The Iliad By Homer Summary and Analysis Book XVIII

Summary

When Achilles learns of the death of Patroklos, he bursts into tears, tearing his hair and throwing himself on the ground. His sorrowful lament is heard by his mother, Thetis, and she comes to comfort him. She points out that if Achilles avenges Patroklos, he himself will be killed. Despite his mother's warning, however, Achilles chooses to undertake this risk, so great is his love for Patroklos. Thetis therefore promises to procure new armor for her son from the god Hephaistos to replace the armor that was captured by Hektor.

Meanwhile, the Achaians, who are bearing away the body of Patroklos, are given close pursuit by the Trojans; so Achilles (at the suggestion of Hera) appears at the Achaian trench and shouts his ferocious and furious war cry. The sound of this mighty war cry strikes terror into the hearts of the Trojans, and they retreat in panic.

Achilles' sorrow is intensified by the sight of his dead comrade's body, and all of the Achaians join Achilles in mourning. Achilles vows to kill Hektor and to slaughter twelve Trojan warriors on the funeral pyre of Patroklos. Meanwhile, Patroklos' dead body is washed clean and laid out in state in Achilles' tent.

At a Trojan council of war that night, Poulydamas suggests that the Trojan army remain in the city and fight off any Achaian assault from the protection of the battlements. The return of Achilles to the Achaian force makes it too dangerous to fight in the open, he says. Hektor refuses to heed this advice, however, and he insists that the Trojan army stay in the field. His opinion prevails.

On Olympos, Thetis calls upon Hephaistos. She tells the god about all that has taken place on the battlefield that day, and she asks him to provide new armor for her son. Hephaistos assents and makes a marvelous and beautiful set of new armor for Achilles. The new shield alone is a masterpiece, being built up of five layers and having on it a representation of the signs of the zodiac and of two cities engaged in all the peaceful and warlike activities of mankind. When the armor is finished, Thetis takes it in her arms, and, thanking Hephaistos, she goes to find her son.

Readers see, then, that Achilles is given his final chance to decide his fate, for Thetis tells him that he will die if he avenges Patroklos. Despite this knowledge, Achilles chooses to continue his plan for revenge. Patroklos was his closest friend, a lesser reflection of his own glory, and, in an emotional sense, part of himself; so in every way, the killing of Patroklos was a direct blow to Achilles himself. His determination to avenge his friend is so intense because he realizes that he is responsible for Patroklos' death, and he is angry with himself as well as with the Trojans. He hopes that by punishing the Trojans and, in particular, by venting his fury on Hektor, their leader and the human symbol of Trojan resistance, he will be able to assuage his sense of guilt and grief.

In all things, Achilles has a greater capacity for feeling than other men do. His wrath, his grief, and his exploits in the battle to come will now begin to take on a superhuman quality, symbolized in part by the divine armor made for him by the god Hephaistos, as the climax of the tragedy draws near.

Analysis

Book XVIII is made up of three major parts. First, after Achilles breaks down at the news of Patroklos' death, Thetis comes to comfort her son. Much of this scene is a foreshadowing of the later death of Achilles. Second, in a long middle section, Achilles goes to the trench and recovers the body of Patroklos. Third, and finally, the new shield is created.

A number of commentators have suggested that the first part of Book XVIII is drawn from descriptions of the death of Achilles. Achilles pours ashes on Patroklos' face and body. Weeping Nereids appear around him like mourners at a funeral. Thetis, standing, cradles his head like a mother holding a dead son lying on a bier, as Kakridis notes. The entire scene seems drawn from, and simultaneously points to, the eventual death of Achilles.

A further fatalistic element in the scene is Achilles' statement, "I've lost the will to live," along with the overriding fact that he will be killed if he returns to the battle. Of course, Achilles also ends his first wrath here and anticipates reconciliation with Agamemnon. Conversely, Achilles also initiates his second wrath at this point. This second wrath does not end until he reaches reconciliation with Priam.

In the middle section of Book XVIII, Achilles goes forth to help recover Patroklos' body. His war cry, announcing his presence, strikes terror in the Trojans. In their hurried council, the Trojans make the mistake of following the advice of Hektor rather than of Poulydamus. Poulydamas was born on the same night as Hektor and symbolically serves as his alter ego. Just as Achilles, through his actions, moves toward his own death, so Hektor, through his mistakes, moves toward his. There is a sense of dreadful irony hanging over these two scenes and characters.

The last section of Book XVIII describes the giant shield that Hephaistos, God of the Forge, made for Achilles. The description of the shield is a digression justified by the fact that Hektor now has Achilles' armor. Homer structured the Iliad so that at any point he could discuss any subject he chose. The description of the shield allows Homer to depict the world. Each circle on the shield shows some aspect of the classical world that Homer knew or imagined. It is, in a sense, what the war is about.

Glossary

black ashes the black ashes in this book are symbolic of death and mourning.

Nereids daughters of the sea-god, Nereus.

Old Man of the Sea Nereus, father of Thetis and the Nereids.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

On what day after the return of Hektor’s body to the Trojans will the battle begin again?




Quiz