The Iliad (Collins)/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X.

 

THE DEATH OF HECTOR.

 

Hector remains alone outside the Scæan gate, awaiting his great enemy. In vain his aged father and mother from the walls entreat him to take shelter within, like the rest of his countrymen. He will not meet the just reproach of Polydamas, whose prudent counsel he rejected. The deaths of his friends who have fallen in this terrible battle, which he had insisted upon their risking, hang heavy on his soul. He, at least, will do what he may for Troy. Yet he has no confidence in the result of the encounter. If he were only sure that Achilles would listen, he would even now offer to restore Helen, and so end this disastrous war. But he feels it is too late; vengeance alone will now content Achilles.


"Not this the time, nor he the man with whom
By forest oak or rock, like youth and maid,
To hold light talk as youth and maid might hold.
Better to dare the fight, and know at once
For whom the vict'ry is decreed by Heaven."


Achilles draws near. The courage which has never failed Hector before, wholly deserts him now; he turns and flies, "like a dove from the falcon." Judged by any theory of modern heroism, his conduct is simply indefensible. Critics tell us that the poet, in order to enhance the glory of his chief hero, makes even the champion of Troy fear to face him. But it is no compliment, in our modern eyes, to a victorious warrior, to have it explained that his crowning victory was won over a coward. Yet perhaps there was something of this feeling maintained even by Englishmen in days not so very long gone by, when it was the popular fashion to represent Frenchmen generally, and the great French general in particular, as always running away from the English bayonets. However, to Homer's public it was evidently not incongruous or derogatory to the heroic type of character, that sudden panic should seize even the bravest in the presence of superior force. Hector, as has been said, turns and flies for his life.

Thrice round the walls of the city, his friends looking on in horror at the terrible race, he flies, with Achilles in pursuit. In each course he tries to reach the gates, that his comrades may either open to him, or at least cover him by launching their missiles from the walls against his enemy. But still Achilles turns him back towards the plain, signing to the Greeks to hurl no spear, nor to interfere in any way with his single vengeance. The gods look down from Olympus with divided interest. Jupiter longs to save him; but Minerva sternly reminds him of the dread destiny—the Eternal Law—which even the Ruler of Olympus is bound to reverence. Once more he lifts in heaven the golden scales, and finds that Hector's fate weighs down the balance. Then, at last, his guardian Apollo leaves him. Minerva, on her part, comes to the aid of her favourite Achilles with a stratagem, as little worthy of his renown (to our view) as the sudden panic of Hector. She appears by the side of the Trojan hero in the likeness of his brother Deiphobus, and bids him stand and fight; they two, together, must surely be a match for Achilles. Hector turns and challenges his adversary. One compact he tries to make, in a few hurried words, before they encounter; let each promise, since one must fall, to restore the dead body of his enemy in all honour to his kindred. Achilles makes no reply but this:—


"Talk not to me of compacts; as 'tween men
And lions no firm concord can exist,
Nor wolves and lambs in harmony unite,
But ceaseless enmity between them dwells:
So not in friendly terms, nor compact firm,
Can thou and I unite, till one of us
Glut with his blood the mail-clad warrior Mars.
Mind thee of all thy fence; behoves thee now
To prove a spearman skilled, and warrior brave.
For thee escape is none; now, by my spear,
Hath Pallas doomed thy death: my comrade's blood,
Which thou hast shed, shall all be now avenged." (D.)


The spear launched with these words misses its mark: that of Hector strikes full in the centre of his enemy's shield, but it glances harmlessly off from the fire-god's workmanship. He looks round for Deiphobus to hand him another; but the false Deiphobus has vanished, and, too late, Hector detects the cruel deceit of the goddess. He will die at least as a hero should. He draws his sword, and rushes on Achilles. The wary Greek eyes him carefully as he comes on, and spies the joint in his harness where the breastplate meets the throat. Through that fatal spot he drives his spear, and the Trojan falls to the ground mortally wounded, but yet preserving the power of speech. As his conqueror stands over him cruelly vaunting, and vowing to give his body to the dogs and to the vultures, he makes a last appeal to his mercy. "By the heads of his parents" he beseeches him to spare this last indignity; the ransom which his father Priam will offer shall be ample for one poor corpse. But the wrath of Achilles has become for the present mere savage madness. Neither prayer nor ransom shall avail in this matter. Hector's last words are prophetic:—


"I know thee well, nor did I hope
To change thy purpose; iron is thy soul.
But see that on thy head I bring not down
The wrath of heaven, when by the Scæan gate
The hand of Paris, with Apollo's aid,
Brave warrior as thou art, shall strike thee down." (D.)


The only glimpse of nobility which Achilles shows throughout the whole scene is in his stoical answer:—


"Die thou! my fate I then shall meet, whene'er
Jove and th' immortal gods shall so decree."


What follows is mere brutality. The Greeks crowd round, and drive their weapons into the senseless body.


"And one to other looked, and said, 'Good faith,
Hector is easier far to handle now,
Than when erewhile he wrapped our ships in fire.'"


Does it need here to do more than recall the too well remembered sequel—how the savage victor pierced the heels of his dead enemy, and so fastened the body to his chariot, and dragged him off to his ships, in full sight of his agonised parents? how


"A cloud of dust the trailing body raised;
Loose hung his glossy hair; and in the dust
Was laid that noble head, so graceful once."

 

Or how the miserable Priam, grovelling on the floor of his palace, besought his weeping friends to suffer him to rush out of the gates, and implore the mercy of the merciless Achilles? Less horrible, if not less piteous, is the picture of Andromache:—


"To her no messenger
Had brought the tidings, that without the walls
Remained her husband; in her house withdrawn,
A web she wove, all purple, double woof,
With varied flowers in rich embroidery,
And to her neat-haired maids she gave command
To place the largest caldrons on the fires,
That with warm baths, returning from the fight,
Hector might be refreshed; unconscious she,
That by Achilles' hand, with Pallas' aid,
Far from the bath, was godlike Hector slain.
The sounds of wailing reached her from the tower.

******

Then from the house she rushed, like one distract,
With beating heart; and with her went her maids.
But when the tower she reached, where stood the crowd,
And mounted on the wall, and looked around,
And saw the body trailing in the dust,
Which the fleet steeds were dragging to the ships,
A sudden darkness overspread her eyes;
Backward she fell, and gasped her spirit away.
Far off were flung th' adornments of her head,
The net, the fillet, and the woven bands;
The nuptial veil by golden Venus given,
That day when Hector of the glancing helm
Led from Eëtion's house his wealthy bride.
The sisters of her husband round her pressed,
And held, as in the deadly swoon she lay." (D.)


The body is dragged off to the ships, and flung in the dust in front of the bier on which Patroclus lies. And now, at last, when he has been fully avenged, the due honours shall be paid to his beloved remains, while the dogs and vultures feast on those of Hector. Thrice in slow procession, with a mournful chant, the Myrmidons lead their horses round the bier. While Achilles sleeps the deep sleep of exhaustion after the long day's battle, the shade of his dead friend appears to him, and chides him for leaving him so long unburied, a wandering ghost in the gloom below.


"Sleep'st thou, Achilles, mindless of thy friend,
Neglecting not the living, but the dead?
Hasten my fun'ral rites, that I may pass
Through Hades' gloomy gates; ere those be done,
The spirits and spectres of departed men
Drive me far from them, nor allow to cross
Th' abhorred river; but forlorn and sad
I wander through the widespread realms of night.
And give me now thy hand, whereon to weep;
For never more, when laid upon the pyre,
Shall I return from Hades; never more,
Apart from all our comrades, shall we two,
As friends, sweet counsel take; for me, stern Death,
The common lot of man, has ope'd his mouth;
Thou too, Achilles, rival of the gods,
Art destined here beneath the walls of Troy
To meet thy doom; yet one thing must I add,
And make, if thou wilt grant it, one request:
Let not my bones be laid apart from thine,
Achilles, but together, as our youth
Was spent together in thy father's house." (D.)


As eager now to do honour to Achilles as he was before to insult him, Agamemnon has despatched a strong force at early dawn to cut down wood for a huge funeral pile. The burial rites are grandly savage. In long procession and in full panoply the Myrmidons bear the dead hero to the pile, and the corpse is covered with the long locks of hair which every warrior in turn, Achilles first, cuts off as an offering to the gods below. Four chariot-horses, and two dogs "that had fed at their master's board," are slain upon the pile, to follow him, in case he should have need of them, into the dark and unknown country: and last, the twelve Trojan captives, according to his barbarous vow, are slaughtered by Achilles in person, and laid upon the pile. The winds of heaven are solemnly invoked to fan the flames, which roar and blaze all night; and all night Achilles pours copious libations of wine from a golden goblet. With wine also the embers are quenched in the morning, and the bones of Patroclus are carefully collected and placed in a golden urn, to await the day, which Achilles foresees close at hand, when they shall be buried under one mound with his own.

There follow the funeral games. First, the chariot-race, in which Diomed carries off an easy victory with the Trojan horses which he captured from Æneas. An easy victory, because the goddess Minerva not only breaks the pole of Eumelus, his most formidable rival, but hands Diomed back his whip when he drops it: interpreted by our realistic critics to mean, that prudence bids him take a second whip as a reserve. The old "horse-tamer," Nestor, gives his son Antilochus such cunning directions, that he comes in second, though his horses are confessedly the slowest of the whole field. Next comes the battle with the cœstus—that barbarous form of boxing-glove, which, far from deadening the force of the blow delivered, made it more damaging and dangerous, inasmuch as the padding consisted of thongs of raw ox-hide well hardened. The combat in this case is very unequal, since the giant Epeius speedily fells his younger and lighter antagonist, who is carried almost senseless from the lists. The wrestlers are better matched; the skill and subtlety of Ulysses are a counterpoise to the huge bulk and somewhat inactive strength of Ajax, who lifts his opponent off his feet with ease, but is brought to the ground himself by a dexterous kick upon the ancle-joint. Another fall, in which neither has the advantage, leads to the dividing of the prize—though how it was to be divided practically is not so clear, since the first prize was a tripod valued at twelve oxen, and the second a female captive, reckoned to be worth four.[1] The foot-race is won by Ulysses, Minerva interfering for the second time to secure the victory for her favourite, by tripping up the lesser Ajax (son of Oileus), who was leading. The Greek poet does but refer what we should call an unlucky accident to the agency of heaven. A single combat on foot, with shield and spear, succeeds, the prize for which is the rich armour of which Patroclus had spoiled Sarpedon. He who first draws blood is to be the winner. Diomed and Ajax Telamon step into the lists, and the combat between the two great champions grows so fierce and hot, that the spectators insist on their being separated, and again the honours are adjudged to be equal; although Diomed, who was clearly getting the advantage, receives the chief portion of the divided prize. In the quoit-throwing Ajax is beaten easily; and critics have remarked that in no single contest does the poet allow him, though a favourite with the army, to he successful. Those who insist upon the allegorical view of the poem, tell us that the lesson is, that brute force is of little avail without counsel. The archers' prizes are next contended for, and we have the original of the story which has been borrowed, with some modifications, by many imitators from Virgil's time downwards, and figures in the history of the English 'Clym of the Clough,' and Tell of Switzerland. Teucer, reputed the most skilful bowman in the whole host, only shoots near enough to cut the cord which ties the dove to the mast, while Meriones follows the bird with his aim as she soars far into the air, and brings her down, pierced through and through, with his arrow. But Meriones had vowed an offering to Apollo "of the silver bow," which Teucer, in the pride of his heart, had neglected. The games are closed with hurling the spear, when the king Agamemnon himself, desirous to pay all honour to his great rival's grief, steps into the arena as a competitor. With no less grace and dignity Achilles accepts the compliment, but forbids the contest. "O son of Atreus, we know thou dost far surpass us all"—and he hands the prize for his acceptance.

The anger against Agamemnon is past: but not so the savage wrath against Hector. Combined with his passionate grief for Patroclus, it amounts to madness. Morning after morning he rises from the restless couch where he has lain thinking of his friend, and lashing the dead corpse afresh to his chariot, drags it furiously thrice round the mound that covers Patroclus' ashes. Twelve days has the body now lain unburied; but Venus and Apollo preserve it from decay. Venus sheds over it ambrosial roseate unguents, and Apollo covers it with a dark cool cloud. In less mythological language, the loathliness of death may not mar its beauty, nor the sunbeams breed in it corruption. Even the Olympians are seized with horror and pity. In spite of the remonstrances of his still implacable queen, Jupiter instructs Thetis to visit her son, and soften his cruel obduracy. At the same time he sends Iris to Priam, and persuades him to implore Achilles in person to restore the body of his son. Accompanied by a single herald, and bearing a rich ransom, the aged king passes the Greek lines by night (for Mercury himself becomes his guide, disguised in the form of a Greek straggler, and casts a deep sleep upon the sentinels). He reaches the tent of Achilles, who has just ended his evening meal, throws himself at his feet, and kisses "the dreadful murderous hands by which so many of his sons have fallen," in an agony of supplication. He adjures the conqueror, by the thought of his own aged father Peleus—now looking and longing for his return—to have some pity on a bereaved old man, whose son can never return to him alive; and at least to give him back the body.


"And for thy father's sake look pitying down
On me, more needing pity: since I bear
Such grief as never man on earth hath borne,
Who stoop to kiss the hand that slew my son."


With the impulsive suddenness which is a part of his character, Achilles gives way at once— prepared, indeed, to yield, by his mother's remonstrances. He gives orders to have the body clothed in costly raiment, and washed and anointed by the handmaidens; nay, even lifts his dead enemy with his own hands, and lays him on a couch. Yet he will not let Priam as yet look upon the corpse, lest at the sight of his grief his own passion should break out afresh. The father spends the night in the tent of his son's slayer, and there he closes his eyes in sleep for the first time since the day of Hector's death. In the morning he returns to Troy with his mournful burden, and the funeral rites of Hector close the poem. The boon which Achilles has granted he makes complete by the spontaneous offer of twelve days' truce, that so Troy may bury her dead hero with his rightful honours. The wailings of Priam and Hecuba, though naturally expressed, are but commonplace compared with the last tribute of the remorseful Helen:—


"Hector, of all my brethren dearest thou!
True, godlike Paris claims me as his wife,
Who bore me hither—would I then had died!
But twenty years have passed since here I came,
And left my native land; yet ne'er from thee
I heard one scornful, one degrading word;
And when from others I have borne reproach,
Thy brothers, sister, or thy brothers' wives,
Or mother (for thy sire was ever kind
Even as a father), thou hast checked them still
With tender feeling and with gentle words.
For thee I weep, and for myself no less,
For through the breadth of Troy none love me now,
None kindly look on me, but all abhor." (D.)

 

 
  1. Madame Dacier's remarks on this valuation, and Pope's note upon them, are amusing:—
     

    "I cannot in civility neglect a remark made upon this passage by Madame Dacier, who highly resents the affront put upon her sex by the ancients, who set (it seems) thrice the value upon a tripod as upon a beautiful female slave. Nay, she is afraid, the value of women is not raised even in our days; for she says there are curious persons now living who had rather have a true antique kettle than the finest woman alive. I confess I entirely agree with the lady, and must impute such opinions of the fair sex to want of taste in both ancients and moderns. The reader may remember that these tripods were of no use, but made entirely for show; and consequently the most satirical critick could only say, the woman and tripod ought to have borne an equal value."