I’m a bit obsessed (if that isn’t an oxymoron?) with the story of the Trojan War these days. As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, I think it stems from a gap in my formal education, and in recent years I’ve loved novels such as Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, and Natalie Haynes’ take on the females of the story in A Thousand Ships. Fry’s brilliant account is both accessible and detailed, allowing a reader to follow the many events which lead inexorably towards the ten year war of attrition and brutality.
As Fry notes immediately, there’s something about this tale (and I appreciated the appendix focusing on the research on the possible historical site of Troy) that continues to draw us back, ‘Troy. The most marvellous kingdom in all the world. The Jewel of the Aegean. Glittering Ilium, the city that rose and fell not once, but twice.’ He suggests a reason for our continued fascination, saying ‘poets must sing the story over and over again, passing it from generation to generation, lest in losing Troy we lose a part of ourselves.’ And I think that’s it – the story is sufficiently about human folly and arrogance (despite the physical interventions of the Gods) that we recognise ourselves within this ancient tale.
As you might expect, this is a highly erudite and sometimes drily amusing narrative spun by Fry. The unfolding tragedy is set out in meticulous detail and Fry makes for a careful guide, instructing his reader to note particular moments which will have significance later on. He’s sympathetic towards the likes of Briseis, Patroclus, Helen and the Trojan Royals caught up in Paris’ hideous mess. Individual deaths are given a dignity. However, when it comes to the final sacking of the city, he does not try to catalogue the horrors but instead, through the veil he casts over individual cruelties, he tells us all we need to know.
‘The gods had watched in helpless horror while the scenes of violence and devastation had unfolded. Zeus had forbidden interference, but he feared he had been wrong to do so. ‘What did we see last night? he asked. ‘It wasn’t warfare. It was madness. Deception, savagery, dishonour and disgrace. What have the mortals become?”
Perhaps that’s why we keep going back to this story – that horrified fascination with what mortals are capable of when at their worst; Fry makes it clear that the frenzied violence at the end is purely down to human agency. And perhaps that’s why this story has been passed down and written down so many times. That we haven’t learnt from it is another point altogether.