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Book 17

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 17 of Homer's epic poem The Iliad.

The Iliad | Book 17 | Summary

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Summary

A fierce battle rages over Patroclus's body with gods assisting fighters on both sides. Menelaus kills Euphorbus, the young Trojan who stabbed Patroclus in the back, but backs off when Hector joins the fight. Menelaus calls in Great Ajax to help him, and together they drive Hector off before he can dismember Patroclus. However, Hector does come away with Achilles's armor, which he quickly puts on. Zeus disapproves—he will empower Hector because he is about to die, but he has no right to the famous armor.

Hector whips up his troops and allies, and Menelaus calls for and challenges his own reinforcements. Having always liked Patroclus, Zeus helps the Achaeans shield Patroclus's body. First one side gains ground, and then the other pushes back, but neither can move the other.

Hector, Aeneas, and others briefly try to seize Achilles's horses, but they quickly focus back on the corpse. After Apollo strikes fear in the Achaeans with Zeus's storm-shield, Menelaus sends a messenger to Achilles, hoping he can help retrieve Patroclus's body. In the meantime, Great Ajax organizes fighters to carry the body off the field. Hector, Aeneas, and the Trojans charge desperately, but the Aeantes hold them off. The battle rages on like a flash fire.

Analysis

Issues of honor and pride run throughout Book 17. The central conflict revolves around Patroclus's honor. The Achaeans want to preserve it by protecting his body and possessions from mutilation and theft, and the Trojans want to dishonor the body of their enemy to gain honor for themselves.

Menelaus has a dilemma of honor as he first defends Patroclus's body alone. Should he stand against Hector and die or desert Patroclus who was there fighting for him? (Helen was Menelaus's wife before running off with Paris.) He wisely fights the urgings of pride to make a strategic retreat to find help. This is one of the times in the poem that a mortal makes a significant decision without the prompting of any god. Menelaus's death would remove much of the justification for the war. It might result in the Achaeans sailing home without victory, as Agamemnon fears when Menelaus wants to duel Hector in Book 7.

In contrast Hector gives in to his pride. Angry that Hector has abandoned Sarpedon's body to the Achaeans, Glaucus calls him a coward for running and says he can't stand up to Great Ajax. Although (or perhaps because) Hector has already come out on the losing end of two encounters with Ajax, this stings his pride. He boasts overconfidently of Zeus's support and rashly chooses to wear Achilles's armor. Many seeds of Hector's ultimate destruction can be found in this scene.

Homer sometimes describes a darkness or fog that comes over fighters in battle, a physical manifestation of the confusion of war. In this section, Zeus deliberately places a similar haze of battle around the Achaeans guarding Patroclus. Descriptions contrast the hazy center with its close hand-to-hand fighting with the battle on the flanks where fighters get long breaks between combat and where the sun shines bright. The haze hampers both the Trojans and the Achaeans. Ajax must pray for it to be lifted to find someone to go to Achilles.

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