Summary: Book 21

Achilles routs the Trojans and splits their ranks, pursuing half of them into the river known to the gods as Xanthus and to the mortals as Scamander. On the riverbank, Achilles mercilessly slaughters Lycaon, a son of Priam. The Trojan Asteropaeus, given fresh strength by the god of the river, makes a valiant stand, but Achilles kills him as well. The vengeful Achilles has no intention of sparing any Trojans now that they have killed Patroclus. He throws so many corpses into the river that its channels become clogged. The river god rises up and protests, and Achilles agrees to stop throwing people into the water but not to stop killing them. The river, sympathetic to the Trojans, calls for help from Apollo, but when Achilles hears the river’s plea, he attacks the river. The river gets the upper hand and drags Achilles all the way downstream to a floodplain. He very nearly kills Achilles, but the gods intervene. Hephaestus, sent by Hera, sets the plain on fire and boils the river until he relents.

A great commotion now breaks out among the gods as they watch and argue over the human warfare. Athena defeats Ares and Aphrodite. Poseidon challenges Apollo, but Apollo refuses to fight over mere mortals. His sister Artemis taunts him and tries to encourage him to fight, but Hera overhears her and pounces on her.

Meanwhile, Priam sees the human carnage on the battlefield and opens the gates of Troy to his fleeing troops. Achilles pursues them and very nearly takes the city, but the Trojan prince Agenor challenges him to single combat. Achilles’ fight with Agenor—and with Apollo disguised as Agenor after Agenor himself has been whisked to safety—allows the Trojans enough time to scurry back to Troy.

Summary: Book 22

Hector now stands as the only Trojan left outside Troy. Priam, overlooking the battlefield from the Trojan ramparts, begs him to come inside, but Hector, having given the overconfident order for the Trojans to camp outside their gates the night before, now feels too ashamed to join them in their retreat. When Achilles finally returns from chasing Apollo (disguised as Agenor), Hector confronts him. At first, the mighty Trojan considers trying to negotiate with Achilles, but he soon realizes the hopelessness of his cause and flees. He runs around the city three times, with Achilles at his heels. Zeus considers saving Hector, but Athena persuades him that the mortal’s time has come. Zeus places Hector’s and Achilles’ respective fates on a golden scale, and, indeed, Hector’s sinks to the ground.

During Hector’s fourth circle around the city walls, Athena appears before him, disguised as his ally Deiphobus, and convinces him that together they can take Achilles. Hector stops running and turns to face his opponent. He and Achilles exchange spear throws, but neither scores a hit. Hector turns to Deiphobus to ask him for a lance; when he finds his friend gone, he realizes that the gods have betrayed him. In a desperate bid for glory, he charges Achilles. However, he still wears Achilles’ old armor—stolen from Patroclus’s dead body—and Achilles knows the armor’s weak points intimately. With a perfectly timed thrust he puts his spear through Hector’s throat. Near death, Hector pleads with Achilles to return his body to the Trojans for burial, but Achilles resolves to let the dogs and scavenger birds maul the Trojan hero.

The other Achaeans gather round and exultantly stab Hector’s corpse. Achilles ties Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and drags it through the dirt. Meanwhile, up above on the city’s walls, King Priam and Queen Hecuba witness the devastation of their son’s body and wail with grief. Andromache hears them from her chamber and runs outside. When she sees her husband’s corpse being dragged through the dirt, she too collapses and weeps.

Analysis: Books 21 & 22

In this section of the epic, the feuds of the gods continue to echo the battles of the mortals. As the human battles become ever more grave, however, the divine conflicts in these episodes seem ever more superfluous. In their internal fighting, the gods do not affect or even try to affect the underlying issues of the human conflict. Two of them explicitly swear off fighting over the mortals, though one of these, Hera, ends up doing just that. It seems that the gods are not actually fighting over the mortals but rather expressing the animosities that the mortal conflict has stirred in them. Although the struggle among the gods may remain unexplained within the plot of the epic, it adds variety to the poem’s rhythm and pacing, and elevates the conflict onto the epic, cosmos-consuming stage.

But these more lighthearted or colorful episodes soon give way to one of the poem’s most deadly serious encounters, the duel between Hector and Achilles. Homer uses several devices, including prophecy and irony, to build a heavy sense of pathos. Priam’s speech comparing the glorious death of a hero with the humiliating death of an old man in a fallen city comes across as particularly heartbreaking if we know, as Homer’s audience did, that Priam himself will soon meet the very death that he describes, amid the ruins of Troy. When Andromache bewails the miserable life that Astyanax will have to endure without a father, a sharp sense of irony enhances the tragic effect of her words: Astyanax will suffer this fatherless life only briefly, as he dies shortly after the fall of Troy.

Read more about glory of war as a theme.

This section of the poem reveals a particularly skillful control of plot. Events interweave with one another in elaborate patterns. The weighing of Hector’s and Achilles’ fates, for example, recalls but inverts the first weighing of fates in Book 8, when the Trojan army’s fate rises above that of the Achaeans. Hector must fight to the death in these episodes in order to redeem the honor that he loses earlier; after he recklessly orders his troops to camp outside the city walls, the men have to flee, causing Hector great shame. Furthermore, Hector’s earlier moment of glory, when he strips Patroclus of Achilles’ armor, speeds the moment of his undoing, for Achilles knows exactly where that armor is vulnerable. Such interconnections between events seem to indicate that the universe has a cyclical or balanced nature: one swing of the pendulum leads to another, and an individual’s actions come back to haunt him.

Read more about armor as a motif.

The final duel between Achilles and Hector becomes not only a duel of heroes but also of heroic values. While Achilles proves superior to Hector in terms of strength and endurance, he emerges as inferior in terms of integrity. His mistreatment of Hector’s body is a disgrace, compounded by the cruelty in which he allows the rank and file of his army to indulge. As we have seen, Achilles engages in such indignities quite routinely and does so not out of any real principle but out of uncontrollable rage. Hector, on the other hand, entirely redeems whatever flaws he displays in the preceding books. His refusal to return to the safety of Troy’s walls after witnessing the deaths brought about by his foolish orders to camp outside the city demonstrates his mature willingness to suffer the consequences of his actions. His rejection of a desperate attempt at negotiation in favor of the honorable course of battle reveals his ingrained sense of personal dignity. His attempt to secure from Achilles a mutual guarantee that the winner treat the loser’s corpse with respect highlights his decency. Finally, his last stab at glory by charging Achilles even after he learns that the gods have abandoned him and that his death is imminent makes his heroism and courage obvious. While Hector dies in this scene, the values that he represents—nobility, self-restraint, and respect—arguably survive him. Indeed, Achilles later comes around to an appreciation of these very values after realizing the faults of his earlier brutality and self-centered rage.

Read more about death and glory in the Iliad.