By Thomas Van Nortwick
In Book 22 Homer builds toward an intense climactic scene, the death of Hector. From the opening tableau, with Hector waiting alone before the city walls as Achilles races across the plain toward him, through the brilliant portrayal of the duel itself, to Hector’s poignant death and its grim aftermath, we witness destruction rolling ever closer to a warrior and a civilization we have come to admire. Everything we learned about Hector in Books Three and Six is now brought to bear on the final moments of his noble but doomed life. At the same time, his story and Achilles’ merge, enriching our understanding of both figures. Their relationship continues even after Hector’s death, as Achilles’ treatment of his enemy’s corpse becomes the focal point for the poem’s somber resolution in Book Twenty-Four.
Since leaving Troy at the end of Book Six, Hector has appeared principally in his persona as fierce warrior and leader of the Trojans. His inner doubts and suffering, which we glimpsed in the scenes with Andromache, have not surfaced again until now. Meanwhile, the main plot of the poem, fueled by Achilles’ wrath, withdrawal, and return, has moved forward through three days of intense fighting. At the end of Book Sixteen Sarpedon falls to Patroclus and Patroclus to Hector, the latter death finally bringing Achilles back to the battlefield. From Books Nineteen through Twenty-One, Homer teases us by holding out the prospect of the final showdown between Achilles and Hector, almost bringing them together in Book Twenty, then having Apollo lure Achilles away to the edge of the battlefield by the end of Book Twenty-One, allowing the Trojan warriors to retreat inside the city walls—all but Hector, who makes his last desperate stand as Book Twenty-Two opens.
Once inside the city walls the Trojans, sweating and winded, slake their thirst. They are, Homer tells us, like “fawns” (22.1). Meanwhile, the Achaeans draw near, their shields against their shoulders. Repetition of the verb κλίνω, “to lean,” points up the contrast between the two armies: the exhausted Trojans prop their shields against the battlements; the Greeks lean into their shields as they move against the city. We see here Homer’s narrative strategy for the entire book in miniature. He begins with the two armies, one aggressively chasing the other, then narrows the focus down to Hector and Achilles, one charging relentlessly across the plain, the other waiting outside the city gates, bound by his sense of duty.
Homer leaves us with the view of Hector, vulnerable and alone, and abruptly changes the scene to the edge of the battlefield, where Apollo reveals himself to Achilles. In the last scene of Book Twenty-One, the god drew Achilles away from the city, disguising himself as the Trojan warrior Agenor. Now the god issues a taunt: Why is Achilles, a mortal, chasing a god? Does he not care about the Trojans, tucked away in their city while he is left out on the margins of battle? Achilles cannot kill him. He is not fated, μόρσιμος, to die (22.7–13). Achilles’ reply is angry and indignant: Apollo has hindered him by luring him away from the city, denying him the chance to kill more Trojans and so robbing him of κῦδος, “glory,” the primary measurement of worth in a heroic society. Worse yet, the god will escape punishment from Achilles, who would “pay him back,” τισαίμην (22. 20), if he had the power.
Mortals do not usually talk this way to gods, whose unlimited power and unpredictable nature make any encounter with them dangerous. Talking back to a god could well be fatal. We are some distance from Achilles’ considered response in Book One (1.202–18) when Athena intervenes and asks Achilles politely, on behalf of Hera and herself, not to kill Agamemnon:
I should respect your request, even though
I am very angry in my heart, for it would be better thus;
The gods listen to him who obeys them.
Such detachment is no longer possible, scorched away by Achilles’ fury at the killing of Patroclus.
In this brief exchange between Apollo and Achilles, Homer sets up what is to come in a few strokes. By the end of Book Twenty, Achilles has become a kind of death demon, crushing bodies under the wheels of his chariot, which is splattered with gore up to its railings, his hands dripping bloody filth (20.490–503). We then learn from his encounter with the hapless Lycaon in Book Twenty-One (99–113) that Patroclus’s death has sealed the fate of any Trojan who crosses his path. He will show no one mercy; all must die. Now his brazen words to Apollo show him moving further beyond the pale of human experience, reckless, arrogant, and apparently beyond caring if he lives or dies. This is the man Hector must soon fight.
Though he has been a volatile figure throughout the poem, Achilles’ portrait darkens after he resolves to avenge himself on the Trojans, and especially Hector, for Patroclus’s death. His wrath, which had been smoldering quietly in his hut by the sea, flares up into a violent rage. Homer marks this change when Athena presents Achilles with armor made by Hephaestus to replace the set that Hector stripped from Patroclus’s corpse (19.12–18). The divine gifts exude an aura that frightens the other Myrmidons, who cannot bear to look at them. But Achilles is not afraid. When he looks at the armor, his eyes shine “like sunflare” (19.16), as if reflecting the menacing power of the gifts. Achilles is semi-divine, and the godlike part of him is stirred by the armor, an elemental force that will sweep all before it until it crashes down on Hector.
Achilles turns away and races across the plain toward Troy. Like Paris and Hector, he reminds Homer of a stallion. But the dominant feeling of those similes was of the horse’s beauty and physical stature. Not so here. It is all about speed:
Speaking thus, he headed for the city, with big thoughts
in his mind; flying like a racehorse with his chariot
who runs easily, plunging across the plain.
So did Achilles ply his legs and quick feet.
It suited Homer’s purposes to draw our sympathy toward Achilles in Book Eighteen after the death of Patroclus, showing him vulnerable to the grief and self-reproach that motivate his bloody rampage. But that man is gone now, replaced by something uncanny, straddling the boundary between human and divine, reaching down toward the savagery of wild animals and up toward the divine fire his mother gave him. At this moment, Homer switches his gaze and ours back to the city, to Priam standing on the walls above his son. Now we see Achilles through his eyes, a terrifying specter, the sun flashing off his armor as he moves ever closer to Hector. Like the “dog of Orion” (29), the brightest star that shines in the murk of night and brings a season of fiery heat, Achilles comes on, an “evil sign” (30). In Priam’s view, his son’s enemy is now beyond the destructive force of wild animals or evil men, something cosmic.
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