Last Updated on April 2, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1106
On the first day that Achilles does not go into battle, Paris challenges any Greek to single combat for Helen, to resolve the war. Menelaus takes his challenge, fighting to win back his wife, but when he is about to triumph over Paris, Paris suddenly disappears. The fighting begins again. In the afternoon, Hector gives the same challenge, answered by Ajax, the greatest Greek warrior aside from Achilles. They fight until night falls and part peacefully as equals. Phoinix brings this report back and tells Achilles that the soldiers said the duel would not have ended in this way if Achilles had been in it. Achilles is thrilled to hear how everyone talked about him. He believes this is the beginning of his triumph over Agamemnon.
The Lycians, allies of Troy, join the fight. Their leader is Sarpedon, son of Zeus, a demigod like Achilles. Phoinix reports that he believes the Lycians and Trojans will defeat the Greeks together. As the days pass, rumors fly about triumphant Trojans and desperate Greeks.
One night, Odysseus and Ajax come to try to persuade Achilles to fight again. They offer him many things, including Briseis’s return, and tell him of all the many Greeks who now lie dead. They tell Achilles that the Trojans will breach the wall the next day and ask him to return. Achilles refuses, insisting that he will not fight unless Agamemnon comes to him and gives him the honor he deserves. Odysseus, knowing of the prophecies about Achilles, warns him that he cannot avoid death forever—Hector must die eventually, and so must Achilles. He advises Achilles to do so on his own terms. Phoinix rises and tells Achilles the story of Meleager, the one Achilles’s father never got a chance to finish telling when Achilles was a boy. Meleager, too, would not fight for his city, until his beloved wife begged him to do so. When he finally did, it was too late for him to gain honor or glory; though he was victorious, his countrymen hated him for his pride. Achilles listens with respect but continues to refuse.
Patroclus goes to visit Briseis, who hides him from Agamemnon so that they may talk. He wants to hide her away from the Trojan invasion of the camp, but she refuses, pointing out that she herself is Trojan and thus will not be harmed. Warning Patroclus that both the Greeks and Trojans now hate Achilles, she tells him that she will protect him if the Greeks triumph and asks to go with him if he leaves Troy. Patroclus promises, not saying that he never intends to leave Troy. He holds her and thinks for a moment of a life as her husband and the father of her child, if he had never met Achilles. Later, he lies down beside Achilles, wishing that he could free him from the bonds of his situation.
In the morning, Zeus sends a storm to help the Trojans invade. He has fulfilled Thetis’s request to help Achilles by making sure the Greeks are losing horribly. Patroclus tries to persuade Achilles that it is time to fight, but he continues to refuse. When he heads out into the camp, Patroclus witnesses chaos—many men wounded and then the wall breaking. After caring for a young soldier’s wound, he goes to see what is happening in the battle. The Trojans have begun to burn the Greek ships, the army’s only way of getting home.
Patroclus runs to Achilles and tells him what is happening. It is their own fault, Achilles responds. Trying desperately to convince him to save the Greeks, Patroclus asks Achilles to fight for him. Achilles says he will grant him anything else. Hatching a desperate plan, Patroclus demands that Achilles let him put on Achilles’s armor and lead the troops as if he were Achilles. The other man consents but gives him firm instructions not to fight. The Myrmidons and Achilles’s chariot driver are to protect him.
The Greek army is convinced, screaming Achilles’s name. Lifting his spear, Patroclus has a sudden impulse and hurls it at a Trojan, deftly killing him. In spite of Achilles’s instructions, he continues to fight, hurling spear after spear. Though the Trojans scatter before him and he could retreat, he fights on. He kills Sarpedon, wounding him again after he kills him to make sure the killing appears worthy of Achilles. The chariot driver tries to lead him away, but Patroclus, in a red haze, refuses.
Madly, Patroclus decides to climb the walls of Troy. Apollo, sitting at the top, seizes him and drops him off the wall. When he climbs again, Apollo hurls him down more forcefully, and his armor comes off. The Trojans know that he is not Achilles. He flees, but Hector reaches him and kills him.
It is clear from the beginning of this section that, as Patroclus says, “something is breaking.” The combination of Achilles’s refusal to fight and Thetis’s request to Zeus for Trojan success make hideous destruction inevitable unless either Achilles or Agamemnon can conquer his pride. Everything the author has established about these two characters, however, makes it clear that they will not. Both the reader and Patroclus thus see the horrors coming. When Agamemnon does not come to Achilles, and when Achilles refuses the offer of reconciliation, great suffering among the Greeks becomes inevitable. The tension comes to a height as the Trojans invade the Greek camp and burn the ships while Achilles waits in his tent. Patroclus, a man filled with the empathy Achilles has long since lost, finds the same courage in caring about people that he did when protecting Briseis. This time, it leads him to the rash plan of pretending to be Achilles and thus to a death he never expected.
The death of Patroclus is a key moment when the experiences of a reader familiar with the Iliad and one who is not must sharply diverge. Someone who knows the Iliad has been waiting tensely through the last several chapters, perhaps even the whole book, for the death of Patroclus and its effect on Achilles. A reader who does not know the story, however, has instead been waiting for Achilles’s death and its effect on Patroclus. What comes to one as a release of tension, if also a source of horror, is an utter shock to the other. For both, however, a question arises: the book is not over. If Patroclus is dead, how will the rest of the story be told?
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