Clarke has used the classics – The Greek Myths by Robert Graves and The Iliad by E V Rieu, among others, to retell these tales in modern prose and has succeeded brilliantly.
The characters – there’s a helpful glossary of deities and mortals at the back of the book – are all drawn well and believably. You feel for them in their happy and tragic moments. Especially the time when King Agamemnon has to sacrifice his daughter to the goddess Artemis. These scenes are particularly moving as the thirteen-year-old meets her father for the first time in nine years. He must kill her to appease the gods, ‘for the good of all.’ How hollow those words ring through history!
As we know, the gods ceased to have form once nobody believed in them anymore. At the time of Troy, men not only believed in their gods, some actually met them.
Unlike the film, which had a limited time-span to tell its story, this book fills in the background to Paris, explaining how he was adopted by a woodcutter and only learned of his true birthright as King Priam’s son from the interfering goddess Aphrodite. From that point on, his life is blighted. More than once afterwards, he wished he’d stayed in the countryside! We can sympathise with him and the other characters, knowing what will happen.
In fact, Helen’s flight with Paris was merely the excuse that Agamemnon needed all along. What comes across here, however, is the honourable and generous nature of Helen’s husband Menelaus – truly, the film did him a disservice! His betrayal by Paris was great indeed.
But the story is more than about the love affair between Helen of Sparta and Paris of Troy. They are merely the cause. It’s about heroism, stubbornness and honour. When King Priam sneaks into the Myrmidons’ camp to claim his son’s body, you feel for the anguish of the old man and even for Achilles. (This was conveyed very well in the film, too).
The war with Troy actually raged for ten years, as prophesised. And it was in under thunderclouds and rain, not only under the blazing sun. Some of the battle scenes are gripping and gruesome and you can almost feel and smell the stink of warfare.
There’s humour, irony, cunning, laughter, betrayal, tragedy and of course cruelty aplenty in these pages. Striding this stage of epic stories about Troy is Odysseus, wise, honest and clever; he was of course the originator of the wooden horse, a fine piece of writing that blends dreams and facts. Yet there are other mortal men who were looked upon as almost gods – Achilles, Ajax and Hector. Their names – and others, such as Cassandra, Penelope, Electra, Orestes and Thetis – echo down the ages. Clarke has managed to bring them alive again for a new readership who might balk at the apparent dry classics.
The sequel, Return from Troy (2006), is about Odysseus.