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Book 20

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 20 of Homer's epic poem The Iliad.

The Iliad | Book 20 | Summary

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Summary

Zeus calls the gods together and gives them permission to intervene in the war however they wish. The gods pick sides but are reluctant to start fighting directly. Apollo urges Aeneas to go up against Achilles; his mother is a goddess too, a more powerful one than Achilles's. Aeneas's spear doesn't pierce Achilles's shield, and Achilles throws a killing shot in return. Poseidon briefly switches sides to toss Aeneas to a different part of the battlefield so he won't be killed. The move is meant to preserve his destiny to survive the war and lead the remaining people of Troy.

Hector wants to battle Achilles, but Apollo warns him to stay with his troops. However, when Achilles kills Hector's youngest brother, Hector can't hold himself back. He throws a spear at Achilles, but Athena flicks it away. When Achilles attacks back, Apollo wraps Hector in a protective mist and warns Achilles it is not yet time for him to die. Achilles rages on, killing warriors and allies of Troy without mercy.

Analysis

In another Homeric parallel, the council called by Achilles at the beginning of Book 19 is echoed in the council of the gods called by Zeus at the beginning of Book 20. Zeus gives the gods free rein to intervene because Achilles could actually overpower the Trojans without divine help, bringing down Troy before its fated time. This suggests even mortals can change fate in some cases if the gods don't actively counteract them. Although Zeus is the god most responsible for ensuring that fate is fulfilled, all the gods play their parts. For later Greeks and Romans, fate was much more fixed, but Homer seems to view it as the result of a complex interplay of the actions of gods and mortals.

Poseidon actually briefly switches sides to ensure fate is carried out when he rescues the Trojan hero Aeneas. He pities Aeneas because he has always respected the gods, and he has a destiny: "Aeneas will rule the men of Troy in power." Hundreds of years later, the Romans took Homer's words as prophecy and adopted Aeneas as an "ancestor" and the founder of that city. Aeneas's destiny and impressive pedigree seemed to explain and justify the greatness of Rome. The Roman poet Virgil made Aeneas the hero of his own epic poem, The Aeneid, which is modeled in many ways on Homer's epics.

Two epic similes at the end of Book 20 describe Achilles at the beginning of a long killing spree. Interestingly, they both work together and contrast with one another. The first simile compares Achilles to a rampaging fireball in a wildfire, an image of uncontrolled destruction that repeats the frequent comparison of battle to fire. The second simile compares Achilles to a huge ox crushing grain for threshing (the process that removes the husk of the grain so it can be consumed). Although this is a peacetime task that sustains life, it also evokes the violence of war, emphasizing Achilles's strength and the crushing of his enemies. Sustenance and violence coexist in the same image, suggesting they are part of the same whole.

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