The Iliad, Books 17-24

As I reached the end of the Iliad, I was so wrapped up in the book that I stopped taking notes on my reading. (I have three pages of notes on books 1-15, and two lines of notes on the remainder.) After Achilles sends his closest friend Patroclus out in his own armor, only to have him killed by the mighty Hector, the book reaches an unbearable  climax of magic, rage, grief, violence, and outrage.

I never made the mistake of thinking that Achilles was only refraining from battle because he was sulky at having his woman taken away by Agamemnon. Prizes meant honor, in those days, and honor was not an inner certainty that you’d Done the Right Thing, but an outer merit, conferred by your peers and superiors. Stripped of his prizes, he was stripped of his reason to fight: honor that would outlast his prophesied death. So what can move him from his logical stance (confirmed, moreover, by his divine mother)? Love — and, as Homer says in the first line of the Iliad, rage. When Achilles hears that Patroclus has been killed, he waits only long enough to have new armor forged (Hector has stripped his from Patroclus’s body) and then nothing more can stop him: not the gods, not the natural world (a river rises up against him), not an army. Nothing stops him until Hector (so brave and noble) lies dead at his feet.

Even then, it’s not good enough. And this, of course, is the part that is so interesting. Any man would want to avenge a close friend. That much makes sense. But Achilles’s shocking behavior afterward — tying Hector’s body to his chariot and dragging it in the dust, shaming and defiling him, goes far beyond vengeance, beyond rational behavior. His love and his rage have made him mad. His ritual sacrifice doesn’t help. His generosity at the funeral games doesn’t soothe him:

The games were over now. The gathered armies scattered,

each man to his fast ship, and fighters turned their minds

to thoughts of food and the sweet warm grip of sleep.

But Achilles kept on grieving for his friend,

the memory burning on…

and all-subduing sleep could not take him,

not now, he turned and twisted, side to side,

he longed for Patroclus’s manhood, his gallant heart —

This, of course, is the way grief is. Nothing can change the fact that your beloved is dead, so no memorial will really make it better, no vengeance will really help. This part of the book was so raw and real, from so many centuries ago, that it resonated with me deeply: Hector’s body lying at the wheels of the chariot, no greater reproach than death itself ever is.

And then the final scene, so moving that I was in tears: old Priam, Hector’s father, gets help from the gods to come and take his son’s body home. He kneels to Achilles:

It’s all for him I’ve come to the ships now,

to win him back for you — I bring a priceless ransom.

Revere the gods, Achilles! Pity me in my own right,

remember your own father! I deserve more pity…

I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before —

I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.

And Achilles, the man who could rage so violently that whole armies quaked before him, is moved to gentleness. The two men, older and younger, weep together. Achilles carefully prepares Hector’s body, promises not to attack the Trojans before they can bury him properly, and Priam goes home with his son. The very last line of this 600-page book is, “And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

So does this extremely violent book glorify violence? Of course. Almost the whole book is wrapped up in men behaving with nobility and strength and intelligence about the use of force. The gore is realistic, with no choirs of angels carrying them off: darkness swirls around them and they die, groaning and gasping, bleeding and begging and taunting. There are tactics and sacrifices, a fine balance between individuals and the community, a wash back and forth between ordinary mortals and the strong interest of the gods in the way their lives play out (both individually and communally.) War is natural, an extension of the body and of the natural world.

And yet — of course war is not glory. Men weep, heartbroken, over their fallen comrades. What good is glory if your friends are dead? Pages are devoted to the Achaeans’ desire to go home to their lands and wives and children, as they have been absent for nine long years. And the ending, with Achilles and Priam sharing their grief, reminded me again of the ending of the Song of Roland, another very gory piece of literature: “‘God!’ said the King, ‘how weary is my life!’/ He weeps, he plucks his flowing white beard.” Not exactly a ringing call of victory. Does it glorify violence? Yes. And no.

The other curious thing about this work is the way Homer, a Greek, makes the Trojans as kind, as complex, as noble — as human — as the Greeks. I mentioned the scene early in the book where Hector takes off his helmet to kiss his baby son, but this is only one of countless episodes in which it’s hard to know which side to support in the battle. With the single exception of Paris, who is an unpleasant coward and a braggart, the Trojans are brave, strong, well-captained, and devoted to the gods. It’s a human tendency to want to dehumanize your enemies. Sure, make them strong — but make them evil, make them less than human, make them giants and cannibals! It makes it easier to kill them. None of that here. These are good men who love their families and honor their ancestors. Homer’s work makes war far more complex than it had to be. 

It feels paltry and weak to say I liked, or didn’t like, reading the Iliad. What does my liking it have to do with such a great, strong, wild and complex piece of literature? Its characters push out of it like the Elgin marbles out of their frieze, still and alive. It’s worth reading, and re-reading, and studying, to find how alike we are now, and how different.

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5 Responses to The Iliad, Books 17-24

  1. Jo M says:

    When I taught The Iliad, we would always have a discussion about who had more honor: Achilles or Hector. We always had a good, roiling debate!

    • Jenny says:

      Well, Hector never did anything dishonorable, but Achilles went totally against social norms of honor with what he did to Hector’s body — ordinarily you’d give the other side a chance to get the bodies back and bury them. So overall, minus some points for Achilles, I think.

  2. Jenny says:

    I love the Iliad because it’s a war poem, but it is also, in a way, an anti-war poem. I mean that it doesn’t pretend the horrors of war aren’t horrific. I think it acknowledges the importance of war, and the fact that people can be magnificent, but also it says and says and says that war is hell and everybody just wants to damn well go home.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, exactly. I like works that can do both — it always surprises me (why?) when works this old are so complex about things like this.

  3. Chris Harris says:

    Ahh, why does Achilles mutilate the body of Hector? And is it really against the social norms of the day? Remember, that Hector himself wants to decapitate Patroclus and spike his head on the wall above Troy, and that both sides fought hard to drag the bodies of their slain foes to their side so that they could, in essence, “feed them to the dogs”.

    You may be aware, but Priam’s name means “ransom”. Priam was the son of the Trojan king, Laomedon, and was originally named Podarkes (or, Podarces); and he was the only survivor of the first ‘sack of Troy’ committed by Herakles. He had urged his father to pay the ‘ransom’ to Herakles for saving Hesione, Laomedon’s sister. Laomedon did not, and Herakles destroyed the city and its peoples. So, in a sense, it completes a circle when Priam comes to Achilles, late at night, seeking to ‘ransom’ the body of his dead son, Hector.

    I completely agree with you, and those who’ve commented, that The Iliad is perhaps the greatest anti-war statement ever written. While, in large part, the combatants act according to the warrior ethos and code, not one of them really wants to be there–they’d all much rather be at home with their wives and families. I think that somehow The Iliad is also a pretty fair psychological portrait of what we now refer to as “post-traumatic stress disorder”–these men are psychologically and emotionally worn out from ten years of fighting this war. I also think that Achilles “rage” has less to do with Briseis being forcibly taken from him, than it is a reflection of Achilles’ growing understanding that Agamemnon is an incompetent and inept military leader and that this war against the Trojans is profoundly unjust (see, for example, Fagles, Book 1, Lines 176-189).

    Finally, I also think you nailed Achilles’ motivation for rejoining the fray, i.e., “Love”. It was his love for Patroclus–the ‘comradeship’ that soldiers share in combat–that was transformed, with Patroclus’ slaughter, into the berserker rage. It is a transformation that has been seen throughout the history of warfare; and in some cases it results in extreme acts of outrage and brutality, and in others, extreme acts of heroism–a very thin razor’s edge walked by individual soldiers in profoundly harrowing moments.

    Great posting! You really dug into the poem, and I think came away really understanding it and its relative value to all of us today. Well done! Cheers! Chris

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