Iliad: Book 17 | Menelaus’ Finest Hour

Dcn. Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan discuss Book 17 of the Iliad: Menelaus’ Finest Hour.

  • Summary of Book 17
  • What is the “dark heart” of Hector?
  • Can human agency affect fate?
  • What about the horses of Achilles?

Check out our 115 Question & Answer Guide on the Iliad.

But grief bore down on Hector, packing his dark heart.

Homer (17.92)


75.      What happens in books seventeen?

The body of Patroclus still lays on the plains outside of Troy. Menelaus, the Spartan king, slays Euphorbus, the Trojan who had speared Patroclus (17.51). Apollo spurs Hector to fight for the body of Patroclus (17.84), and Hector is able to remove Patroclus’ gear—but Ajax returns and stops him from decapitating the corpse (17.146). Glaucus, friend of the dead Sarpedon, chastises Hector for retreating from Ajax and implies that if Hector was more like Ajax, they could have saved the body of their comrade, Sarpedon (17.172). Hector retorts he is no coward, but the will of Zeus forces cowardice upon him (17.201). Hector then puts on the armor of Achilles, stripped from Patroclus, and Zeus, taking pity on Hector, grants him power and makes the armor fit well—but also states Hector will never return home again (17.230).

Hector leads the Trojans in battle for the body of Patroclus (17.263), and the Achaeans, led by giant Ajax and Menelaus, mount a defense (17.290). The Achaeans take the advantage, and Apollo spurs Aeneas to rally the Trojans (17.379), but Ajax and the Achaeans remains stalwart in their defense (17.420). Zeus shifts his favor to the Achaeans and sends Athena to rouse their fighting spirits (17.623). Apollo chastises Hector, and as Hector charges to the frontlines, Zeus releases a bolt of lightning to show he now favors the Achaeans (17.670). Giant Ajax laments: “Dear god, enough! Any idiot boy could see how Father Zeus himself supports these Trojans” (17.707). Zeus pities Ajax and thus removes his storm clouds from the battlefield and “the whole war swung into view” (17.729). Menelaus, at the suggestion of Ajax, sends Antilochus, son of Nestor and “a favorite of Achilles,” to go tell Achilles what has happened (17.776).[1] The Achaeans grab the body of Patroclus and bear him back to their ships, as the two great Aeantes hold off the Trojans (17.823, 843); until Hector and Aeneas come leading the Trojans “like a crowd of crows… screaming murder,” and the Achaeans break and flee for the ships (17.846).


76.      What should we make of the “dark heart” of Hector?

In book seventeen, we are introduced to the “dark heart” of Hector (17.92). The “dark heart” is presented within the juxtaposition of Apollo spurring Hector to fight (17.84), and Hector surveying the reality of the battlefield (17.93).[2] It is a moment of “grief” for the Trojan Prince (17.92). Hector does charge the front line “loosing a savage cry, and flaring on like fire, like the god of fire” (17.96). Such a reaction to the spurring of a god seems normative in the Iliad, but what seems abnormal is the moment of grief in between. Moreover, the pattern occurs again later in which Apollo again spurs Hector, Hector bears a “black cloud of grief,” and then charges the frontlines (17.660, 670).

The “dark heart” of Hector gives further credence to his role as the tragic, tortured hero of Troy. He is or is becoming a broken vessel over spent by the gods. How many lives has Hector already given for Troy? Yet over and over again, he is reanimated by the gods and tossed back into the fray of a war already determined. He a ragdoll in a fatalistic dispute amongst the gods. In fact, right after the second notion of this grief gripping Hector, he is speared in the chest but presumably saved by the divine (17.684). One may consider what psychological toll the war is bearing on Hector and how much more the Trojan prince has to give for his homeland.


78.      How much does human agency affect fate?

The Iliad is often critiqued for being overly fatalistic: man lacks any true agency in the world and his actions are simply determined by the divine. For example, when Glaucus sets forth the critique of cowardice against Hector, the Trojan prince responds that he is never a coward unless Zeus makes him one (17.201). On another occasion, an Achaean soldier states: “but all lies in the lap of the great gods, I’ll fling a spear myself and leave the rest to the Zeus (17.587). The deterministic quality of the Iliad usually opens it to criticisms of being flat and without a true human drama. For example, to what degree may Hector be held culpable for his actions when he is acted upon so often by the gods? We raised a similar question with Helen earlier in the epic.


Books seventeen, however, also reminds us that man bears a certain receptivity to the divine and an arguable co-authorship over his own actions. We see that even though Zeus may favor the Trojans for an advance, Achaean fortitude and Trojan fear may adjust the outcome (17.372). Again, we return to the thesis that the fixed destiny is flexible. One may recall Athena rushing to stop Achilles from slaying Agamemnon in book one, and how her actions upon him had to be coupled with his receptivity in order to be truly efficacious. The Iliad is certainly fatalistic, but the human agency is not without consequence—the degree to which the human may affect fate is a matter of much debate.

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[1] Fagles, 644.

[2] Lattimore translates the line: “But bitter sorrow closed over Hektor’s heart in its darkness,” (17.83). In Fagles, the phrase “dark heart” is also notably used elsewhere in book seventeen to describe an Achaean (17.571).

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