The Fight with Death by the Hector in the Iliad
In Homer’s Iliad, two conflicting desires motivate Hector. He adheres to the heroic code by fighting for honor and glory, but he does not always actively pursue battle. He has a strong instinct for self survival that urges him to remove himself from danger and conflicts with his desire to fight heroically. However, his desire to follow the heroic ideals that he holds so dear ultimately influences him more than his will to protect himself. Hector’s drive to attain glory and immortality in the hearts of his followers impels him to fight while placing himself in danger and battling more valorously than he naturally would.
When Hector ferociously wages battle, he does not fight because he likes Paris and supports his stealing of Helen; nor even does he fight to protect Troy and his father, wife, or son. For example, when the Greeks, under Diomedes, push the Trojans back, Hector begs Hecuba to pray to Athena for help and then curses his brother: “A great curse Olympian Zeus let live and grow in him, / for Troy and high-hearted Priam and all his sons” (6.334-335). Hector expresses his resentment of his brother and the “curse” of the war that Paris has brought upon Troy, and all the suffering it has caused both for him and his loved ones. He is not fighting against the Greeks to display his support of Paris’ decision to capture Helen; indeed, he entirely dislikes Paris as a fellow soldier. Furthermore, while Andromache begs Hector to withdraw from war before the Greeks cut him down, he admits that he knows that “the day will come when sacred Troy must die, / Priam must die and all his people with him” (6.531-533). Hector understands that Troy will fall someday, and therefore is not fighting to protect his beloved family, as he knows that they will certainly die when Troy’s walls come crashing down. Fighting against the Greeks, no matter how valiantly, will not save his beloved family from its ultimate death. By harboring ill feelings towards Paris and revealing his resignation that no matter what he does, Troy and all whom he cherishes will fall, Hector demonstrates that he is not fighting to save anybody he loves.
However, Hector does receive motivation to fight against the Greeks by battling strictly according the ancient heroic code, shaping his actions and behavior to conform to its goals of honor and glory. While conversing with his wife during a brief respite from battle, Hector remarks that he would “die of shame” to shrink from battle, and that he has learned that his goal is “winning [his] father great glory, [and] glory for [himself]” (6.523, 6.529). Because he cares what others may think about him, and fears shame from fellow warriors, Hector has developed a basic instinct to enter battle. Instead of shirking conflict, he strives to fight with such intrepidity and intensity that his comrades will bestow upon him prestige and glory, both cornerstones in heroic code. Likewise, Hector issues a challenge to fight, pronouncing that he will slaughter any opponent and that someday someone will say that “‘there’s . . . one of the brave whom glorious Hector killed’. . . and [his] fame will never die” (7.101, 103-104). Hector also hopes to gain renown among all men by seeking aristos, or being the best that he can be at fighting in battle. To achieve his unending fame, he must slaughter as many men as possible to accomplish aristéia, or exploits that will gain him prestige among his comrades. He hopes that these accomplishments will catapult him to an immortality beyond all other mortals. Hector indicates that this heroic code, and the glory and fame and the wholesale slaughter of enemies it entails, is his real reason for waging relentless battle against the Greeks.
Because of this quest for glory and immortality, Hector drives himself to fight more recklessly and aggressively than his natural instinct. As Hector awaits Achilles outside Troy’s walls, he ponders throwing down his spear and negotiating with Achilles: “. . .why, I could promise to give back Helen, yes, / and all her treasures with her. . . . return it all to the son of Atreus now / to haul away” (22.136-137, 140-141). Overcome with immense fear, Hector’s priority to survive overrides his obligation to the heroic code. Lacking Achilles’ strength and skill, Hector knows Achilles will slay him. He quickly thinks of a way of saving himself, regardless of what others think about his cowardice. This reaction is his most basic one, the natural one he was born with and the one which only presents itself when he does not have time to think about honor and glory. Then, after Athena tricks Hector into standing up to Achilles, Hector pronounces that he will accept his death at Achilles’ hands, “but not without struggle, not without glory, . . . that even men to come / will hear of down the years!” (22.359-362). His courage reignited by Athena, Hector gives up thoughts of safety; emboldened, he decides to fight Achilles knowing that he faces unavoidable death. However, he accepts the challenge, going against his initial instinct of surrender because with time to think about the heroic code, he acts more boldly. By facing Achilles, he realizes that men will remember his heroism and he will finally attain his treasured goal of glory and immortality in the eyes of men. The struggle between Hector’s will to survive and his desire to achieve fame and glory dictates his actions, swinging like a seesaw in delicate balance, until his desire for immortality ultimately trumps his instinct for survival.
In his adherence to the heroic code of honor and glory, Hector typifies the traditional Trojan or Greek hero. However, at the same time, his wish to survive makes him more human, baring from underneath the heroic persona a person with life’s most primal instinct: to survive. In addition, through his acceptance of Troy’s downfall, he liberates himself to base his fighting solely on the careful balance between heroic glory and survival. This internal conflict continues until the end of the poem when Hector finally accepts his death in order to receive the honor, glory, and immortality the he so desperately craves.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
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