The Iliad Book 21 Summary

Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

This lesson will summarize Book 21 of Homer's 'The Iliad', which finds Achilles battling a river and many other gods joining the fight. By the end of Book 21, the Trojans are able to retreat to their city when Apollo momentarily distracts Achilles.

Achilles on a Rampage

Achilles Does Battle In The River
Achilles in the River

Book 21 opens with a bloodbath - literally. Half of the Trojan forces are sitting ducks in the river Xanthus. Achilles is among them in the swirling waters, and he is nearly unstoppable. He slashes left and right, killing Trojans all around him in the river. Achilles meets Lycaon, whom he had previously captured and sold as a slave. This time, there will be no question of being captured alive.

Lycaon begs for his life, clutching Achilles' legs in desperation. But Patroclus' death has been a game-changer, and Achilles is only in it to kill now. Before he finishes off Lycaon, Achilles waxes philosophical, telling the man everyone dies, and soon even he, Achilles, will succumb to the same fate. With that, Lycaon gives up and Achilles' sword delivers the fatal stab.

The River God Fights Back

After delivering a taunting speech to Lycaon's corpse, in which he asserts his intent to kill all Trojans, Achilles returns to the carnage in the water. Things get so bloody that the river god, Xanthus, takes on the form of a man and commands Achilles to stop. Xanthus has had enough; the water is full of corpses and blood, and he doesn't want to be part of this fight. Achilles agrees to get out of the river, but not to stop killing Trojans. Xanthus is still angry with Achilles and asks Apollo to help the Trojans. Upon hearing this, Achilles is - you guessed it - enraged, and jumps right back into the river to hack up more Trojans.

Fully involved now, Xanthus flings dead bodies out of the water and helps save the living Trojans. Then he goes after Achilles, fighting him with wave after wave. Achilles puts up a valiant effort, but he's no match for the immortal power of the river god. Achilles, the strongest of men, is still a mortal and there are limits to his abilities. Desperate, Achilles looks up and asks why no gods are helping him. He laments the fact that if he dies in the river, he will die without honor.

Water vs Fire

Hearing Achilles' cry to the heavens, Poseidon and Athena appear and give Achilles a pep talk. They assure Achilles that he is not fated to die in the river, and they encourage him to keep going until he kills Hector. Invigorated by the god's intervention, Achilles has another burst of energy and keeps fighting. Xanthus calls for help from his river god brother, Simois, and the two of them renew their assault on Achilles. They are determined to drown him and bury him so deeply that his body will never be found.

Seeing that Achilles is now facing two angry river gods, Hera, another immortal, panics. She asks her son, Hephaestus, to send fire to the river to help Achilles. Hephaestus sends forth a great blaze of fire. The river is quickly overwhelmed, brought to a boil, and Xanthus gives up, essentially asking Hera, 'Geez, what'd I ever do to you?' Hera calls off Hephaestus and the river flows normally again.

All the Gods Join the Fray

By now, many other gods, who have been treating the war as a spectator sport, want a piece of the action. Ares and Athena fight, and then Aphrodite joins in. Poseidon tries to goad Apollo to fight, but Apollo resists. He doesn't think it's worth the gods' time to fight over these silly mortals. Hearing this, Apollo's sister Artemis taunts him and calls him a coward. This makes Hera furious and she boxes Artemis' ears. Artemis bursts into tears and runs away to complain to her dad, Zeus. The drama is fierce on Mount Olympus!

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