By Stephen Fry
Penguin Random House, UK
Stephen Fry’s continuation of his recounting of the Greek myths — following the hugely successful Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold and the laudable Heroes: Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures — was long anticipated. I am pleased to note that his worthy endeavour at bringing the ancient Greek writer Homer’s story of the Trojan War before his eager audience does not disappoint.
The talented actor and equally accomplished writer keeps the language simple, yet manages to retain the timelessness of this grim tale of battle in a pitch-perfect manner. Given that Homer’s Iliad is arguably the most complex of epic tales, ranging from the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid to Englishman John Milton’s Paradise Lost, this is no small feat.
The basic story of the Trojan War is simple: Helen, the wife of Menelaus, brother of the high king of Greece, deserts her family and goes willingly with Paris, prince of Troy, to his abode in Asia Minor. So divinely lovely is this daughter of Zeus and Queen Leda that her many Achaean (Greek) suitors have all sworn to be loyal in the extreme to whoever is fortunate enough to win her hand in marriage. While they do not expect that their pact would be tested by her hasty elopement years into her marriage, when it is tested, they all rise to the occasion, gather a thousand ships and sail to the shores of Troy to get her back.
But the land of Troy is one of the Achaeans’ most formidable economic rivals. Commanding the respect of its allies along the coast of Asia Minor and beyond, it is governed by the esteemed King Priam, and its army is more than capably headed by his phenomenally brave and virtuous son, Prince Hector.
Retelling the story of the Trojan War would have been challenging for even the most highly trained of classicists, but Stephen Fry succeeds
Hector’s character — including his kind love towards his wife Andromache and his ill-fated son Astyanax — is depicted well by Fry. Hector is revered by his men and even respected almost universally by the Achaeans themselves. His primary rival is the semi-immortal Greek hero Achilles, and the tale of Troy begins with the latter withdrawing his fighting forces, the Myrmidons, from battle over a quarrel with High King Agamemnon, Helen’s brother-in-law. This takes place at the tail-end of the war.
But Fry is careful to delineate the many events that led up to the moment above and the backstories that include the judgement of Paris, who was given a golden apple marked ‘For the fairest’ and the unhappy task of deciding whether to give it to the goddess Hera, or to Athena or Aphrodite. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, won by promising Paris the world’s most beautiful woman. Foolish origin for a war though this might be, classical male heroes — as Fry pointedly observes — were remarkably susceptible to the slings and arrows of fortune cast towards them by the female gender.
The legendary Odysseus, happily wed to Helen’s cousin — the much plainer, but far smarter, Penelope — feigns madness to avoid getting embroiled in what he can foresee would be a hugely expensive and taxing war, but ultimately has no choice but to go along with the Achaeans. Fortunate for them that he did, though, since his idea of the Trojan horse is the ruse that ultimately wins the war for the Greeks. Troy was impenetrable and could only be taken from within the city, not externally — a point that is still honoured by the naming of one of the most famous condom brands in the world ‘Trojan’.
The writer’s style is eminently accessible and makes for smooth, fluid reading — an interested high school student would be able to do full justice to this text, which has also delighted me, a 50-year-old, experienced academic. Superbly chosen illustrations abound in the book and bring to life some of the key moments of this remarkable legend. The book contains far fewer footnotes than its predecessors and, although I missed that aspect of Fry’s writing for this volume, I can see why many readers would heave a sigh of relief at not being momentarily slowed down by them.
Achilles re-enters the battle after his best friend (and loyal lover) Patroclus is killed by Hector. I was anxious to see whether Fry would do justice to the fight between the Greeks and Trojans over Patroclus’s body — which is the grimmest battle scene in a poem that is full of intense, warlike altercations. Again, Fry does not disappoint. Achilles swears bloody revenge and does not rest until Hector meets his death at Achilles’s hands, though he later ransoms the dead prince’s body back to his grieving father, Priam.
The major figures of the epic are portrayed with superb accuracy: Agamemnon’s tyranny is as well described as Achilles’s rage and Hector’s noble world-weariness. The Iliad has often been criticised for short-changing its women — although given the realities of ancient history this is hardly surprising. Twenty-first century feminist endeavours such as Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships have attempted to rectify this, but Fry’s simple yet sincere approach towards speculating how Helen and Andromache, among others (such as the spirited Amazon queen Penthesilea) might have truly felt about the situation also works admirably well.
Fry is informed and erudite to say the least and does as much justice to relatively minor characters — such as the spoils of war Briseis and Chryseis, and the first Greek casualty Protesilaus — as he does to more major ones, such as the fearless Diomedes, the worthy Ajaxes and the senior, highly respected Nestor. The gods are active in the war in all their glory — Zeus’s perplexed attitude at this epic clash within humanity comes across as being as authentic as Apollo’s touching and determined protection of the Trojans.
Even the goddess of love, Aphrodite, jumps into battle at one point to save her son, Aeneas (later the hero of Virgil’s Aeneid), proving that there are no lengths to which a mother will not go to in order to save a beloved son.
It would have been challenging for even the most highly trained of classicists such as Robert Fagles and Richmond Lattimore to do literary justice to a thoroughly modern, accessible retelling of the song of Troy, but Fry succeeds. I, for one, did not expect him to do any less.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 1st, 2021