i.9) that constantly torments him, causing him shame because of the smell of festering flesh. The wound itself is something deeper and more sinister than a tetanus infection working its way through the poor man's blood:
He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles
of his grandfathers. Or why else was there no cure? (III.iii.19)
As we see with Achille (more on him elsewhere in this section), the origins for Philoctete's suffering lie in his ancestral past. You can bet he feels double frustration because of this injury: He can do nothing to cure it and he did done nothing to merit it. So if it is really a wound inherited from his enslaved ancestors, there seems to be no justice left in the world—he is as innocent as can be (just as they were when they were captured), and yet suffers endlessly anyway.
In the throes of pain and despair, Philoctete contemplates hacking off his leg, but instead takes it out on his yams (another inheritance from his ancestors), screaming at them: "You see what it's like without roots in this world?" (IV.i.21). The enslavement of his ancestors ripped him from his roots, leaving him disempowered and suffering through his existence. It's a pretty, er, epic bummer.
That said, Walcott is really interested in making everything right for his characters. We know this because Ma Kilman and Seven Seas make it a point to tell us that "everyone will heal" at the end of the poem. And we can see that the narrator himself is struggling to do just that as he recovers from loss and heartache.
In this sense, Philoctete is the poster child for the poem. Just as his suffering is acute, the moment of his healing bath in Ma Kilman's cauldron is powerful and dramatic:
[…] he could feel the putrescent shin
drain in the seethe like sucked marrow, he felt it drag
the slime from his shame...
and as he surrendered to her, the foul flower
on his shin whitened and puckered, the corolla
closed its thorns like a sea-egg. What else did it cure? (XLIX.i.247)
The cure is both physical and spiritual, and can only be brought about by Ma Kilman's mystical journey to find the ancestral root that will heal him. The antidote, it seems, had been carried in the belly of a selfless sea-swift from the shores of Africa—illustrating for us that there is justice in the universe, if not in humankind.
Just because he finally heals doesn't mean that Philoctete can forget his roots or leave the memory and reason for his suffering behind, though. As he heals, we're told: "The bow leapt back to the palm of the warrior./The yoke of the wrong name lifted from his shoulders" (XLIX.ii.247). The image of the bow goes back to Philoctete's literary ancestor, the archer abandoned on Lemnos. It's an image of redemption: Philoctete is good to go, more or less. But if you know anything about those ancient epic dudes, you know that they do not forget.
And neither does Philoctete. When he dances with Achille on Boxing Day, the pain returns to him, even though he is whole again:
All the pain
re-entered Philoctete, of the hacked yams, the hold
closing over their heads, the bolt-closing iron,
over eyes that never saw the light of this world,
their memory still there although all the pain was gone. (LV.iii.277)
The "wrongness" of his Greek name may have left him, but the memory of how he got it in the first place never will. Philoctete will triumph over his pain, but he will never lose the cultural memory that defines his character.