Malouf draws upon the story of rivalry between Hector, son of Priam, and leader of the Trojans, and Achilles aligned with the Achaeans and the Hellenes. This rivalry forms a large part of the subject matter of Homer’s Illiad. (See Notes on the Meeting with Achilles in Book 24, Homer’s Illiad)
It is prophesised that Troy could not be captured without Achilles, but in the 10th year of the war Achilles withdrew from the fighting in anger against Agamemnon, who had taken his captive maiden, Briseis, from him. In Achilles’ absence, Hector and the Trojans score considerable success.
At one stage, Patroclus dons himself in Achilles’ armour and confronts Hector, after the Trojan warrior stormed their battle stronghold. Achilles is lured back into battle, following his inconsolable grief upon Patroclus’ death. Achilles kills Hector, and gains revenge for his friend’s death, but treats the body of his enemy, in a degrading manner, hooking him up to his chariot and dragging him through the dust. Whilst Achilles does not meet his death in the Illiad, Hector predicts that he would be killed at the Scaean Gate by Paris and Apollo.
The valiant, courageous war hero
Both Achilles and Hector are described by Homer in valiant and heroic terms because of their courage on the battlefield.
“The leader of the Trojans was noble Hector of the flashing helmet, the son of Priam” who spearheaded the assault upon the Achaeans led by Achilles, “swift-footed” and “godlike”.
For neither warriors is withdrawal an option. The “glorious Hector” tells his wife, Andromache, “I would feel very deep shame before the Trojans and their long-robed wives if I should avoid battle and keep away from it like a coward. Nor does my heart permit this.” Protective of both homeland and family, he is unequivocal in his resolution to “die … before I hear the sound of your cries as they (the Achaeans) carry you off”. His greatest wish is that his son carries on the heroic spirit, “as strong and brave, and that he may rule over Illium with valor”.
Throughout the Illiad, Homer describes Hector, the leader of the Trojans, defends their land against the Greeks, as “noble”, who with the “flashing helmet”, fights victoriously and valiantly. He leads the “finest of the Trojan troops” into battle and becomes a “mighty source of terror”.
Both Hector and his brother Paris are “eager in their hearts for war and battle”. Hector goes into battle “like a whirlwind” knowing that it is the Gods, and Zeus in particular, who will grant “victorious glory” and armed with this confidence, he becomes the ideal leader – the first to “dash inside the wall of the Achaeans”. He confronts battle like a “whirlwind”. He “glistened with fearful bronze and held a spear in each hand”. Homer suggests that so valiant is Hector that only the “gods” would have the power to withstand his ferocity. He is bold and confident in his authority, and the Trojans heed his every command, as they scale the walls and pour through the city gates.
In his turn the mighty warrior, instils a sense of fear in the Achaeans; Hector is to them “the mighty source of terror”. He “glistened with fearful bronze and held a spear in each hand”. Achilles motivates the Achaeans who “streamed forth like ravenous wolves”. Hector and Patroclus fight “like two lions over a slain deer”. Upon his return to battle, Achilles is granted the “splendid armor” by Hephaestus, the famous lame god, which is “more glorious than any man has ever worn before”.
Homer presents the defence of the homeland and of wives and children as the most honourable feat of the warrior. Hector admits that he would feel a “coward” if he were to “avoid battle and keep away from it”. He would feel a “very deep shame before the Trojans”. He fears the image of the women being dragged off by the “bronze clad Achaeans”.
In retaliation, Achilles, “his heart clad in courage”, vows to “go right through their battle lines” and doubts that any of the Trojans will “be glad to come near my spear”.
Honour: in the name of the gods
If only the gods can grant victory, then only the gods could “have held him (Hector) back”. And even when the tide of the battle turns, Hector “kept on fighting and tried to save his loyal men”. For to withdraw “does not become you”, says Apollo, the son of Zeus.
In The Illiad, their warrior-like traits, and gruesome actions are defended and justified because they are instruments of the gods who are whispering to them, urging them on, encouraging them to increasingly more valiant feats. Whilst death and blood surround the warring enemies, there is a sense that the gods orchestrate such chaos and this undermines the hero’s sense of moral autonomy. It is “always the will of Zeus” who is “stronger than the purpose of men”. No matter how courageous and fearless Hector is, when he confronts Achilles, he knows that “it lies, as all things do, in the laps of the gods whether I, even though I am weaker than you, shall take your life with a cast of my spear”.
The ancient warriors are always aware that the “will of Zeus is stronger than the purpose of men”. Zeus puts angry boldness in the heart of Patroclus and then Phoebus Apollos comes to him “in the likeness of a a valiant and strong man” . The gods are often goading the men, seeking to give them a false sense of confidence, often in the jaws of defeat.
For the gods, the battle is the most important thing and defines a man’s spirit and his character. Zeus speaks to Hector: “This does not become you. Come now, drive on your sturdy steeds against Patroclus and you may even yet overpower him, and Apollo may grant you the victory”.
Because of the blind faith in the gods and in their ability to control destiny, the Greek warrior believes that they are particularly noble and justify their warrior spirits as the product or … design of the gods. They constantly defer to the Gods and to Zeus who appear to have overall charge/control. Victories, defeats, setbacks are explained as the will of the gods. For example at one stage the Argives have been “subdued by the lash of Zeus”. At other times, the Trojans are aware that the war was held in “balance until the time when Zeus granted victorious glory”.
Buoyed by Zeus’s support, Hector confronts the enemy: “And Zeus pushed him on from behind with his mighty hand and urged his soldiers forward with him” and in victory, he strikes an equally valiant enemy, “those who are always the bravest are now lying beside the ships struck down by arrows or wounded by spears”.
When Ajax confronts Hector in battle, he is aware of his doom, owing to the support of Zeus for Hector. “He knew that this was the work of the gods and that Zeus who thunders on high had chosen victory for the Trojans”.
Death is a consequence of the god’s wish and simply happens: “Patroclus fell with a thud, and the host of the Achaeans grew silent with grief”. And it is “vicious fate” that leaves Hector to stay in front of the Illium before the Scaean Gate, and renders him vulnerable to the raging anger of Achilles who tied Hector’s heel and ankle to his chariot and dragged Hector through the dust.