Themes and Characters
The Siege and Fall of Troy begins ominously. Following the commands of an oracle, Prince Scamander of Crete founds his new city of Troy where "earthborn enemies should disarm his men under cover of darkness." In subsequent generations, King Laomedon cheats Apollo, Poseidon, and Aeacus out of the fees he promised them for their help in building the city's walls, and later swindles Heracles. This sets the stage for King Priam, who was warned to kill his son Paris at birth. Ill-fated Paris makes a disastrous judgment that earns him one friend but two enemies who eventually cause the downfall of Priam's kingdom.
Because Homer begins his Iliad only in the last year of the Trojan War, much of Graves's material for these opening scenes is derived from other classical authors. He tells how Zeus chooses unfortunate Paris to decide who is most beautiful—Hera, Athene, or Aphrodite; how Helen's suitors swear to protect her from anyone who would seek to kidnap her; how the ruses to prevent Achilles and Odysseus from joining the war are circumvented; and how King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia to gain favorable winds for his fleet.
Agamemnon, greatest of the Achaian kings and leader of the Greek expedition, is one of the most fully drawn characters of the story. Ironically, he is a fretting, vacillating ruler who is, by turns, stubborn, foolish, and excessively proud. His feeble attempt to protect Iphigeneia fails. When the Trojans have fought his army to exhaustion, he suggests simply that they leave and return home. He selfishly refuses to return the beautiful Chryseis to her father, Apollo's priest, and invokes the wrath of that god. He demonstrates his excessive pride when he walks on the purple carpet spread out for him at his homecoming by his wife, who eventually becomes his murderer. Agamemnon is a very imperfect example of a hero, although no more imperfect than Zeus, the almighty king of the gods, who threatens his wife and is eventually duped by her.
The character of Achilles—almost unkillable except for a single vulnerable point—is more sympathetically portrayed. His mother Thetis tries to make him immortal by holding him by the heel and dipping him into the river Styx. She tries to keep him from going to war by disguising him as a woman, but he seizes a sword that was hidden in a chest and joins the Greek warriors. When Agamemnon refuses to return Chryseis to end Apollo's plague, Achilles is the only one who protests. But when his honor has been stained, he sulks in his tent, refusing to take up arms again until the Greeks have suffered terribly for their insults. His beloved companion, Patroclus, instead dons Achilles' armor and is horribly slain in battle in his place. Achilles then goes to his fate, driven by wrath.
A third hero, Odysseus, is perhaps the most complex character of the tale. Odysseus is renowned in all ancient sources for his intellect and shrewdness, but in Graves's account, his shrewdness is depicted as pitiless cunning. His treachery leads to the deaths of Palamedes and Ajax. He schemes to harm Philoctetes and Diomedes, and he throws Hector's infant son from the walls of Troy. Graves's version of Odysseus's homecoming is derived from the most ancient of sources—he returns to find that Penelope has been unfaithful to him, and, after further troubles, he is mistakenly killed by his own son, Telemachus. Homer's more heroic Odysseus seems a very different person from the plotter and schemer described by Graves.
Woven throughout the intricate plot is the scheming of the immortal gods and goddesses, who strive to manipulate the outcome of the war by playing favorites— offering protection to certain heroes while plotting to overthrow others. Mortal characters are shamelessly manipulated to do the will of the capricious deities.
Graves unifies these far-flung story elements by emphasizing two major themes. The first is the futility of warno one gains from the immense bloodshed and suffering described in his story. The second theme underscores the complexity of the human condition. None of the characters is completely good, none completely bad. All are forced to act, but none is given an easy or clear direction. Most suffer unforeseen tragic consequences for their decisions and actions. The story invites young readers to ask searching questions about human nature.