Hector at the Gates

Emily Kiernan

“But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
and the Trojan women trailing their long robes
if I would shrink from battle now, a coward.
Nor does the spirit urge me on that way.
I’ve learned it all too well. To stand up bravely,
always to fight in the front ranks of Trojan soldiers,
winning my father great glory, glory for myself.
For in my heart and soul I also know this well:
the day will come when sacred Troy must die,
Priam must die and all his people with him,
Priam who hurls the strong ash spear…”  
--The Illiad, book 6. Robert Fagles trans.

and Athena left him there, caught up with Hector at once,
and taking the build and vibrant voice of Deiphobus
stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him, winging orders:
“Dear brother, how brutally swift Achilles hunts you—
coursing you round the city of Priam in all his lethal speed!
Come, let us stand our ground together—beat him back.”
--The Illiad, book 22. Robert Fagles trans.


If I had been that God beside you, Hector, I would have been kinder.  To die, not only, but to die duped by hope long dismissed. To die, believing for the first time that you might live, aided by a brother who will dissolve—always, how could you not know it?—into nothingness, a malignant wind.

It is too cruel, Hector.

I, at least, would have told you the truth: that the history of the world is a history of cowards, and of cowards who were good men and so died afraid; that this world is as cruel as you suspected; that death is an awful obliteration. I would tell you, Hector, that the world that comes after wants you dead, skewered to the earth, eyes open to an enclosing sky.  The world that will trail out behind your choices is a world glutted with suffering, stuffed on tragedy, applying your useless bravery—your ridiculous death—like a balm to history’s innumerable, unstaunchable wounds.

It is a world that does not love you breathing in Andromache’s arms, for to believe in a thing so ludicrous as a good death we must forget a life that is always better—a life we recall only to make your death more beautiful. And you do die beautifully, Hector, so beautifully as to make us forget what side we are on in this endless, useless attempt to stay alive, so beautifully as to make a virtue of the greatest, the only, failing.

But I do not want you to die, Hector, for I cannot stand to die myself. Troy will fall, but let it fall around you in your bed. There is bravery, too, in seeing a thing to its end. And maybe you can change it still, these earnest disasters to come, this world’s-worth of good men who could have been saved but weren’t. Go back through the gate, then, and live in shame another day, another year. Time may forgive you for it, or forget you. Do not dream of monuments for sons of sons to marvel at, and perhaps the world will never dream of Gethsemane or Geronimo or Starbuck on the bridge.

But if I stood with you by the gates, told you that you could live, would you hear it across the clamor of defeat? Or, probing your own brave heart before Ilium’s walls, did you find that it was better to be obliterated than dismantled? With the thought of victory so long ago discarded, did you find a way to slip out before the final stage was set—to be lost better than to lose, to live your tragedy better than to witness it?  Is this sacrifice but a clever dereliction?

No, I do not think you wanted to die, Hector. You knew it already, happy servant that you were: Better to be a servant among the living than a king among the dead. Servant to debauched family and failing city, to careless Gods, and to a fate too easily swallowed, serving up yourself without question, so willing, so good.  Even Achilles, who wished for death, undertook it less lightly than you, undertook it with weeping and rage.  But you stood outside the gates that circumscribed the limits of your life, and would not walk through, but instead made a bargain with your life-longing heart that it would let you die, but would not let you die without running, for a while at least.

Imagine you have it to do again, Hector, and I will be the God beside you. I will tell you that running is not cowardice enough. I will speak in the voices of your parents from the walls, your wife from her chamber, your child from his bed, the voice of the blood that pounds in your ears. You will forget that honor which fills your Elysium with the empty shades of heroes to come, and who will go after you, and who are gone. You will forget the shame that attends to living out the last tendrils of hope, and living out beyond hope, the shamelessness of outliving.  You will forget Achilles, too, raging at the walls, flame-capped and shouting death, shouting for a millennia that believes there are worse fates than that, shouting for the men who cast their voices into silence. But not shouting for you, Hector, not now. For you are living still behind the gates, called back from glory, into life.