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Metamorphoses | Book 13 | Summary

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Summary

Ajax and Ulysses can't seem to settle their dispute over Achilles's armor, so a council assembles to decide for them. Ajax tries to convince them that he deserves it because he is related to Jove and to Achilles. In addition he argues that Ulysses, while "a master of language," is untrustworthy, a shifty trickster who betrays his comrades to benefit himself. Ulysses argues eloquently that the opposite is the case. He accuses Ajax of cowardice and provides a long list of his own heroic actions. Ultimately the council awards the armor to Ulysses. In response Ajax takes his own life.

The story turns to the fall of Troy. King Priam dies. The Greeks take the women of Troy as prisoners and slaves, including Priam's wife, Hecuba. The ghost of Achilles appears to the Greeks and demands a sacrifice. Hecuba's daughter Polyxena is chosen and dies. Hecuba believes she still has one child still alive, Polydorus. She does not know that he has been killed by her son-in-law, Polymestor, to gain treasure. Hecuba learns the truth when Polydorus's corpse washes ashore. She tricks Polymestor into a meeting. She gouges out his eyes in revenge and is transformed into a dog. Mortals and gods alike all think "the tragic end of Hecuba unfair."

Aurora grieves over the loss of her son Memnon, who is killed by Achilles. She begs Jove to grant Memnon some honor to give her solace. Jove agrees, and from Memnon's funeral pyre a flock of birds rises. The birds begin to fight each other to the death, and Jove names them the Memnonides. They return each year to battle each other in Memnon's memory.

Meanwhile, King Priam's son, Aeneas, searches for a place to establish a new city now that Troy has fallen. He visits King Anius in Delos, who tells him how Agamemnon stole his daughters and turned them into slaves because Bacchus granted them the power to change anything they touched to corn, wine, or olive oil. When the women appeal to Bacchus, he turns them into doves. Aeneas also visits the Delphi oracle, which advises him to find the land of his ancestors to establish his new city there. He continues his journey and another prophecy advises him to go to Sicily. To get there they must face the sea monster Scylla and the violent whirlpool Charybdis.

Galatea and Acis are lovers. Cyclops also loves Galatea, but she despises him, loving only Acis. The famous seer Telemus sails to Etna and warns Cyclops that Ulysses is going to take his one eye. Galatea overhears Cyclops speaking out loud to himself, wishing that she would fall in love with him. He sees Galatea and Acis spying on him and threatens them. Galatea dives into the sea, but Cyclops throws a rock at Acis and kills him. Galatea is able to transform Acis into a river god.

Scylla (different from the character Scylla in Book 8) lands on an island, and Glaucus falls in love with her, but she flees from him. He tells her he is a sea-god but was once a mortal fisherman. One day on the beach, a group of fish he catches wriggles away from him and reenters the sea. He wonders if a plant on the beach caused this and chews on it. The juice of the plant makes him plunge into the sea, where the sea gods welcome him and make him immortal. They also change his appearance, turning him blue and giving him a fish's tail. His story fails to reassure Scylla, who flees. Angered, Glaucus pays Circe a visit.

Analysis

The Trojan War was set off by an act of greed when Paris ran off with Helen. Ten years of war ensued. Greed and the bloodshed it so often spawns dominate Book 13. The question of how just the outcomes of the stories are also hovers over this section of the poem.

It's notable that Ajax and Ulysses have a verbal rather than physical battle for Achilles's armor. They plead their cases before a council as though they were in court. It's a far cry from the physical violence of the war and notably absent of divine intervention. The soldiers must rely on words rather than blows, but that doesn't mean the results aren't violent. Words can also act as weapons. This is a situation in which Ulysses seems to have a clear advantage over Ajax. Both Ajax and Ulysses are able to argue their cases eloquently, but even Ajax admits that Ulysses is "a master of language." The men compete to discredit each other as warriors, with each pointing out the other's hypocrisy and cowardice. But Ulysses's argument is considerably longer and more complex than Ajax's, whom he dominates with his cutting rhetoric. To be dishonored was the biggest source of shame for a Greek warrior, and Ajax kills himself. On the other hand, despite Ajax's labeling him a dishonest coward Ulysses shamelessly opts to live. Ulysses wins Achilles's armor, but Ajax's death undercuts Ulysses's victory. While his skills are impressive, his use of language is manipulative and causes real damage.

Hecuba, who has lost her husband, Priam, and several of her children already, loses her last two surviving children to greed. Her daughter, Polyxena, becomes a human sacrifice to satisfy the hunger of Achilles's ghost for revenge. Polymestor's vicious killing of Hecuba's son, Polydorus, is motivated by his desire to obtain more treasure. Thinking her son is still alive, Hecuba only finds out about Polydorus's death when his corpse washes up on the beach. Hecuba gets revenge on Polymestor in a typically horrifying way by gouging out his eyes, only to be turned into a dog herself. Even the Greeks and Trojans, who are on opposing sides of a war, don't think this was fair to Hecuba, nor do the gods. Other transformations in the poem are extremely harsh, such as the death of Niobe's 14 children or Juno's revenge against Ino, whose own husband is driven mad and kills their infant son. Hecuba's transformation into a dog is a rare moment in Metamorphoses where no one among gods or mortals can see any justice whatsoever in the outcome of the situation. Hecuba has lost her entire family to the violence of war, and her grief is undeniable.

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