According to Proclus, the story of the bowman Philoctetes' return to Troy from his solitude on Lemnos appeared in the Little Iliad. In terms of the overall history of the war, the event occurs relatively late—shortly before the destruction of the city; indeed, according to the oracle of Helenus which inspired the recovery expedition to Lemnos, it seems to have been necessary to the success of the Greek war-effort. In terms of the epic tradition, it can be seen as something of a watershed, standing between a glorious, but unsuccessful, past and a successful, but somewhat ambivalent, future, recorded in the Iliou Persis.
Sophocles' play looks both forward to and back at the war in which it is situated. Neoptolemus and Odysseus, the men chosen to retrieve the great bow of Heracles and its current owner, Philoctetes, anticipate the glory that will belong to the destroyers of Troy. They also together concoct a manipulative account of the recent past—a version clearly at odds with familiar epics. The purpose of this account—narrated by Neoptolemus— appears to have been to win Philoctetes' trust and sympathy, and so to induce him to hand over the bow of his own accord. At first this bow seems to be the primary focus of the conspirators' designs, although eventually it becomes clear that Philoctetes himself also will be needed at Troy. Philoctetes hands Neoptolemus the bow when he falls ill, but shortly afterwards Neoptolemus explains the true reason for his arrival on Lemnos, and later returns the bow to Philoctetes. Neoptolemus' gradually emerging scruples are the obvious cause of this breakdown in the plot. He reclaims the heroic tradition of his father, Achilles, and rejects Odysseus' trickery.