The Iliad

by: Homer

Books 21–22

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.

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.

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.