A war that may never have happened, in a city that may never have existed, fought by heroes and villains who have left no record in contemporary archaeology or inscriptions- the Trojan War is almost a ghost account, trails of words left hundreds of years after the event,the story of a war in which there are no winners, no happy endings, only destruction on destruction; yet this story is one of the crucial founding myths of modern Europe.
Something probably happened at the place we now know as Troy, probably there was an equivalent of Agamemnon who waged war on the city and ultimately destroyed it, but it’s the accumulation of legend and myth around this unrecoverable moment of history that has turned it into the rich legend that we know. Something similar happens in British history with our own legends of King Arthur – there may very well have been a heroic leader, and something about him attracted the accumulation of stories to his name over the following hundreds of years, though probably there never was a sword in the stone, a Round Table, a Holy Grail, it doesn’t matter because the power of the legend is so strong. Likewise, Agamemnon, Helen, Achilles, Hector might never have existed, or might have stepped out of other legends. At any rate, the stories persisted and coalesced, and by the time of Homer, came together to make one of the great stories of all time. Some scholars have doubted whether there was an actual Homer, and supposed the story was put together by a series of oral poets over time. Yet it seems to me that you can hear the voice of a single gifted poet in the Iliad, a poet who has shaped his material skilfully and deliberately. He ignores most of the famous events of the story, the abduction of Helen, the Wooden Horse, and instead concentrates on a period of just fifty-one days, that takes place right at the end of the war. Moreover, it’s the psychological aspect of the war he’s interested in; ‘I sing of the wrath of Achilles – the corrosive anger of just one man and how it affects the course of the war. His sympathies are evenly divided; if anything, he’s on the side of the Trojans. (Did he encounter Trojan exiles with their wealth of stories in that island of his?) And though generations of public schoolboys were brought up to think of it as a valiant heroic epic, it’s actually very much an anti-war poem. Rather than a gung-ho celebration of slaughter, there are heartwrenching details of the deaths of these young men, and the effects on their families; Pedaeus, a bastard boy brought up with loving care by his stepmother, the two sons of aging Phaenops, too old to breed more sons, Hypsenor, son of a revered priest, Abas and Polyidus, sons of an ‘aged reader of dreams,’ who can have no dreams for them any more – you feel these deaths as personally as you feel accounts of young men killed in battles today. It’s an astonishing feat, especially for something probably composed seven hundred years before the birth of Christ.
‘How do you write a story for children on the Trojan War ?’ a woman said contemptuously to me the other day, though I don’t know whether she was berating me for hubris, or the unsuitability of my subject. Well, fortunately for me the conversation was interrupted before I had to find an answer. But the fact is, there are so many stories in the Trojan War that that you can choose among them- in my case, in the second volume of my Girls of Troy series, The Burning Towers, my real subject is poor tragic Cassandra and her poisoned gift of prophecy, though I tell the story through the viewpoint of her slave girl Eirene, an intelligent devotee of the goddess Athene. Eirene watches Cassandra and her fate, but manages to find a life of her own at the end. It was hard to find an optimistic ending out of so much tragedy, but in a story for young people, I like to finish on a note at least of hope.
Of course, there was a Troy, a real city, and its story is almost an epic in itself. Next time, I hope to blog about the real Troy.