The Iliad
Homer
Contributed by Joslyn Justiniano

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Book 17-18
Summary

Summary: Book 17

Men fight over Patroclus’s body. The Trojan who speared him for the first time, Euphorbus, attempts to take Achilles’ armor off his body but is cut down by Menelaus. Hector, encouraged by Apollo, witnesses the fall of Euphorbus and offers assistance. Menelaus obtains the help of Great Ajax, who pushes Hector to back down and stops the body from being desecrated or removed. He arrives late and is unable to save the armor, though, and Hector decides to put it on himself. Glaucus chides Hector for abandoning Patroclus’s body and says that they could have exchanged it for that of Sarpedon. Hector again comes into the fray, and promises to bestow half of the spoils of the war to any Trojan who is able to drag away Patroclus’s corpse.

Zeus is aware of what Hector’s fate will be and it is possible that he pities it. He gives Hector temporarily powers that are great in nature. Menelaus and Ajax bring more Achaeans to assist them, and they promptly push the Trojans, including Hector, to flee for the walls of the city. Aeneas, who is energized by Apollo, rallies the men who are fleeing and makes them go back to fight. However, after a great deal of effort they stay unable to steal the corpse. Automedon, Achilles’ charioteer, gets involved in the battle. Zeus gives his team new strength. Hector attempts to kill Automedon so that he is able to take the chariot, but Automedon moves out of the way of Hector’s spear and kills a Trojan while doing so. He takes the Trojan’s armor, stating that in so doing so he helps to ease Patroclus’s spirit’s grief. He points out, however, that the present victim could never compare to Patroclus, who was great. While disguised as Phoenix, Athena gives Menelaus strength. Apollo, who is disguised as a Trojan, encourages Hector. Menelaus dispatches Antilochus to get help from Achilles, who is still unaware of the death of Patroclus. Zeus starts making the battle fall in the Trojans’ favor, but he stops for long enough that Menelaus and Meriones are able to take Patroclus’s body.

Summary: Book 18

When the news of Patroclus’s death is brought by Antilochus, Achilles loses control of his emotions. He beats the ground and weeps, and he uses dirt to cover his face. A “terrible, wrenching cry” arises from him. It is so moving that Thetis overhears it and arrives with water-nymphs from the ocean to find out her son’s troubles (18.39). Achilles informs her of what has happened and declares that he will take his revenge on Hector despite the fact he knows that if he chooses to have a warrior’s life, he will be fated to die young. Thetis says that as Hector is now wearing Achilles’ armor, she will ask Hephaestus, the divine metalsmith, to create a new set.  She will do this if Achilles will put off taking his revenge for a day. Thetis leaves. Sent by Hera, Iris arrives to tell Achilles that he should go outside and appear on the battlefield. His appearance alone is expected to frighten the Trojans and make them run away from the fight for Patroclus’s body. Achilles departs from the tent with Athena. He cries in emotional agony, and this makes the Trojans flee. That evening, both armies individually hold an assembly to make plans for what it will do next. In the Trojan ranks, Polydamas pushes his comrades to go back to the city now that Achilles is returning to battle. The idea is dismissed by Hector, who says it is cowardly. He insists on a repeat of the assault of the previous day. His plan is foolhardy but it gains Trojan support. This is because they have been robbed of their wits by Athena. In the meantime amongst the Achaeans, the men start to mourn Patroclus. Achilles instructs men to clean Patroclus’s wounds to get him ready for burial. He vows that Patroclus will not be buried until he has killed Hector. Thetis ventures to Hephaestus’s mansion and asks him to create a new set of armor for Achilles. Hephaestus makes a helmet, a breastplate, and a wonderful shield that is embossed with images of dancing children, pastures, constellations, and cities of men.

Analysis

Night comes for the first time since Book 10 in Book 18. This period of darkness has an important role in the poem’s drama, pitch, and pacing. It creates a lull allowing both the characters and the readers to prepare for the story’s coming intensity. This period also helps to call attention to the importance of Achilles’ desires to have revenge. The things that he soon does constitute his initial entry into the battle. At the same time, it shows the first reduction in his levels of self-pity and pride. The beginning of the darkness of night leads to Homer emphasizing the coming episode of Achilles’ attempt to get revenge. In fact, Achilles’ entry into the battle metaphorically indicates a new dawn for the Achaean forces. There is a distinct difference between the two assemblies that are held that night. This helps to create a strong sense of irony. The Achaeans are still behind their fortifications, and they mourn the death of a comrade. They dwell on their sadness. Yet the following day there occurs the fatal blow they exact on the Trojan army. Encouraged by the success of the day, the Trojans plan to assault the Achaean camp for a second time. However, it is they, and not the Achaeans, who will be in mourning within the next day. The plan is doomed, and its popularity with the Trojans has an even greater sense of irony because of the fact they could have chosen the wise alternative presented by Polydamas of retreating into the city. Homer often uses Polydamas, who is very sensible, as a foil for Hector, who is headstrong. A foil is a character who has emotions or attitudes that stand in contrast with those of another, and therefore emphasizes the latter’s characteristics. The use of this technique here is rather effective. The blindness of Hector is shown not merely in the formulation of his own foolish plan but also in the way he dismisses an option that is clearly superior. The forging of Achilles’ new armor has a similar effect to the nighttime interlude in that it helps to create dramatic expectation. The armor’s beauty and magnificence appear to show its equally wonderful strength. The way the shield is described is very compelling and is an instance of the use of ekphrasis, a literary device. Ekphrasis is a Greek word meaning “description.” It refers to how visual art is described in poetic language. This device is effective in letting Homer filter a subject that is artistic in nature through imaginative storytelling. With regard to Achilles’ shield, the utilization of ekphrasis lets Homer poetically communicate not merely the images on the metal but also the effect created by them. For instance, figures that are embossed on a shield aren’t able to move, yet Homer shows them as dancing in a spirted manner. Through using two different kinds of artistic media (poetry and artistic etching), Homer gives the images described an enhanced aesthetic force and dynamism. The use of ekphrasis at this point also has the purpose of establishing a sense of contrast. The Iliad is a narrative that is highly compact in structure. It compresses the most significant moments of a conflict that lasted ten years into only a few days of battle. However, the shield passage is able to expand this into a timeless space. At this point, Homer stands aloof from violent and unpleasant details to think about the beauty of the larger universe where they occur.

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