By Thomas Van Nortwick
Andromache’s lament for Hector brings Book Twenty-Two to a close. As so often, the poet uses traditional forms to create a vividly individual portrait. There are over a dozen laments in the Iliad, with recurring elements throughout: praise of the dead, the contrast between past and present, the wish that the one mourning had died too, the common fate of the mourner and the dead. Andromache expresses all these thoughts, but her words also constantly recall moments from her meeting with Hector in Book Six, where they opened their hearts to each other, sharing their hopes and fears. As she did there, Andromache portrays their marriage as one between kindred souls (477–478, see 6.429–430). Verbal and thematic echoes bounce back and forth, from her childhood to her son’s, from the deadly yet relatively honorable Achilles of the past to the present revenge-crazed enemy. Her son has lost his father and protector, as did she when she was a little child. Eetion as a young father was δύσμορος; she and Hector were δυσάμμοροι when they bore Astyanax. Achilles has killed two generations of Hector’s family and orphaned two generations of Andromache’s. Her bleak vision of the future, she a powerless widow, her son begging for food, confirms the fears she expressed in Book Six (6.408–414). It is fitting that the centerpiece of her lament is the dismal portrait of Astyanax, helpless without his protector. He is the embodiment of his parents’ love, but also represents the future of Troy and its great civilization, what is sacrificed in the Iliad to the relentless masculine drive for preeminence, for a place at the forefront.
Book Twenty-Two completes Homer’s portrait of Hector. Because we are given glimpses of his innermost feelings, of shame, anger, and love, he embodies in a particularly vivid way the limits and contradictions of the heroic life as it appears in the Iliad. Achilles is the principal hero of the poem. His actions form the backbone of the plot. But while his semi-divine nature and outsized appetites can inspire awe and fascination, these qualities also often make him inaccessible to us. His journey back and forth across the boundaries that define human experience offers us the chance to think about big issues, about the fundamental shape of human life, and about the role of mortality in the formation of meaning. But the Iliad would not be the rich, emotionally engaging story that it is without the figure of Hector, who models for us how a mature, courageous, and fully human person navigates the perils of a mortal existence.
Likewise, we would not understand Hector if we had not witnessed his encounters with those who love and depend on him, Paris and Helen, Priam and Hecuba, and most of all, Andromache. Though Book Twenty-Two presents a carefully structured, aesthetically unified narrative, the emotional arc of the story it tells begins in Book Six, especially in the last meeting of Hector and Andromache. Those poignant scenes resurface again and again in Hector’s last hours, adding to their tragic power. Finally, though he dies in Book Twenty-Two, Hector’s story does not end there. His body remains beside Achilles through the last torturous stages of the latter’s return to a fully human existence in Book Twenty-Four, and then travels with Priam back to Troy and the poem’s hauntingly serene conclusion, an avatar of human experience in all its complexities.
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