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The Iliad

Summary Books 15–16
Summary Books 15–16

This sense of predestination points to an important difference between ancient and modern fiction. Much of modern fiction creates a sense of dramatic tension by keeping the reader wondering how a story will end. Often a story’s ending depends upon the individual characters and the choices that they make according to their respective personalities. In contrast, ancient narratives often base themselves on mythological tradition, and ancient audiences would have listened to a given story already aware of its outcome. Tension in this scenario arises not from the question of how a character’s mindset will affect the story’s events but rather from the question of how the story’s events will affect a character’s mindset. For example, the poem creates a sense of drama and poignancy in its portrayal of Hector, who continues to fight valiantly for Troy even though he knows in his heart—as he tells Andromache in Book 6—that he is doomed to die and Troy doomed to fall. Similarly, Achilles eventually rejoins the battle despite his knowledge that the glory of fighting will cost him his life. The drama comes not from waiting to see how the story ends but from waiting to see how the characters respond to an end already foreseen.

Some of the details of The Iliad’s plot do depend on individual characters’ choices, however. Achilles faces the dilemma of whether to enter the battle and save his comrades or stew in his angry self-pity and let them suffer. These inner struggles of an individual character create not only a sense of drama but often a sense of irony as well. In Book 1, Achilles asks Zeus, via Thetis, to punish the Achaeans for Agamemnon’s insolence in demanding the maiden Briseis. Now, as Zeus continues to oblige, helping the Trojans, Achilles loses his beloved comrade Patroclus. In another twist of irony, the death of Patroclus later motivates Achilles to rejoin the Achaean army and lead it against Troy, the very cause that he had forsworn before the beginning of The Iliad.

Some commentators detect a change in the characterization of Hector in this part of the epic. Earlier the undisputed champion of the Trojan army who criticizes Paris for retreating, Hector is twice shown fleeing battle after Patroclus’s entrance. The Trojan Glaucus shames him into returning the first time, and Hector’s uncle shames him into returning the second time (though Homer does point out that Zeus has made Hector cowardly). Additionally, Hector’s prediction that he will kill Achilles is empty boasting. Indeed, he can hardly even lay claim to having killed Patroclus, as both Apollo and another Trojan wound Patroclus before Hector can lay a hand on him.