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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

A new take on an old tale

Review by Ben Soton

Troy: Our Greatest Story Retold (Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths 3) by Stephen Fry. Paperback: Penguin Books (2021), 432pp, RRP: 9.99. Hardback: Michael Joseph (2020), 432pp, RRP: £10.

SOME STORIES have lasted the test of time. One such example is the Iliad, believed to have been written by the Greek poet Homer in the ninth century BC. Who hasn’t heard of the Trojan horse or the face that launched a thousand ships? Troy

Modern readers including myself may have struggled with the Homeric style; written as a poem of 15,693 lines and made up of 24 books. Stephen Fry has converted the original text a more modern format, essentially a novel containing elements of commentary on the original story. Elitists will probably accuse Fry of dumbing-down, although the process of dumbing-down actually began when the Iliad was first translated from the original Ancient Greek.

The original Iliad was a legend of the siege of Troy: a story where fantasy and reality meet. Many of the characters are off-spring of ancient Greek gods. For instance: the almost invincible warrior Achilles had a human father, Peleus, whilst his mother was an immortal sea nymph; and Helen of Troy, or to be correct Helen of Sparta, was the daughter of Zeus and a human mother.

There probably was a city on the Aegean coast of modern Turkey. Evidence of its existence comes from the excavations of the 19th century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. The location of the site, close to the Dardanelles on a major trade route, suggests trade may have been the source of the conflict. Notice the emphasis on suggestion. The lack of written records meant that the story was passed down orally for generations until Homer finally recorded many years later.

Why has the story of Troy stood the test of time? It contains the heroism of a classic war story, depicting the bravery and military skill of the likes of Achilles and Ajax, heroes who are often the victims of the whims of the gods. Sometimes viewed as a love-story between Paris and Helen, in fact Helen is abducted by the Trojan prince and although initially falling for him, she eventually sees through his falseness and vanity and after the fall of Troy reconciles with her husband Menelaus of Sparta. Viewers of modern soap-operas may recognise this story or at least ones like it.

The story also contains the double-crossing Odysseus, who pretends to be insane in order to try to avoid the conflict. Odysseus later book’s sequel, the Odyssey.

The Iliad became the inspiration for other stories such as the Aeneid, the work of the Roman writer Virgil centuries later.

With this in mind, there is plenty of potential for similar translations of classical texts into a more readable format. I very much look forward to reading them.