Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff retells the story of the battle of Troy as told in The Iliad by Homer, beginning with cause of the battle (the fight between the Greek goddesses Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena over the Golden Apple) and ending with the final sack of Troy.
The summary is this: Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena are fighting over a Golden Apple that reads “To the Fairest”. No god will decide who the fairest is so the goddesses chose Paris, a shepherd essentially (who’s really a prince) to choose between them. Hera offers him wealth and power if he chooses her. Athena offers him supreme wisdom. But Aphrodite offers him a wife as fair as herself.
Typical male, he chooses the woman who happens to be Helen, wife to Menelaus, King of Sparta. Oddly enough, Paris is married to to a wood nymph. (This tale definitely says something about the moral values of the time period).
Helen bewitched by Aphrodite, falls in love with Paris and runs off to Troy with him.
Now, before this time, everyone wanted to marry Helen because of her beauty including Odysseus. So, Helen’s father made all her suitors swear to stand by her husband if ever he needed them. Hence, this is how all the Greek heros ended up in the war despite their attempts (notably by Odysseus) to renege.
So, Menelaus wants Helen back so he gathers the Greeks who sail to Troy and lay siege to the city. This lasts for nine years until the wars finally start.
After many, many battles involving heroes on both sides such as Hector and Achilles and heavy losses by both, Odysseus comes up with the idea to build a huge wooden horse to hide in in order to gain access to Troy.
The rest of the Greeks pretend they are leaving by sailing away, leaving the Horse behind. They also cunningly decide to leave one soldier behind whom the Trojans do not know, Sinon, who’s job it is to tell the Trojans that the Horse is an offering to appease Athena.
Of course, the Trojans fall for it. They drag the Horse into their city where that night the plan unfolds exactly as planned. Troy is sacked and the Greeks finally return home with the spoils of war.
My favorite quote from the book is from Helen as she discusses with Odysseus how she feels about starting this war, “Always, in these times, I am wretched save when sleep comes to me. Therefore, I have come to look upon sleep as the best of all gifts.”
I like this because I know exactly what she’s talking about. Sleep is a gift from God that offers us a respite from our world, a chance for our brain to shut down and quit worrying, and to rest. Great stuff here.
For some reason, I have discovered that retellings of The Odyssey are much more common than The Iliad. This is the best book in my opinion available for The Iliad for kids. There are many retellings of The Odyssey that are very good.
This book is quite lengthy but is broken into short chapters for easy reading. We finished this book in a weekend.
The pictures by Alan Lee are not graphic despite the many battle scenes in the book and are authentic to the time period.
This is a perfect prequel to The Odyssey as this book ends right when all the Greeks are finally returning home after 10 long years of being away. It will definitely give you a greater understanding of Odysseus when you do read about his adventures returning home from the battle of Troy.
I love ancient history (history in general but especially this stuff) and this book is an excellent portrayal of Greek society and culture around 800 BC in terms of religion, military conquests, and lifestyle as well.