Summary: Book 17

There is nothing alive more agonized than man
of all that breathe and crawl across the earth.

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A fight breaks out over Patroclus’s body. Euphorbus, the Trojan who first speared him, tries to strip him of Achilles’ armor but is killed by Menelaus. Hector, spurred on by Apollo, sees Euphorbus’s fall and comes to help. Menelaus enlists the help of Great Ajax, who forces Hector to back down and prevents the body from being removed or desecrated. He arrives too late to save the armor, however, which Hector dons himself. Glaucus rebukes Hector for leaving Patroclus’s body behind and suggests that they might have traded it for Sarpedon’s. Hector reenters the fray, promising to give half of the war’s spoils to any Trojan who drags Patroclus’s corpse away.

Aware of Hector’s impending doom and perhaps pitying it, Zeus temporarily gives Hector great power. Ajax and Menelaus summon more Achaeans to help them, and they soon force the Trojans, including mighty Hector, to run for the city’s walls. Aeneas, invigorated by Apollo, rallies the fleeing men to return to the fight, but after much effort they remain unable to take the corpse. Achilles’ charioteer, Automedon, becomes involved in the fighting as Zeus imbues his team with fresh strength. Hector tries to kill Automedon so that he can steal the chariot, but Automedon dodges Hector’s spear and brings a Trojan down in the process. He strips the Trojan of his armor, claiming that in doing so he eases the grief of Patroclus’s spirit, though this present victim could hardly compare to the great Patroclus.

Athena, disguised as Phoenix, gives fresh strength to Menelaus, while Apollo, himself disguised as a Trojan, lends encouragement to Hector. Menelaus sends Antilochus for help from Achilles, who still doesn’t know of Patroclus’s death. Zeus begins moving the battle in the Trojans’ favor but relents long enough for Menelaus and Meriones to carry away Patroclus’s body.

Summary: Book 18

When Antilochus brings word to Achilles of Patroclus’s death, Achilles loses control of himself. He weeps and beats the ground with his fists and covers his face with dirt. He utters a “terrible, wrenching cry” so profound that Thetis hears him and comes with her water-nymph sisters from the ocean to learn what troubles her son (18.39). Achilles tells her of the tragedy and insists that he shall avenge himself on Hector, despite his knowledge that, should he choose to live the life of a warrior, he is fated to die young. Thetis responds that since Hector now wears Achilles’ armor, she will have the divine metalsmith Hephaestus make him a new set, if Achilles will delay exacting his revenge for one day.

Thetis departs, and Iris, sent by Hera, comes to tell Achilles that he must go outside and make an appearance on the battlefield. This appearance alone will scare the Trojans into abandoning the fight for Patroclus’s body. Achilles leaves his tent, accompanied by Athena, and lets loose an enormous cry that does indeed send the Trojans fleeing.

That night, each army holds an assembly to plan its next move. In the Trojan camp, Polydamas urges his comrades to retreat to the city now that Achilles has decided to return to battle. Hector dismisses the idea as cowardly and insists on repeating the previous day’s assault. His foolhardy plan wins the support of the Trojans, for Athena has robbed them of their wits. Meanwhile, in the Achaean camp, the men begin their mourning for Patroclus. Achilles has men clean Patroclus’s wounds to prepare him for burial, though he vows not to bury him until he has slain Hector. Thetis goes to Hephaestus’s mansion and begs him to make Achilles a new set of armor. Hephaestus forges a breastplate, a helmet, and an extraordinary shield embossed with the images of constellations, pastures, dancing children, and cities of men.

Analysis: Books 17 & 18

In Book 18, night falls for the first time since Book 10; this sunless interlude plays a key role in the pacing, pitch, and drama of the poem, providing a lull in which both the characters and the reader can prepare for the intensity to come. This break from battle also serves to emphasize the significance of Achilles’ desire to exact revenge upon Hector; the actions that he soon takes mark his first entry into battle and, simultaneously, the first lessening of his self-pity and pride. By having night fall upon the scene, Homer sets off the imminent episode of Achilles’ attempt at revenge from the preceding slaughter. Indeed, Achilles’ entry into battle constitutes a metaphoric new dawn for the Achaeans.

Read more about why Achilles rejoins the battle.

The two assemblies held that night contrast sharply with each other, creating a sense of great irony. The Achaeans, still pinned behind their fortifications, mourn a dead comrade and dwell on their woes; yet the next day brings their fatal blow to the Trojan army. Buoyed by the day’s success, the Trojans plan a second assault on the Achaean camp, though it is they, not the Achaeans, who will enter into mourning within the next twenty-four hours. The doomed plan’s popularity among the Trojans is even more ironic given the availability of Polydamas’s wise alternative to retreat into the city. Homer frequently uses the sensible Polydamas as a foil (a character whose emotions or attitudes contrast with and thereby accentuate those of another character) for the headstrong Hector. This technique proves quite effective in this scene. Hector’s blindness emerges not only in the formulation of his own foolhardy plan but also in his dismissal of a clearly superior option.

Read more about the impermanence of human life and its creations as a theme.

Like the nighttime interlude, the forging of Achilles’ new armor helps set a tone of dramatic expectation in the poem. The magnificence of the armor’s beauty seems to bespeak its equally magnificent strength. The language describing the shield proves especially compelling and constitutes an example of the literary device ekphrasis. Ekphrasis, a Greek word literally meaning “description,” refers to the description of visual art in poetic terms. This device effectively allows Homer to filter an artistic subject through two layers of imaginative rendering. In the case of Achilles’ shield, the use of ekphrasis allows Homer to portray poetically not only the images appearing on the metal but also the effect of those images. For example, figures embossed on a shield cannot really move, of course, but Homer portrays them as dancing spiritedly. By doubling up two artistic media—artistic etching and poetry—Homer endows the described images with an enhanced dynamism and aesthetic force. The ekphrasis here also serves to create a sense of contrast in the poem. The Iliad is a highly compact narrative, compressing the turning points of a ten-year conflict into a few days of battle. Yet the shield passage expands this setting to a timeless universe. At this moment, the poet stands back from the details of physical violence and personal vendettas to contemplate the beauty of the larger cosmos in which they take place.

Read more about armor as a motif.