Characters With Character: Hector, Prince of Troy

25 September 2012

Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.
The Iliad

Recently I read Rouse's translation of Homer's classic epic poem, The Iliad, as a part of my World Literature course. While there are certain qualms I could raise with this particular edition (mainly the odd insertions of modern-day language issuing from the mouths of ancient Greek warriors), it was a fairly good translation. In the past, I've viewed The Iliad to be a some hundred-paged bloodbath at the hands of a seemingly-endless stream of Greeks and Trojans who have a marked propensity towards senseless slaughtering and are each the best at something, but this particular reading opened my eyes to several elements I had missed in past perusals . . . mainly, the fine character traits in a certain Hector, prince of Troy.

It sounds strange to tack such a title onto one of those very warriors I just called senseless and bloody, does it not? And yet that is the very trait in Hector's character that I admire — he's different than those around him. Born into a bellicose world that believed glory could be found solely on the battlefield, he bears all the outward marks of a typical Trojan prince. He's courageous, agile, heroic, assumedly handsome, and if he didn't have any other credits to his name than those listed, would fade quite easily into Homer's abundant cast of characters.

When I first read a children's edition of The Iliad many years ago, I felt pangs of remorse at noble Hector's death, but I could hardly give a reason for my emotions. Yes, he had died, but his death was just one of many to fill the bloodstained pages, and never had the other slaughterings affected me to this extent. Reading the book a second time gave me a clearer picture of what so endeared me to the favored son of Priam.

He accepts his responsibilities, even if he didn't choose them for himself. There is a quote in The Iliad that particularly spoke to me. In a dear scene between Hector and his wife, Andromache, the former explains, "I have learned to bear myself bravely in the front of the battle." The key word that stood out to me in his statement was learned. In other words, Hector made the conscious decision to accept his fate and play the role for which he was destined. He did not choose this battle — it was thrust upon him by Paris' foolish theft of Helen — but his actions reflect on that of his country and will determine the fate of his son.

He has remarkable self-control. We hear often enough about the Greek Achilles' fiery temper; rarely do the illustrious and all-knowing They mention Hector's self-control. At The Iliad's tragic conclusion, Hector has been killed at the hands of Achilles, and the women of Troy are all mourning him. It is during this moment that Helen says, "Twenty years have passed since I left my country and came here, but I never heard from [Hector] one unkind or one slighting word." Various editions debate whether Helen is persuaded to leave with Paris, or whether he simply captures her and takes her to Troy, but either way, she is the cause for the legendary war that spans more than ten years. Every day, Hector sees her and is reminded once again why so many of his countrymen are dying. A lesser man would have found it easy to lash out at Helen each time, to blame her repeatedly for the war . . . but not Hector. That alone speaks worlds about his character.

He puts his country over his own personal comfort. One of my favorite scenes in The Iliad takes place between Hector and his devoted wife and son, right before Hector enters the fray once more. Knowing that she might never see her husband again, Andromache begs Hector repeatedly to forget about the battle and to remain safe within the comforts of the palace. He refuses her entreaties, and says, "I could not show my face before the men or the women of Troy if I skulk like a coward out of the way." Hector knows that though it may be better for him if he were to stay behind, it wouldn't be better for his country. Even the warmth of family life cannot draw him away from his duty.

He remains faithful to one wife. The worst part of both Greek mythology and legitimate historical accounts of ancient Greece is the abundance of wives among men of import. Repeatedly, one hears of women being treated like trophies: they were won through conquest, and when thus obtained, were as much the man's property as his sword and spear. I understand that this is certainly not native to Greece alone, but that fact does not make it any easier to stomach. Having gone into The Iliad expecting such practices, it was vastly refreshing for me to read about Hector's faithfulness to one wife. There is no record in the book of him having any other wives, and his devotion to Andromache and their infant son, Astyanax, only proves this further.

When in the face of death, he does not shrink and play the coward. Near the end of the story, there is a space of time when Achilles chases Hector around the city. However, Hector eventually accepts that his life is hanging by a trembling thread, and he knows the thread is about to snap. With this knowledge, he bold faces Achilles and refuses to cower in a show of weakness. Despite the fact that he's suffocating quickly from Achilles' wound to his neck, Hector has just enough breath to gasp out a final request: Achilles should not leave his body to be mangled by dogs in the street, but should allow Priam to give it a proper burial, for the sake of his wife and those he loves.

I'm used to categorizing The Iliad as quite dull and nowhere near as fascinating as The Odyssey, and I was pleased to be proven wrong in my second reading of it this month. Though it is not a book to which I will turn on a rainy day when I'm seeking after something warm and comforting, it certainly possesses its own sort of charm, a luster I had somehow missed in previous readings. There's a reason this epic poem has remained a classic for centuries.
“Why so much grief for me? No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate. And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it, neither brave man nor coward, I tell you — it’s born with us the day that we are born.” — The Iliad

2 epistles:

  1. Lovely post, Elizabeth. I had no clue about all that stuff on Hector. Amazing. :D

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  2. This was a really fascinating post to read! I can definitely understand why you'd love such a character like Hector... he sounds like one I'd love too, though I have never read the Iliad or any of those other Greek works (shame on me!), but maybe you have given me an appetite to try them out :)

    Thank you for sharing, Elizabeth. I truly enjoyed it!

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