The Iliad

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The Iliad Book 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Menelaus, fighting nearby, watches the death of Patroclus. A battle begins over Patroclus’ body. Euphorbus attempts to strip Patroclus’ armor, but Menelaus kills him. Menelaus attempts to strip Euphorbus’ armor, but Apollo rouses Hector to defend his body. Hector charges Menelaus. Menelaus, knowing that he cannot defend against Hector himself, searches for Great Ajax as the Trojans beat him back.
Patroclus’ body becomes the greatest symbol of honor that the war has seen so far. Not only was his final effort in battle immense, but he is well known to be the companion of Achilles, and both sides recognize what the capture of his body would mean to the Achaean captain.
Themes
Honor and Glory Theme Icon
The Gods Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
Menelaus finds Great Ajax and rouses him to come help defend Patroclus’ body from desecration. Before they can arrive, Hector strips Achilles’ armor from Patroclus’ body. Menelaus and Ajax reach Patroclus and stand guard over the body. Glaucus criticizes Hector for leaving Sarpedon’s body behind and accuses him of fearing Great Ajax. Hector dons Achilles’ armor, and Zeus endows him with great strength. Hector rallies the Trojan troops, telling them that the man who takes Patroclus’ body will receive half of his spoils from the war.
Menelaus is a strong fighter, but the Achaeans need Great Ajax, one of their very best heroes, to block the Trojan attack. It seems that Hector’s actions are already oriented toward Achilles. Hector dons Achilles armor, a symbol of his glory in killing Patroclus, and offers a huge treasure for Patroclus’ body. Hector fully realizes the body’s significance to Achilles.
Themes
Honor and Glory Theme Icon
The Gods Theme Icon
Trojan and Achaean champions converge over the body of Patroclus, fighting hard to remove his corpse from the battlefield. Hector and Great Ajax clash once again. The Achaeans begin to drive the Trojans back to their walls, but Apollo spurs Aeneas to regroup the Trojan forces. Despite Aeneas’ efforts, the Achaeans hold fast over Patroclus. The battle over the body lasts all day.
The fighting between Hector and Great Ajax has become a pattern through the poem, pitting two of the strongest of each side’s fighters against each other repeatedly. However, Ajax is always destined to be a lesser hero than Achilles—he fights Hector to a standstill but cannot kill him.
Themes
Honor and Glory Theme Icon
The Gods Theme Icon
Achilles does not yet know that Patroclus has died. Achilles’ horses, immortal gifts from the gods, sense the death and begin to weep. Zeus pities the horses and fills them with strength. They take their driver Automedon back into the thick of battle. Hector and Aeneas attack Automedon, attempting to take Achilles’ horses. Automedon escapes Hector’s attack, kills a Trojan, and finally the Aeantes arrive to give him support.
Achilles’ horses are a sign of Achilles’ close relationship with the gods, as he is nearly immortal himself. The battle between Automedon and Hector signals a moment of preparation for Achilles’ appearance, as Achilles special horses must be rescued before Achilles can head into battle.
Themes
Honor and Glory Theme Icon
The Gods Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
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As the battle for Patroclus continues, Athena takes the form of Phoenix and breathes fresh strength into Menelaus. Revived, Menelaus kills a close friend of Hector. Apollo in turn gives strength to Hector. Zeus lets forth a thunderbolt that turns the tide of war in favor of the Trojans. The Achaeans begin to retreat.
This scene prefigures the events of Book 20, when the gods will be fully allowed to intervene in battle again. Until then, Athena cannot show her full force in battle, as Zeus has only ordered Apollo into the battle to support the Trojans.
Themes
Honor and Glory Theme Icon
The Gods Theme Icon
Fate and Free Will Theme Icon
Seeing that Zeus now favors the Trojans, Menelaus and Great Ajax devise a plan to pull Patroclus’ body clear of the fighting. Menelaus finds Antilochus and asks him to relay the news of Patroclus’ death to Achilles. Antilochus, struck dumb at the news, rushes back to the Achaean camp. Menelaus and Meriones pick up Patroclus’ body while the Aeantes defend them from the Trojans. The Achaeans beat a retreat, with Hector and Aeneas in pursuit.
It is a great testament to Ajax’ strength and heroism that he is able to fight off the Trojans while Menelaus and Meriones carry Patroclus. Carrying the body means that there are two fewer fighters to support Ajax. Over the course of the day, Ajax has proven he is one of the great Achaean heroes.
Themes
Honor and Glory Theme Icon