Summary and Analysis Book XXI



The Trojan troops flee in terror from Achilles. One portion of the army heads for the city while another group seeks refuge near the River Xanthos. Achilles cuts off the second group and kills many of them as they try to cross the stream. He also takes twelve captives, as he vowed he would. The slaughter continues, and soon the river is choked with bodies.

The god of the river is antagonized by all this bloodshed in his waters, and so he attacks Achilles with great waves and currents. Achilles begins to falter under this onslaught, but Poseidon and Athena reassure him, while Hera and Hephaistos attack the river with fire. Seeing his water boil away in great, mysterious heat, Xanthos relents.

Following this, the gods also engage in combat, so excited are they by human warfare. Athena defeats Ares and Aphrodite, while Hera drives Artemis from the field. Poseidon challenges Apollo, but the younger god does not accept his uncle's dare because of deference to his age.

Achilles continues to chase the Trojans, and Agenor, a half-brother of Hektor, attempts to fight him in single combat; but Agenor is far inferior to Achilles, and Apollo finally rescues him. This diversion allows most of the retreating troops enough time to take refuge in the city.


In the first section of Book XXI, Achilles kills Lykaon, a son of Priam. The unimportant Lykaon is used as a stand-in for all the lesser characters who have been and will be killed by the heroes of the Iliad. The attention given to Lykaon — his history and the account of his death — makes the incident stand out in the poem. The most poignant moment comes when Achilles rejects Lykaon's plea for his life, saying, "Come friend, you too must die." Achilles follows this remark with a reminder of Patroklos' death and with the prediction of his own death. He establishes a kinship with Lykaon, assuring the doomed Trojan that all men must face the moment of death. Achilles' attitude is much like that of Hamlet — "Readiness is all." The killing of Lykaon is a fait accompli, and Achilles performs the deed almost as a duty, fully aware of the imminence of his own death in battle.

A slightly ironic commentary on Achilles eventual death occurs in his battle with the river. The river, rising in flood against Achilles because of all the dead bodies thrown in it, sweeps Achilles away. Achilles, who is often an overpowering natural force against the Trojans, is here thwarted and almost killed by the natural force of the river. Achilles is so alarmed by the river that he becomes fearful of ignominious death by drowning rather than the glorious death in battle that has been prophesied. Only the intervention of Hera through Hephaistos, as God of Fire, saves Achilles. Symbolically, the two great elemental forces of fire and water are in conflict, with Achilles in the middle.

This dramatic scene with the river begins the theomachy, or battle of the gods. The theomachy produces a lowering both of tone and intensity in the epic. Zeus laughs "deep in his own great heart, delighted/ to see the gods engage in all out combat." Briefly, Achilles is ignored as the central focus of the scene shifts from humanity's life and death struggle to the play-like warfare of the gods. The battle of the gods has received much criticism over the years. Many commentators think that the theomachy lowers the tone of the poem just as it builds toward its climactic moments. The fight among the gods borders on slapstick comedy and adds little to the developing rage of Achilles. The general defense of the theomachy has been that it serves as a type of comic relief allowing the tension that the reader has developed concerning Achilles to lessen before the confrontation with Hektor. It is also quite probable that Homer's original audience (and others since) simply enjoyed the spectacle of a fight among gods.

Book XXI concludes with Achilles' encounter with Agenor. Agenor is simply one more dramatic obstacle that Homer creates to delay the confrontation between Hector and Achilles. Agenor does have a soliloquy, one of four such speeches in the Iliad. The others are by Odysseus, Menelaos, and Hektor. Of these, Agenor's is the most unusual, because it is by a minor character. In his speech, Agenor seems to anticipate the scene between Hektor and Achilles in the next book, and his speech is, therefore, a type of foreshadowing.


Agenor Trojan warrior, one of Antenor's sons. Saved from Achilles by Apollo.

hospitality the tradition of hospitality demanded that even enemies provide protection for guests and hosts. This tradition carries on into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries.

locusts any of various large grasshoppers; specifically, a migratory grasshopper often traveling in great swarms and destroying nearly all vegetation in areas visited.

Lykaon son of Priam though not of Hekuba. He is killed by Achilles in a poignant scene.

Xanthus another name for the River Scamander.