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ClassicsOnline Home » FLYNN, B.: Tale of Troy (The) (Unabridged)
Here are some of the finest narrative poems in the English language, dating from an age of rich inspiration: the nineteenth century. All tell powerful stories of human passion and endeavour, often reflected in vivid evocations of the medieval world. Includes ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ Le Morte d’Arthur and ‘Peter Grimes’
The Tale of Troy
There really was once a time when the tall towers of a city
called Troy reached gleaming into the sky; when its proud king fought against
an invading army in a desperate siege. It was nearly four thousand years ago,
in an age when the kings of golden Mycenae held sway over the mainland of
Greece and Troy commanded the entrance to the Hellespont. Bronze Age peoples
from Europe and Asia came to trade there, and the city overlooked a
well-watered and fertile plain. It was a rich city, a prize to be won.
The Tale of Troy comes to us through a poet named Homer. He
told the story as a poem, which he called The Iliad, because Troy was also
known as Ilium. Homer wandered from town to town in ancient Greece repeating
his poem; people would pay to listen to him. He sang another too, called The
Odyssey, about how the Greek warriors made their way home when the siege ended.
The Iliad is where myth and history meet. It is a blurred
memory, already five centuries old when Homer composed his poem, of the
rivalries that led to the real Trojan War, and the siege. It is also the memory
of an imagined golden age, a distant time of heroes, when great brave men
performed deeds, and mortals were the pawns in the gods’ quarrels with each
Homer’s characters, the gods and heroes of the stories, were
very real for the people to whom he sang. The gods were the way the ancient
Greeks explained their world. If something unusual happened, there was probably
a god behind it. And for every blessing, they said, the gods gave two sorrows.
Ancient Greeks thought men resembled their gods, apart from being mortal. So
because they felt emotions like desire, anger, or love, the Greeks assumed the
gods also did. They weren’t expected to be good all the time — and they
weren’t. Often they would disobey Zeus, and be punished by him.
Different gods looked after different aspects of their
lives. Zeus was the father of the gods, and the most powerful. He ruled over
the stormy sky with thunderbolts and lightning, enthroned on Mount Olympus.
Poseidon was lord of the sea. Hades ruled the underworld, where the souls of
the dead lived. Zeus’ sister Aphrodite ruled the realm of love. Zeus had many
children by different wives — goddesses, nymphs and mortal women.
One son, Apollo, was the god of music and poetry and famous
as a deadly accurate archer. A daughter, Athene, was the goddess of wisdom and
courage. Another son was Ares, the god of war. Hephaestus, the god of the
forge, who made the armor for Achilles, was the son of Hera, queen of the gods.
Zeus’ infidelities annoyed her so much she produced him all on her own.
Heroes were the sons or daughters of a mortal and a god,
like Achilles, the son of Peleus, Prince of Thessaly, and Thetis the sea nymph.
Ordinary people admired them for their wonderful deeds, but heroes did not
perform their feats for others. They sought after excellence and glory for
themselves. When Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel in the story it is because
Agamemnon refuses to show him enough respect for the deeds he has done, and not
only because Agamemnon takes away the lovely Briseis.
The ancient Greeks used Homer’s poems like the Bible. They
enjoyed the stories but they also learned from them how to behave in the right
way. When Paris stole Helen away he broke the laws of hospitality. Everyone
could learn from The Tale of Troy how furious that made the gods, and how Paris
was punished. Or how Achilles’ uncontrolled anger and slaughter of Trojans
after the death of his friend Patroclus hastened his end by angering the gods.
Arguments were settled by referring to Homer, and children used the poems in
Homer’s poem was sung everywhere — to halls of noblemen, at
fairs to merchants, and farmers in their villages. The Tale of Troy was so
important to the ancient Greeks that Homer became a kind of hero himself. Long
after his death artists, thinkers and ordinary people still look to his tale
Notes by Heather Godwin
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FLYNN, B.: Tale of Troy (The) (Unabridged)