Books 20 and 21 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on April 28, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 918

As the Achaians and the Trojans arm themselves, Zeus calls the gods together in Olympus. Zeus orders the gods to enter the battle on whichever side they choose. He is afraid that Achilles, in his anger, will overstep fate and storm the walls of Troy. The gods quickly join their...

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As the Achaians and the Trojans arm themselves, Zeus calls the gods together in Olympus. Zeus orders the gods to enter the battle on whichever side they choose. He is afraid that Achilles, in his anger, will overstep fate and storm the walls of Troy. The gods quickly join their favored sides as battle begins.

Aeneas, spurred on by Apollo, challenges Achilles. When the fierce duel approaches its destined conclusion, Poseidon fears for Aeneas and rushes in to spirit the warrior away from the field. Though Poseidon is aiding the Achaians, he knows that it is fated that Aeneas should survive and carry on Priam’s line as king of the Trojans. Achilles sees that the gods have rescued Aeneas and turns to kill many other Trojans. After Achilles kills Hector’s brother Polydoros, the Trojan prince attacks him, but Apollo wraps Hector in a thick mist to keep Achilles from killing him.

As book 21 opens, Achilles has forced the Trojans into full retreat in two groups. One group runs toward the city, and the other runs right into the river Xanthos. Achilles leaps into the river with his sword and kills a great number of Trojans, sparing twelve young men alive to fulfill his promise to Patroclus. Lykaon begs for his life at the river’s edge, but Achilles shows no mercy.

Meanwhile, the river Xanthos is growing ever angrier at Achilles for the Trojans’ destruction. Xanthos gives courage to Asteropaios to challenge Achilles. Asteropaios succeeds in wounding his elbow but pays with his life. Then the river addresses Achilles, imploring him to stop his rampage, as the river is choked with corpses. Achilles agrees to move away from the river but refuses to stop killing the Trojans. The river then rushes at Achilles, whipping up its water and beating on him with great waves. Poseidon and Athena come to Achilles to reassure him that he will not die at the hands of the river and to advise him to keep pushing the Trojans until they are inside the walls of the city. Then Hera and Hephaestus rescue Achilles by sending a great fire onto the river to dry up the water and force Xanthos to relent.

Meanwhile, the gods fight each other with a great crash as Athena brings down Ares and Aphrodite. Apollo refuses a challenge from Poseidon out of respect for his uncle. Hera takes on Artemis, who runs from the field in tears and complains to her father, Zeus.

Priam sees the Trojans running in terror from Achilles and has the city doors thrown open to receive them. Apollo puts courage in Agenor’s heart to face Achilles and give the rest of the Trojans time to get behind the city walls. Agenor is no match for Achilles, and before he is killed, Apollo snatches him away out of the battle. Apollo then tricks Achilles into thinking he himself is Agenor, and Achilles chases him far off down the plain, away from the city walls, as the Trojans escape safely behind them.


Zeus’s meeting with the gods reveals another clue about the role of fate in the Iliad. Rather than being an inescapable blueprint of life’s events, it seems that men are capable of acting contrary to fate. The role of the gods here is to police men so that they act within their fate. Zeus allows all of the gods to intervene as they choose in order to avoid allowing Achilles to overstep fate and destroy Troy before the appointed time.

There are other revelations of fate in this chapter as well: Aeneas, while close to death, is visited by Poseidon, who tells him he is fated to survive. If only he will avoid conflict with Achilles, no other Achaian will kill him. Again, the possibility of fate changing is left open. Should Aeneas confront Achilles, he would not survive the battle. Interestingly, Poseidon is on the side of the Achaians; thus it is odd for him to save a Trojan. Apparently, Poseidon’s knowledge of Aeneas’s fate forces his hand. Likewise, Apollo warns Hector not to face Achilles out in the open or he will surely be killed. Again, there is a choice to be made. In Hector’s case, he chooses to disregard the advice of Apollo and must be rescued by Apollo when he foolishly rushes in to face Achilles. In Hector’s case, however, we know that he is merely buying himself some time. In both of these cases, it seems likely that without intervention by the immortals, the men would have died before their fated times. The gods’ actions are crucial to the workings of fate. The pattern repeats itself a third time when Agenor faces Achilles. At the last moment, Agenor is whisked away from danger by Apollo, who takes his place. Again, it seems the gods are directing fate.

The river Xanthos is another dramatic example of personification. The river is given the ability to speak and the very human emotions of anger and pity. Even more remarkable, however, is the ability of the river to act completely beyond its natural scope and physically attack Achilles. The river is actually one of the immortals. As such, it has the power to drag Achilles under and bring him to his death. Without the intervention of Hera and Hephaestus, Achilles would not have survived. The act of controlling the river with fire is an inversion of the common controlling of fire with water.

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