Books 20 and 21 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 940

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Asteropaios: Trojan warrior who faces Achilleus at the river’s edge

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Aganor: Trojan who keeps Achilleus from taking Troy

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

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

As Book Twenty-one opens, Achilleus 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. Achilleus leaps into the river with his sword and kills a great number of Trojans, sparing 12 young men alive to fulfill his promise to Patroklos. Lykaon begs for his life at the river’s edge, but Achilleus shows no mercy.

Meanwhile, the river Xanthos is growing ever angrier at Achilleus for the Trojans’ destruction. Xanthos gives courage to Asteropaios to challenge Achilleus. Asteropaios succeeds in wounding his elbow, but pays with his life. Then the river addresses Achilleus, imploring him to stop his rampage, as the river is choked with corpses. Achilleus agrees to move away from the river, but refuses to stop killing the Trojans. The river then rushes at Achilleus, whipping up its water and beating on him with great waves. Poseidon and Athene come to Achilleus 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 Hephaistos rescue Achilleus 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 Athene 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 Achilleus and has the city doors thrown open to receive them. Apollo puts courage in Agenor’s heart to face Achilleus and give the rest of the Trojan’s time to get behind the city walls. Agenor is no match for Achilleus, and before he is killed, Apollo snatches him away out of the battle. Apollo then tricks Achilleus into thinking he himself is Agenor, and Achilleus chases him far off down the plain, away from the city walls, as the Trojans escape safely behind them.

Discussion and Analysis
Zeus’ meeting with the gods reveals another clue about the role of fate 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 Achilleus to overstep fate and destroy Troy before the appointed time.

There are other revelations of fate in this chapter as well: Aineias, while close to death, is visited by Poseidon, who tells him he is fated to survive. If only he will avoid conflict with Achilleus, no other Achaian will kill him. Again, the possibility of fate changing is left open. Should Aineias confront Achilleus, 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 Aineias’ fate forces his hand. Likewise, Apollo warns Hektor not to face Achilleus out in the open or he will surely be killed. Again, there is a choice to be made. In Hektor’s case, he chooses to disregard the advice of Apollo and must be rescued by Apollo when he foolishly rushes in to face Achilleus. In Hektor’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 Achilleus. 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 Achilleus. The river is actually one of the immortals. As such, it has the power to drag Achilleus under and bring him to his death. Without the intervention of Hera and Hephaistos, Achilleus 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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