The Iliad


Books 17–18

Summary Books 17–18

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.

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.

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.