Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad

by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad Summary

Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad by Rosemary Sutcliff is a retelling of the story of the Trojan War for young readers.

  • Paris, a Trojan prince, falls in love with Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. The lovers run away to Troy together.
  • Menelaus and his brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, gather Greek kings and warriors, including Achilles, Ajax, and Odysseus, and wage war on Troy for ten years.
  • Odysseus tricks the Trojans by offering them a wooden horse secretly filled with Greek soldiers, who sack the city. The Greeks emerge victorious and sail homeward.


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Last Updated on April 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1205

Although this book is subtitled The Story of the Iliad, it actually tells the full story of the Trojan War and its origins, from the wedding of Peleus and Thetis to the Sack of Troy. The Iliad only includes a small section of this story, from the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon to the funeral games in honor of Hector.

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The story begins with the wedding of Peleus, king of the Myrmidons, and the nymph Thetis. All the gods of Olympus have been invited except Eris, goddess of discord. In retaliation for this omission, Eris leaves a golden apple inscribed “To the Fairest” at the wedding feast. The apple is claimed by three goddesses: Hera, Queen of Heaven; Athena, goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. The goddesses select Paris, a prince of Troy, to judge between them, and Paris chooses Aphrodite, who promises him a beautiful wife as a reward.

The woman in question is Helen of Sparta, young wife of the old king, Menelaus. Paris goes to stay at the Spartan court, and Helen falls in love with him. One day, when Menelaus is out hunting, Paris and Helen run away together to Troy.

Menelaus seeks the aid of his brother, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and leading monarch of Greece. Agamemnon gathers his tributary kings: Nestor of Pylos, Ajax of Salamis, Diomedes of Argos, Odysseus of Ithaca, and others. Odysseus seeks out Achilles, the son of Peleus and Thetis, who was hidden by his mother to keep him out of the war. Thetis tells her son that he will die if he goes to war, but Achilles goes anyway, to win glory.

The Greeks sail to Troy and spend ten years attacking the city without managing to capture it. In one battle, Achilles captures the Trojan priestesses of Apollo, Chryseis and Briseis. Agamemnon claims Chryseis as a prize, while Achilles keeps Briseis. However, Apollo sends a plague upon the Greek army, and Agamemnon is forced to give up Chryseis to placate the god, whereupon he takes Briseis from Achilles. This causes a quarrel between Agamemnon and his greatest warrior. In his anger, Achilles asks Thetis to ensure that the Trojans win the next battle. She in turn asks Zeus to grant her this favor, and Zeus agrees.

The next battle begins with single combat between Paris and Menelaus. Menelaus is clearly about to win and kill Paris when Aphrodite helps the Trojan prince to escape and run back to Troy, where Helen, angered by his cowardice, greets him scornfully. Paris returns to the fight with his brother, Hector, the Trojan commander. They have beaten the Greeks back almost as far as their ships when Athena gives Hector the idea of calling for another single combat. Hector fights Ajax of Salamis, the Greek champion, and the battle ends in a brief truce.

Since the Greeks have lost ground without Achilles, Agamemnon sends an embassy consisting of Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix to him to offer gifts, including the return of Briseis, and ask him to return to the fight. Achilles, still angry, refuses. The Greeks and Trojans send spies into each other’s camps. Odysseus and Diomedes capture the Trojan spy, Dolon, and, based on information he reveals, steal the best horses from the Trojan camp.

The Greeks and the Trojans resume battle, and things go badly for the Greeks. Zeus loses interest in the fighting, but Poseidon, the sea god, helps and strengthens the Greeks against the Trojan onslaught. However, Hector, after being wounded and then revived by Apollo, leads the Trojans in a fresh attack. They break through the Greek lines and begin to set fire to the ships. Achilles still refuses to join the battle but relents to the extent of giving his armor to his friend Patroclus so that Patroclus can lead the Myrmidons. The Trojans are frightened at the sight of the Myrmidon commander, whom they assume is Achilles, and the Greeks are finally able to beat them back from the ships. However, when Patroclus goes in pursuit of the Trojans, he is killed by Hector. With his dying breath, he prophesies that Hector himself will die at the hands of Achilles. Hector then strips the armor of Achilles from Patroclus’s dead body to wear as a trophy.

When he hears of Patroclus’s death, Achilles is furious and forgets his quarrel with Agamemnon. After Hephaestus, the smith god, has made new armor for him, he goes into battle and kills many Trojans. When he arrives at the Scaean Gate, Hector is standing there. He is frightened on seeing Achilles and runs three times around the walls of Troy. When he eventually faces Achilles, he is killed by a spear through the neck, after his own spears have failed to pierce the shield Hephaestus made. Achilles drags the corpse of Hector back to the Greek camp behind his chariot.

Achilles burns the body of Patroclus and holds funeral games for him in the traditional fashion. Hector’s body, by contrast, he drags around the camp behind his chariot. This displeases the gods, who send Thetis to tell Achilles that he must return Hector’s body to the Trojans. They also send Eris to tell King Priam to retrieve his son’s body. Achilles receives Priam courteously and gives him Hector’s body, granting a truce while the funeral games are held.

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After the funeral games for Hector, there is a further respite from the fighting while the Trojans wait for reinforcements. Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, manages to enter Troy and steal the Palladium, or “Luck of Troy,” a sacred relic kept in the temple of Athena in the citadel. This is such an important sacred relic that the Trojans lose heart. They are briefly cheered by the arrival of the Amazon warriors as reinforcements, but after the Greeks are briefly pushed back toward the ships, Achilles kills the Amazon queen, Penthesilea, and the Trojan troops return to the city. The Trojans are then joined by further troops from Ethiopia. Achilles also kills the Ethiopian king, Memnon, but as soon as he has done so, Paris shoots him in the heel, the one place where he is vulnerable. Achilles dies, and the Greeks and Trojans fight over his armor.

The Greeks have no archer to equal Paris. They had abandoned their best archer, Philoctetes, on the island of Lemnos, when he was wounded in the foot. They bring Philoctetes back from Lemnos, and he shoots Paris with a poisoned arrow. Soon afterward, it appears to the Trojans that the Greeks have finally given up and sailed away. They find a huge wooden horse on the beach, along with one Greek, Sinon, who tells them the horse is an offering to the goddess Athena. The Trojans take the horse into the city. That night, the Greeks who were hiding inside the horse, according to the plan concocted by Odysseus, open the Scaean Gate and let in the Greek army, which has returned from the nearby island of Tenedos, where the ships were hidden. The Greeks sack the city with great violence, killing men, enslaving women, and throwing babies from the ramparts. Then they set sail for home.

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