The Iliad (Collins)/Chapter 11

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The character of Hector has been very differently estimated. Modern writers upon Homer generally assume that the ancient bard had, as it were, a mental picture of all his great heroes before him, of their inner as well as of their outer man, and worked from this in the various acts and speeches which he has assigned to each. Probably nothing could be further from the truth. If the poet could be questioned as to his immortal work, and required to give a detailed character of each of his chief personages, such as his modern admirers present us with, he would most likely confess that such character as his heroes possess was built up by degrees, as occasion called for them to act and speak, and that his own portraits (where they were not derived from the current traditions) rested but little upon any preconceived ideal. It is very difficult to estimate character at all in a work of fiction in which the principles of conduct are in many respects so different from those of our own age. How far even the ablest critics have succeeded in the attempt in the case of Hector may be judged from this; that whereas Colonel Mure speaks of "a turn for vainglorious boasting" as his characteristic defect,[1] Mr Froude remarks that "while Achilles is all pride, Hector is all modesty."[2] Both criticisms are from writers of competent taste and judgment; but both cannot possibly be true. There can be no doubt that Hector makes a considerable number of vaunting speeches in the course of the poem—vaunts which he does not always carry out; but in this respect he differs rather in degree than in principle from most of the other warriors, Greek as well as Trojan; and if the boasts of Achilles are always made good, while Hector's often come to nothing, that follows almost necessarily from the fact that Achilles is the hero of the tale. A boastful tongue and a merciless spirit are attributes of the heroic character in Homer: his heroes bear a singular resemblance in these two points to the "braves" of the American Indians; while they are utterly unlike them in their sensitiveness to physical pain, their undisguised horror of death, and their proneness to give loud expression to both feelings. Without attempting to sketch a full-length portrait, which probably Homer himself would not recognise, it may be said that Hector interests us chiefly because he is far more human than Achilles, in his weakness as well as in his strength; his honest love for his wife and child, his pitying condonation of Helen, his half-contemptuous kindness to his weak brother Paris, his hearty and unselfish devotion to his country. Achilles is the "hero," indeed, in the classical sense—i.e., he is the demi-god, superior to many of the mortal weaknesses which are palpable enough in the character of his antagonist: as little susceptible to Hector's alternations of confidence and panic, as to his tender anxieties about his wife and child. The contrast between the two is very remarkable; as strong, though of quite a different kind, as that between the two chief female characters in the poem—Helen, charming even in her frailty, attracting us and compelling our admiration in spite of our moral judgment; Andromache, the blameless wife and mother, whose charm is the beauty of true womanhood, and whose portrait, as drawn by the poet, bears strong witness by its sweetness and purity to the essential soundness of the domestic relations in the age which he depicts.

The poem, as we have seen, ends somewhat abruptly. We learn nothing from it of the fate of Troy, except so far as we have been taught throughout the tale that the fortunes of the city and people depended wholly upon Hector. "Achilles' wrath" was the theme of the song, and now that this has been appeased, we wait for no further catastrophe. Yet, if Achilles has been the hero, it is remarkable that the poet's parting sympathies appear to rest, as those of the reader almost certainly will, with Hector. It would seem that Homer himself felt something of what he makes Jupiter express with regard to the Trojans—"They interest me, though they must needs perish." The Trojan hero must fall, or the glory of the Greek could not be consummated; but the last words of the poem, as they record his funeral honours, so they express the poet's regretful eulogy:—

"Such honours paid they to the good knight Hector."

Virgil, in his Æneid, naturally exalts the glory of Hector, because it was his purpose to trace the origin of the Romans from Troy; but we need not wonder that in later days, when the Homeric legends were worked up into tales of Christian chivalry, Hector, and not Achilles, became the model of a Christian knight. When the great Italian poet drew his character of Orlando, as a type of chivalry, he had the Trojan hero in his mind.

One of the earliest and most curious travesties of the Iliad—for it is hardly more, though made in all good faith, according to the taste of the times—was the work of an English troubadour, Benedict de St Maur, of the time of Henry II. It was reproduced, as a prose romance, in Latin, by Guido de Colonna, a Sicilian; but is better known—so far as it can be said to be known at all—as the 'History of the Warres of the Greeks and Trojans,' by John Lydgate, monk of Bury St Edmunds, first printed in 1513. The writer professedly takes Colonna as his original. The heroes of the Iliad reappear as the knights of modern chivalry; they fight on horseback, observe all the rules of medieval courtesy, and "fewtre their speres" at each other exactly in the style of the Companions of the Round Table. Agamemnon is very like Arthur, and Achilles Sir Lancelot, under other names. But Hector is here also plainly the favourite hero. Thersites figures as a dwarf, with all the malice and mischief peculiar, and in some degree permitted, to those imaginary types of humanity. The closing lines of Lydgate's third book will give some idea of the strange transformation which Homer's story undergoes in the hands of our medieval poet, and is a curious instance of the way in which the zealous churchman "improves" his pagan subject. He is describing the funeral rites of Hector:—


"And when Priam in full thrifty wyse
Performed hath as ye have heard devyse,
Ordained eke, as Guido[3] can you tell,
A certain nombre of priestes for to dwell
In the temple in their devotions,
Continually with devout orisons
For the soule of Hector for to pray.

To which priestes the kyng gave mansyons,

There to abide, and possessyons,
The which he hath to them mortysed
Perpetually, as ye have heard devysed,
And while they kneel, pray, and wake,
I caste fully me an end to make
Finally of this my thirde booke
On my rude manner as I undertooke."

The way in which the Homeric characters are modernised in Chaucer and Dryden, and even in Shakspeare's 'Troilus and Cressida,' is a deviation from their originals hardly more excusable, though less absurd, than this of Lydgate's. They copied, in fact, not from the original at all, but from the medieval corruptions of it. Racine's tragedies are in a higher vein, and his Iphigenia, though not Homer's story, does more justice to some of Homer's characters: but after all, as has been well observed, "they are dressed in the Parisian fashions, with speech and action accordingly."[4]

The Iliad, as has been already remarked, closes more abruptly than its modern title would seem to justify, for the Tale of Troy is left half untold. Imitators of the great bard followed him, and though their works are lost to us, the legends upon which they worked have been reproduced by later writers. The poems once known as the 'Little Iliad' and the 'Sacking of Troy' have left little more than their names, and some few fragments which do not raise much regret for the loss of the remainder; but the leading events of which they treated are preserved in the works of the Greek dramatists and of Virgil. It may not be out of place here to sketch briefly the sequel to Homer's story.

Troy fell in that tenth year of the siege, though new and remarkable allies came to the aid of Priam. From the far north of Thrace came a band of Amazons—women-warriors who, in spite of their weaker sex, proved more than a match in battle for the men of Greece. Their queen Penthesilea was said to be the daughter of the War-god; and under her leading, once more the Trojans tried their fortune in the open field, not unsuccessfully, until she too fell by the spear of Achilles. Proceeding to possess himself of her helmet, as the conqueror's spoil, he was struck with her remarkable beauty, and stood entranced for some moments in sorrow and admiration. It is the scene from which Tasso borrows his story of Clorinda, and which Spenser had in his mind when he makes Sir Artegal, after having unhelmed the fair Britomart in combat, let fall his sword at the sight of her "angel-face"—

"His powerless hand, benumbed with secret fear,
From his revengefull purpose shronke abacke,
And cruel sword out of his fingers slacke
Fell down to ground, as if the steel had sence
And felt some ruth, or sence his hand did lacke,
Or both of them did think obedience
To doe to so divine a Beautie's excellence."
—B. IV. c. vi. st. 21.

Thersites—who had by this time forgotten the chastisement inflicted on him by Ulysses for his scurrilous tongue—ventured a jest upon Achilles' sensibility, and was struck dead by a blow from the hero's unarmed hand. Next came upon the scene the tall Ethiopian Memnon, son of the Dawn, a warrior of more than mortal beauty, sent either from Egypt or from the king of Assyria (for the legends vary), with a contingent of fierce negro warriors, who carried slaughter into the Greek ranks, until Memnon too fell by the hand of the same irresistible antagonist. These were only brief respites for the doomed city. But it was not to fall by the hand of Achilles. Before its day of destruction came, the Greek hero had met with the fate which he himself foresaw—which had been prophesied for him alike by his mother the sea-goddess, by the wondrous utterance of his horse Xanthus, and by the dying words of Hector. An arrow from Paris found the single vulnerable spot in his right heel, and stretched him where he had slain his Trojan enemy—before the Scæan gate. But his death, according to the legends, was no more like that of common mortals than his life had been. He does not go down into those gloomy regions where the ghosts of his friend Patroclus and his enemy Hector wander. It was not death, but a translation. The Greeks had prepared for him a magnificent funeral pile, but the body of the hero suddenly disappeared. His mother Thetis conveyed it away to the island of Leuke in the Euxine Sea, to enjoy in that seclusion a new and perpetual life. So early is the legend which the romance of Christendom adopted for so many of its favourites—notably for the English Arthur, borne by the three mysterious queens to

"The island valley of Avilion,"

where, it was long said and believed, lie lay either in a charmed sleep or a passionless immortality. One legend ran that the Greek hero, in his happy island, was favoured with the society of Helen, whose matchless beauty he had much desired to see.

His wondrous shield and armour—the masterpieces of Vulcan—were left by Thetis as a prize for "the bravest of the Greeks," and became almost as fatal a source of discord as the golden apple which had been labelled for "the fairest." Ulysses and Ajax were the most distinguished claimants, and when, as before, counsel was preferred to strength, Ajax went mad with vexation, and fell upon his own sword. Ulysses handed on the coveted armour to its rightful inheritor, the young Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, who, in accordance with an oracle, had been sent for to take Troy. Still the city held out, secure so long as the sacred image of Minerva, the "Palladium," a gift from Jupiter himself, remained in the citadel: until Ulysses broke the spell by entering within the walls in disguise, and carrying it off. One quick eye discovered the venturous Greek, through his rags and self-inflicted wounds: Helen recognised him; but she was weary of her guilty life, and became an excusable traitress in favour of her lawful husband. It was again the fertile brain of Ulysses which conceived the stratagem of the wooden horse; and when the curiosity of the Trojans (against all ordinary probabilities, it must be confessed) dragged it inside the walls, the armed warriors whom it contained issued forth in the night, and opened the gates to their comrades.

The details of the sack of the city are neither more nor less horrible than similar scenes which are unhappily too historical. Priam is slain at the altar of his house; his family either share his fate, or are carried into captivity. Of the contradictory legends as to the fate of "Hector's Andromache"—as in Virgil's great poem she pathetically calls herself—the reader will gladly choose, with that poet, the least painful version, which leaves her settled at Buthrotus in Epirus, in a peaceful retirement full of gentle regrets, as the wife of Hector's brother Helenus.

Of Helen and Menelaus we shall hear more in Homer's tale of the Wanderings of Ulysses. He says nothing of the scene which the later dramatists give us, by no means inconsistent with his own portrait of the pair, when at the taking of the city the outraged husband rushes upon the adulteress with uplifted sword, and drops his weapon at the sight of her well-remembered and matchless beauty. For the miserable sequel of Agamemnon's story we may refer also to the Odyssey. Few of the Greek heroes returned home in peace. They had insulted the gods of Troy, and they were cursed with toilsome wanderings and long banishment like Ulysses, or met with a worse fate still. Diomed did not indeed leave his wife Ægiale a heart-broken widow, as Dione in her anger had predicted, but found on his return that she had consoled herself with another lover in his absence, and narrowly escaped assassination by her hand. Teucer was refused a home by his father, because he did not bring his brother Ajax back with him to the old man. The lesser Ajax was wrecked and drowned on his homeward voyage. Fate spared Nestor, old as he was, to return to his stronghold at Pylos; but his son Antilochus had fallen in the flower of his age on the plains of Troy. The names of many of the wanderers were preserved in the colonies which they founded along the coasts of Greece and Italy, and the heroes of the great Siege of Troy spread its fame over all the then known world.






  1. Liter, of Anc. Greece, i. 349.
  2. Short Studies on Great Subjects, ii. 175.
  3. Guido de Colonna.
  4. Gladstone.