The Iliad (Collins)/Chapter 5

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By the advice of his brother Helenus, who knows the counsels of heaven, Hector now challenges the Greek host to match some one of their chieftains against him in single combat. There is an unwillingness even amongst the bravest to accept the defiance—so terrible is the name of Hector. Menelaus—always gallant and generous—is indignant at their cowardice, and offers himself as the champion. He feels he is no match for Hector; but, as he says with modest confidence, the issues in such case lie in the hands of heaven. But Agamemnon, ever affectionately careful of his brother, will not suffer such unequal risk: some more stalwart warrior shall be found to maintain the honour of the Achaeans. Old Nestor rises, and loudly regrets that he has no longer the eye and sinews of his youth—but the men of Greece, he sees with shame, are not now what they were in his day. Stung by the taunt, nine chiefs spring to their feet at once, and offer themselves for the combat. Conspicuous amongst them are Diomed, the giant Ajax, and King Agamemnon himself; and when the choice of a champion is referred to lot, the hopes and wishes of the whole army are audibly expressed, that on one of these three the lot may fall. It falls on Ajax; and amidst the congratulations and prayers of his comrades, the tall chieftain dons his armour, and strides forth to meet his adversary. The combat is maintained with vigour on both sides, till dusk comes on; the heralds interpose, and they separate with mutual courtesies and exchange of presents.

Both armies agree to a truce, that they may collect and burn their dead who strew the plain thickly after the long day's battle. The Trojans, dispirited by their loss, and conscious that, owing to the breach of the first truce by the treacherous act of Pandarus, they are fighting under the curse of perjury, hold a council of war, in which Antenor (the Nestor of Troy) proposes to restore Helen and her wealth, and so put an end at last to this weary siege. But Paris refuses—he will give back the treasure, but not Helen; and the proposal thus made is spurned by the Greeks as an insult. They busy themselves in building a fortification—ditch, and wall, and palisade—to protect their fleet from any sudden incursion of the Trojans. When this great work is completed, they devote the next night to one of those heavy feasts and deep carousals, to which men of the heroic mould have always had the repute of being addicted in the intervals of hard fighting. Most opportunely, a fleet of merchant-ships comes in from Lemnos, laden with wine; in part a present sent by Euneus, son of the renowned voyager Jason, to the two royal brothers; in part a trading speculation, which meets with immediate success among the thirsty host. The thunder of Olympus rolls all through the night, for the Thunderer is angry at the prolongation of the war: but the Greeks content their consciences with pouring copious libations to appease his wrath, and after their prolonged revelry sink into careless slumber.

At daybreak Jupiter holds a council in Olympus, and harangues the assembled deities at some length— with a special request that he may not be interrupted. He forbids, on pain of his royal displeasure, any further interference on the part of the Olympians on either side in the contest; and then, mounting his chariot, descends in person to Mount Ida to survey the field of battle, once more crowded with fierce combatants. He hesitates, apparently, which side he shall aid—for he has no intention of observing for himself the neutrality which he has so strictly enjoined upon others. So he weighs in a balance the fates of Greek and Trojan: the former draws down the scale, while the destiny of Troy mounts to heaven. The metaphor is reversed, according to our modern notions; it is the losing side which should be found wanting when weighed in the balance. And so Milton has it in the passage which is undoubtedly founded on these lines of Homer. "The Omnipotent," says Milton,

"Hung forth in heaven His golden scales, yet seen
Betwixt Astraea and the Scorpion sign,
Wherein all things created first He weighed,
The pendulous round earth with balanced air
In counterpoise; now ponders all events,
Battles and realms; in these He put two weights,
The sequel each of parting and of fight:
The latter quick up flew and kicked the beam."

And Gabriel bids Satan look up, and mark the warning:-

"'For proof look up,

And read thy lot in yon celestial sign,
Where thou art weighed, and shown how light, how weak,
If thou resist!' The Fiend looked up, and knew
His mounted scale aloft; nor more, but fled
Murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night."

—Par. Lost, end of B. iv.

In accordance with this decision the Thunderer sends his lightnings down upon the host of the Greeks, and throws them into terror and confusion. Nestor, still in the thickest of the fray, has one of his chariot-horses killed by a shaft from the bow of Paris; and while he is thus all but helpless, Diomed sees the terrible Hector bearing down on the old chief in full career. He bids Nestor mount with him, and together they encounter the Trojan prince, against whom Diomed hurls his spear: he misses Hector, but kills his charioteer. As Diomed presses on, a thunderbolt from Jupiter ploughs the ground right in front of his startled horses. Nestor sees in this omen the wrath of heaven; and at his entreaty Diomed reluctantly allows him to turn the horses, and retires, pursued by the loud taunts of Hector, who bids the Greek "wench" go hide herself. Thrice he half turns to meet his jesting enemy, and thrice the roll of the angry thunder warns him not to dare the wrath of the god. Hector in triumph shouts to his comrades to drive the Greeks back to their new trenches, and burn their fleet. He calls to his horses by name (he drove a bright bay and a chestnut, and called them Whitefoot and Firefly), and bids them do him good suit and service now, if ever, in return for all the care they have had from Andromache, who has fed them day by day with her own hands, even before she would offer the wine-cup to their thirsty master. The Greeks are driven back into their trenches, where they are rallied by the royal brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus in person. They have too on their side a bowman as good as Pandarus or Paris, who now does them gallant service. It is Teucer, the younger brother of the huge Ajax. The description of his manner of fight would suit almost exactly the light archer and his pavoise-bearer of the medieval battle:—

"Ajax the shield extended: Teucer then
Peered from behind, and with a shaft forth stept,
And slew one singled from the enemy's men:
Then, as a child creeps to his mother, crept
To Ajax, who the shield before him swept." (W.)

Eight times he draws his bow, and every arrow reaches its mark in a Trojan. Twice he shoots at Hector, but each time the shaft is turned aside, and finds some less renowned victim. Of these the last is Hector's charioteer—the second who in this day's battle has paid the forfeit of that perilous honour. Hector leaps down to avenge his death, and Teucer, felled to the ground by a huge fragment of rock, is carried off the field with a broken shoulder, still covered by the shield of Ajax. The Greeks remain penned within their stockade, and nothing but the approach of night saves their fleet from destruction. The victorious Trojans bivouac on the field, their watch-fires lighting up the night; for Hector's only fear now is lest his enemies should embark and set sail under cover of the darkness, and so escape the fate which he is confident awaits them on the morrow. Mr Tennyson has chosen for translation the fine passage describing the scene, which closes the Eighth Book:—

"As when in heaven the stars about the moon
Look beautiful, when all the winds are laid,
And every height comes out, and jutting peak,
And valley, and the immeasurable heavens
Break open to their highest, and all the stars
Shine, and the shepherd gladdens in his heart:
So many a fire between the ships and stream
Of Xanthus blazed before the towers of Troy,
A thousand on the plain; and close by each
Sat fifty in the blaze of burning fire;
And, champing golden grain, the horses stood
Hard by their chariots, waiting for the dawn."