Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad Themes
by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad Themes

The main themes in Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad are honor and glory, destiny and prophecy, the savagery and pity of war, and trickery and betrayal.

  • Honor and glory: Winning everlasting honor and glory in battle is a central concern for the heroes of the Trojan War.
  • Destiny and prophecy: Many characters deliver prophecies in the story, but none are able to escape their destiny.
  • The savagery and pity of war: The war is characterized by grief and bloodshed, especially during the Sack of Troy.
  • Trickery and betrayal: Characters betray each other throughout the story, and the war is ultimately won through Odysseus's trickery.

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Themes

Honor and Glory

Achilles knows that he is going to his death when he sails to Troy. His mother, Thetis, tells him that he has a choice between a long, peaceful life, after which he will be forgotten, or an early, violent death, followed by everlasting glory. He chooses the latter.

All the heroes are preoccupied with winning glory in battle. Closely connected to this idea is that of the honor due to them in both life and death. Achilles is angry at losing Briseis to Agamemnon, but what really rankles is that Agamemnon has treated him disrespectfully, failing to acknowledge the honor due to a great warrior. This honor is just as important after death. Hector tells Achilles before he dies that King Priam will pay a magnificent ransom for his corpse, but Achilles treats his body without honor, dragging it behind his chariot, an act of contempt which angers the gods. Achilles later shows that he has learned his lesson by treating the body of Penthesilea, the Amazon queen, in a more dignified manner.

Glory, reputation, honor, and honorable treatment are obsessions of all the characters and define their relationships and relative standing. Odysseus is the cleverest character in the story, and it is he who ultimately ensures that the Greeks win the war. Yet because he acts by cunning and subterfuge, he is accorded less honor than the first-rank heroes, Achilles and Hector, whose principal attribute is courage in battle. Paris is particularly lacking in honor, a deficiency for which even Helen condemns him. He runs away from single combat with Menelaus and ingloriously shoots Achilles from a position of safety on top of the Scaean gate. Paris and Philoctetes are the best archers on either side, but neither is a major hero, since the bow is regarded as a coward’s weapon, with which the archer can shoot his enemy from a place of safety.

Destiny and Prophecy

The story is full of prophecy from gods, priests, priestesses, soothsayers, and dying men, who were believed to be able to foresee the future in their final moments. As he dies, Patroclus prophesies the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles. Hector, in turn, predicts that Achilles will be killed by Paris. Paris was himself the subject of a prophecy at his birth, when a soothsayer correctly predicted that he would bring death and destruction upon the city of Troy.

However, these prophecies do not make any difference to the destinies of the characters. Cassandra, the daughter of Priam, is a special case, since she is fated to see the future without being believed. It is therefore no surprise that her prophecies of Troy’s destruction fall on deaf ears. However, Laocoon, the priest of Poseidon, is under no such curse. He warns King Priam that the wooden horse is dangerous, but the very god he serves, Poseidon, sends serpents to kill him, since the sea god supports the Greek side. Foretelling the future is therefore shown to be of very little use, since prophecy is no match for destiny. Achilles’s death is constantly foreshadowed, and he is even told how it will happen, but this does not allow him to avoid it. Indeed, prophecy merely confirms that the destinies of both Greeks and Trojans are inevitable.

The Savagery and Pity of War

It may seem obvious to point out that war is a savage business, but...

(The entire section is 975 words.)