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Book 3

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 3 of Homer's epic poem The Iliad.

The Iliad | Book 3 | Summary

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Summary

Paris boldly strides in the front rank of the Trojan forces, but he hides when he sees Menelaus, Helen's abandoned husband, in the approaching Achaean army. Hector denounces Paris for being more beautiful than brave, and Paris doesn't argue. However, his pride is hurt. He proposes settling the conflict over Helen in single combat with Menelaus. Hector accepts the challenge, and the goddess Iris summons Helen to watch. Joining Priam on the walls, she identifies and describes the Achaean champions—Agamemnon, Odysseus, Great Ajax, and Idomeneus.

Priam offers sacrifices to bind the agreement, but cannot bear to stay and watch Paris be killed. Neither Paris nor Menelaus wound each other with spear throws, and Menelaus's sword breaks on Paris's helmet. Menelaus gets the upper hand and attempts to strangle Paris with his helmet strap. At this turn of events, Aphrodite intervenes and saves Paris, spiriting him away to his bedroom. She then brings a resistant Helen to him. After Helen mocks Paris's cowardice, they make love. Unable to find Paris, Agamemnon declares Menelaus the winner and demands Helen's return.

Analysis

After meeting the major Achaean players in the first two books, the audience is introduced to the main Trojan characters in Book 3. Helen is depicted as a sympathetic character. She deeply regrets the cost of the conflict being fought over her, maligning herself and wishing she had died before running away with Paris. She wonders if her brothers aren't in the Achaean army because they are ashamed of her. (Tragically, as Greek audiences knew, they are actually dead.) After her past history with Aphrodite, Helen recognizes and resists Aphrodite's urging to join Paris in his bedroom. She doesn't seem to like Paris much at that moment, criticizing him for cowardice. However, Aphrodite has the power to bend Helen to her will and make her continue to love Paris. This situation echoes the condition of Dido in relation to Aeneas in the later epic The Aeneid. Viewing divine intervention as an explanation for human mysteries, readers recognize Helen's feelings for Paris as deeply conflicted—she both loves and despises him.

Unlike Helen, Paris doesn't seem to feel much shame or responsibility for his role in starting the war. Instead, Hector is the one who wishes Paris had died before bringing doom upon their city. Here Paris is motivated more by pleasure and self-preservation than by honor. It takes Hector calling him "a curse to your father, your city and all your people,/... rank disgrace to yourself!" to prompt him to the honorable idea of a duel. But his enthusiasm for combat wanes quickly. He is not in the least upset to end up back in his bedroom with Helen, leaving the army to continue fighting while he enjoys the spoils. It's not surprising the Trojan army hates Paris "like death, black death."

Past the age of fighting for glory and honor, Priam is the character most connected with his humanity. The other Trojan elders, not without reason, want to send Helen back to save their city. However, Priam does not blame Helen and treats her compassionately despite all of the trouble she has brought on Troy.

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