Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad Summary
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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Summary

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.

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....

(The entire section is 1,205 words.)