By Thomas Van Nortwick
Zeus gives Athena permission to intervene (185), a signal to us that the gods are about to bring the chase to an end. First, another simile compares Achilles to a hound that has flushed a fawn from its lair. As he did in the earlier simile of Achilles as hawk and Hector as dove (139–142), the poet seems intent on portraying the contest as one-sided, with Hector being weaker and more vulnerable, confirmation that the end is approaching for him. Meanwhile, Achilles as relentless animal predator adds to the long catalog of dark personae he assumes in this part of the poem. If the death of Patroclus pulled our sympathy away from Hector and toward Achilles, the ensuing blood-soaked rampage and Hector’s monologue begin to reverse the process. Homer has been building toward Hector’s death scene since the beginning of Book 22, drawing us toward his flawed humanity and away from Achilles’ ever-expanding cosmic rage. Now the gods will orchestrate the final moments.
The deliberations of the gods have distanced us from the immediacy of the chase and Homer keeps us there, as we look down at Hector’s failed attempts to get back into the city or at least get some cover from Trojan archers on the walls, at Achilles warning off his own men from helping him, to make sure that he gets all the glory (kudos, 207). During this action Homer inserts the only simile about dreams in the entire poem:
As in a dream, when a man cannot catch another who flees;
he cannot escape nor can the other catch up;
So he [Achilles] could not run him down, nor he escape.
The language here is both elliptical and somewhat repetitive, which caused a later commentator, Aristarchus, in one of the great critical lapses in the history of scholarship, to condemn the verses as “worthless” (εὐτελεῖς) Virgil, for one, disagreed, creating a brilliant variation at Aeneid 12.908–914. Coming where it does, during a desperate life-and-death chase, this simile has multiple and powerful effects. The slow-motion camera returns, perversely inviting us to admire the beauty of the runners. Such a dream is simultaneously about frustration—thus the repetitive language—and terror. And it is a common dream, one Homer knew his audience had probably experienced. Just as he moves us away from the scene visually, he taps into the deep recesses of our minds with a familiar nightmare.
Apollo has been helping Hector, giving him extra strength and speed. But now the matter moves to the highest cosmic level, as Zeus lifts his golden scales, with the fates of Hector and Achilles on either side. In three short clauses, it is all over:
Hector’s day of death sank;
it moved toward Hades’ house; and Phoebus Apollo left him.
An impressive image, but in fact it tells us nothing we did not already know. Zeus foretold Hector’s death as early as Book Fifteen (59–71). Major events are rarely confirmed only once in the Iliad. Rather, we are apt to see them from multiple perspectives as their implications unfold. Achilles’ own death is handled similarly. When Thetis goes to Achilles in the beginning of Book Twenty-Four to tell him to release the body of Hector, he agrees tersely (139–140). In its context, this gesture marks Achilles’ acceptance of his own mortality, a crucial event in the working out of the poem’s thematic resolution. But he first affirms that he will die one day soon in Book Eighteen (98), when Thetis comes to console him for Patroclus’s death, then repeats the admission in his grim speech to Lykaon in Book Twenty-One (110–113). The first passage shows Achilles in his capacity as Thetis’s son, the second as brutal warrior, and the third in the depths of despair after Patroclus’s funeral. Each context adds a new shading to the admission and its effects on others. So here the cosmic scales reconfirm Hector’s fate, but the image also revisits and refines Zeus’s brief struggle (168–187) over whether to change fate and save Hector. Now the issue will not be decided based on Zeus’s relationships with other gods. It is out of his hands.
Athena wastes no time in joining the forces gathered against Hector, going to Achilles and glorying in the kudos they will both win by destroying the Trojan hero. We might ask why, when Hector is clearly doomed to die soon, with all the power of fate and divine will lined up against him, the poet has Athena pile on in this gleefully cruel way. The answer is that, having tested our allegiance to Hector by having him run from Achilles, Homer now wants to turn our sympathies back yet more firmly to him.
In these verses and those soon to come, Homer puts mortals in close contact with gods, always a potent moment in any tragic story. The motives of divinities who act in the world of death and change must always seem trivial to us, because the gods, however strongly they are gripped by the whim of the moment, have nothing important at stake. Athena’s exuberantly malicious treatment of Hector, whose selflessness and devotion have cost him so much, is hard to contemplate precisely because we know that she cannot care about anything for long. And every time that realization comes over us, we are precisely where any Greek tragic narrative wants us, pondering both the human pain and suffering that comes from confronting mortality and the supreme indifference of higher forces.
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