The Iliad


Books 19–20

Summary Books 19–20

Summary: Book 19

Thetis presents Achilles with the armor that Hephaestus has forged for him. She promises to look after Patroclus’s body and keep it from rotting while Achilles goes to battle. Achilles walks along the shore, calling his men to an assembly. At the meeting, Agamemnon and Achilles reconcile with each other, and Agamemnon gives Achilles the gifts that he promised him should Achilles ever return to battle. He also returns Briseis.

Achilles announces his intention to go to war at once. Odysseus persuades him to let the army eat first, but Achilles himself refuses to eat until he has slain Hector. All through breakfast, he sits mourning his dear friend Patroclus and reminiscing. Even Briseis mourns, for Patroclus had treated her kindly when she was first led away from her homeland. Zeus finds the scene emotionally moving and sends Athena down to fill Achilles’ stomach with nectar and ambrosia, keeping his hunger at bay. Achilles then dons his armor and mounts his chariot. As he does so, he chastises his horses, Roan Beauty and Charger, for leaving Patroclus on the battlefield to die. Roan Beauty replies that it was not he but a god who let Patroclus die and that the same is fated for Achilles. But Achilles needs no reminders of his fate; he knows his fate already, and knows that by entering battle for his friend he seals his destiny.

Summary: Book 20

While the Achaeans and Trojans prepare for battle, Zeus summons the gods to Mount Olympus. He knows that if Achilles enters the battlefield unchecked, he will decimate the Trojans and maybe even bring the city down before its fated time. Accordingly, he thus removes his previous injunction against divine interference in the battle, and the gods stream down to earth. But the gods soon decide to watch the fighting rather than involve themselves in it, and they take their seats on opposite hills overlooking the battlefield, interested to see how their mortal teams will fare on their own.

Before he resigns himself to a passive role, however, Apollo encourages Aeneas to challenge Achilles. The two heroes meet on the battlefield and exchange insults. Achilles is about to stab Aeneas fatally when Poseidon, in a burst of sympathy for the Trojan—and much to the chagrin of the other, pro-Greek gods—whisks Aeneas away. Hector then approaches, but Apollo persuades him not to strike up a duel in front of the ranks but rather to wait with the other soldiers until Achilles comes to him. Hector initially obeys, but when he sees Achilles so smoothly slaughtering the Trojans, among them one of Hector’s brothers, he again challenges Achilles. The fight goes poorly for Hector, and Apollo is forced to save him a second time.

Analysis: Books 19–20

Although Achilles has reconciled with Agamemnon, his other actions in Books 19 and 20 indicate that he has made little progress as a character. He still demonstrates a tendency toward the thoughtless rage that has brought so many Achaeans to their deaths. He remains so intent on vengeance, for example, that he initially intends for the men to go into battle without food, which could prove suicidal in a form of warfare that involves such great expenditures of physical energy. Similarly, on the battlefield Achilles demonstrates an obsessive concern with victory—to the exclusion of all other considerations. He cuts down the Trojan Tros even though Tros supplicates him and begs to be saved; it is apparent that Achilles has done little soul-searching. Although he reconciles himself with the Achaean forces, this gesture doesn’t alleviate his rage but rather refocuses it. He now lashes out at the Trojans, expressing his anger through action rather than through pointed refusals to act. Burning with passion, Achilles rejects all appeals to cool-headed reflection; the text compares him to an “inhuman fire” and, when he dons his shining armor, likens him to the sun (20.554). This imagery recalls his portrayal in Book 1 as “blazing Achilles” (1.342).

Indeed, Achilles’ internal dilemma as a character remains largely the same as in the beginning of the epic. Achilles has known throughout that his fate is either to live a short, glorious life at Troy or a long, obscure life back in Phthia. Now, as before, he must choose between them. Although he still feels torn between the two options, the shock of Patroclus’s death has shifted the balance in favor of remaining at Troy. There is little reason to believe that Achilles would have made up his mind without such a powerful catalyst for his decision.