The Iliad, Books 3 and 4

July 17, 2010

Book 3 begins with the Achaean troops lined in opposition to the Trojan battalions. Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon and the former husband of Helen, steps forward from the Achaean line to confront Paris, the brother of the noble Hector and the man who clandestinely stole Helen. Upon descrying Menelaus, however, the pusillanimous Paris cowers in fear, only to be rebuked by Hector, who notes that the entirety of the war and all its tragic losses are due to Paris’s surreptitious stealing of Helen. To apologize to Hector for his cravenness, Paris proposes that he and Menelaus fight alone, man to man, and that the victor of the battle claim Helen, her wealth, and the general victory for his people. The truce is made, the fight commences, but Menelaus, whose strength and prowess clearly overpower that of Paris, is thwarted from his victory by the intercession of Aphrodite, the goddess who so cherishes Paris because he announced her the most beautiful of the gods. Aphrodite thus releases Paris from his strangling helmet and whisks him away to a bed where he lies waiting to have sex with Helen. Book 3 thus marks the introduction of Helen  into the narrative, the abject woman who somehow blames herself for her abduction, doubting her probity and referring to herself as a whore. She is miserably devoted to Paris, her captor, and yearns to return to her husband Menelaus, her child who has now grown, and her original people, the Achaeans.

Book 4 begins as the gods deliberate on Mount Olympus about the outcome of the war. Menelaus is the clear victor in the mortals’ battle, but tensions between Zeus and Hera have led to competing desires regarding the war’s outcome. Hera ultimately defers to Zeus, the most puissant of all gods and her husband, and agrees to send Athena to the Trojans to convince one of the more vacuous of their rank to break the previous truce and fire an arrow at Menelaus, the success of which would forever lionize the archer. The arrow is shot but, courtesy of divine intervention, does not kill Menelaus and instead merely wounds him. Enraged that someone has so hastily shattered the peace pact, Agamemnon resumes the war, resulting in many casualties on both sides of the battle.

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