On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XVII

Book XVI of the Iliad ended with the death of Patroclus; Book XVIII will begin with Achilles’s learning of the death. Book XVII gives us the fight over the body.

Dogs in the shade on the beach in the waning summer

Why is a body so important? I can only observe that a belief in its importance is something that keeps warriors fighting.

Keeping people’s attention for even an hour is a challenge. Two different persons have told my wife and me that they never thought much of teachers, until they themselves were given the task of lecturing a class of students. How then do you keep men fighting for ten years? The honor of one of their kings is not enough. The opportunity to despoil bodies is some motivation. So is fighting in concert with your comrades to save the body of one of your own.

It is a theme of what I remember as one of the worst episodes of the original Star Trek. In “The Galileo Seven,” Spock has command of a landing party, but one member dies, and another member refuses to leave behind the body. The insubordination was one reason why I did not like the episode. I would agree with Spock that caring about a lifeless body is “illogical”; but then so is the whole Trojan War.

Book XVII of the Iliad centers on the corpse of Patroclus, near the walls of Troy. It makes sense that Achilles does not appear; he is back at the ships. Where are the other great figures? It is a challenge to make a story of many characters believable, for the listener or reader may wonder at any time what any of those characters are doing.

I recall an example from the winter of 2018, when I read Sons and Lovers and found myself wondering what had happened to Paul’s father. We had last seen him in decline, and there was not much further down he could go; yet D. H. Lawrence was telling us nothing about him.

Where then in Book XVII of the Iliad are Agamemnon and Odysseus, and for that matter Paris? They must simply be somewhere else on a large battlefield.

Today one may wonder whether composing the Iliad was anything at all like composing a modern novel. When I read it again in the summer of 2018, even the Aeneid seemed like a completely different project from the Iliad and Odyssey, if only because Virgil consciously used Homer’s epics as models.

I finish in the summarizing mode.

Menelaus comes to the body of Patroclus, but there is also Euphorbus, who had struck Patroclus before Hector finished him off. Euphorbus warns off Menelaus, who in turn recalls killing Euphorbus’s brother Hyperenor, despite the taunts of the latter. Euphorbus says Menelaus shall pay for this killing; but then, on the second try, like a whirlwind uprooting an olive tree, Menelaus kills him.

Hector is hunting for Achilles’s immortal horses, until Apollo, in the guise of Mentes, tells him of the death of Euphorbus.

Woman on the shore, looking at her mobile

Menelaus is of two minds. If he flees without stripping the arms from the corpse of one of the killers of Patroclus, he offends the Greeks; if he stays, the men with Hector may surround him.

“Of two bads chuse the best” (line 84), he figures; he will retreat and seek the aid of Ajax.

Ajax defends the body of Euphorbus against Hector, as a lion would his whelps against two hundred hunters.

Glaucus tells Hector no more Lycians shall fight for him; but if he would take Patroclus’s body, he might be able to redeem Sarpedon’s arms.

Hector points out that the time to fight is when the gods are on one’s side. He dons Achilles’s arms. This disconcerts Jove, who nonetheless decides that, though Andromache will never take those arms off Hector’s body, “thou shalt haue that frail blaze // Of excellence, that neighbours death” (lines 176–7).

Perhaps Hector has been stung by Glaucus’s remark about respecting allies. He tells what he describes, and Chapman labels, as “The secret of Warre” (lines 190–8):

Heare vs, innumerable friends; neare-bordering nations, heare;
We haue not cald you from our townes, to fill our idle eye
With number of so many men, (no such vaine Emperie
Did euer ioy vs;) but to fight, and of our Troian wiues
With all their children, manfully, to saue the innocent liues.
In whose cares, we draw all our townes, of aiding souldiers drie,
With gifts, guards, victuall, all things fit; and hearten their supplie
With all like rights; and therefore now, let all sides set downe this,
Or liue, or perish: this, of warre, the speciall secret is.

Therefore whosoever shall win Patroclus’s body by killing Ajax shall share half the spoil and the glory.

Ajax can now built a rampart with the bodies of the Trojans who attack him. Still he must call for help to Menelaus, who gathers up more Greeks.

There is now a lot of back-and-forth over the corpse of Patroclus. Hippothous tries to drag it off by putting a thong through the ankle, “Where all the neruie fiuers meete, and ligaments in one” (line 253); but Telamonian Ajax kills him. Hector now aims at Ajax, but kills Schedius. Ajax kills Phorcys. The Greeks take the arms of Hippothous and Phorcys, but to keep them from moving against Troy itself, Phoebus in the guise of Periphas rouses Aeneas.

All the while, Homer tells us, Achilles has been ignorant of what is happening; Thetis has not informed him.

The horses of Achilles know what has happened; they weep for Patroclus, and like a tombstone they will not be moved by Automedon, till Jove takes pity and addresses them (lines 385–90):

Why gaue we you t’a mortall king? when immortalitie,
And incapacitie of age, so dignifies your states?
Was it to hast the miseries, pour’d out on humane fates?
Of all the miserabl’st things that breathe, and creepe on earth,
No one more wretched is then man. And for your deathlesse birth,
Hector must faile to make you prise …

Alcimedon sees Automedon flying and takes the reins so that Automedon can fight. Hector sees them and proposes to Aeneas to take the horses. They gather up Aretus and Chromius; Automedon in turn calls Menelaus and the Ajaces. Automedon kills Aretus; Hector aims at Automedon, but misses; the Trojans leave the body of Aretus to its killer.

Dog sleeping on the beach

That killer and despoiler now climbs into his chariot so bloody, “That Lion-like he lookt, new turn’d, from tearing vp a Bull” (line 461). Most of us may know the look, if at all, from television documentaries; Homer (or his informers, if he be blind) can know it only from life. What lions we had once in Anatolia.

From mighty megafauna to tiny insects: all can be brave. At Jove’s bidding, Minerva visits Menelaus in the guise of Phoenix, and (lines 487–91)

… she kindly did bestow
Strength on his shoulders, and did fill, his knees as liberally
With swiftnesse, breathing in his breast, the courage of a flie.
Which loues to bite so, and doth beare, mans bloud so much good will,
That still (though beaten from a man) she flies vpon him still.

In the guise now of Phaenops Asiades, Phoebus encourages Hector, and Jove steps in (lines 510–3).

And then Ioue tooke his Snake-fring’d shield; and Ida couer’d all
With sulphurie clouds; from whence he let, abhorred lightnings fall,
And thunderd till the mountaine shooke: and with this dreadfull state,
He vsherd victorie to Troy; to Argos flight and fate.

Idomeneus nonetheless wounds Hector, who aims back at him, but kills Coeranus, charioteer of Meriones.

Seeing the hand of Jove at work, Ajax wonders how to save both the body of Patroclus and their own living bodies. He wants somebody to tell Achilles what has happened. He prays Jove to lift the darkness (lines 560–3):

O father Iupiter, do thou, the sonnes of Greece release
Of this felt darknesse; grace this day, with fit transparences;
And giue the eyes thou giu’st, their vse; destroy vs in the light,
And worke thy will with vs, since needs, thou wilt against vs fight.

Jove hears the prayer. Ajax sees Menelaus and asks him to look for Nestor’s son. Menelaus leaves the body of Patroclus as reluctantly as a lion is driven from the body of a fat ox. Reminding the Ajaces and Meriones “how kind to euery creature” (line 585) Patroclus was, like an eagle he spies Antilochus and charges him to tell Achilles the news.

Ajax proposes that Menelaus and Meriones should haul off the corpse while he and the other Ajax keep off the Trojans. The plan works, although the Trojan onslaught is like a fire that starts in the roofs and spreads to a whole city.

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