In his epic poems, Homer tells of ancient Greek and Trojan heroes who fought a war in the thirteenth century B.C. Most scholars today believe that such a war was actually fought in the Bronze Age, but the details were already steeped in myth and legend when Homer transcribed the events. Achilles and the other Greek heroes reflect the culture of Mycenaean society, a patriarchal and bellicose world in which only kings and princes were important enough to be preserved for history. The gods that are portrayed are immortal, more powerful than humans but just as flawed with weaknesses and desires.
The terrible Trojan War is instigated by a quarrel between three goddesses, and is then needlessly prolonged because of the bickering of two heroes. Helen, whose beauty inflames the combatants, is one of many women in the tale who become pawns of the rich and powerful. Homer underscores the seeming futility of the war, while simultaneously glamorizing the exploits of its heroes. Some of the characters lead tragic lives, while others are blessed with a measure of happiness to leaven their sorrows. But pain and suffering are very much a part of the mortal life depicted by Homer.
Although Graves retells the Iliad and the Odyssey, he chooses to ignore many of the conventions that govern those epics. In these epics, Homer had a narrowly focused view of his subjects. The Iliad, for example, is the story of the anger of Achilles, not that of the Trojan War. Readers must look elsewhere to learn about such things as the judgment of Paris, the Trojan horse, and Achilles' death. Graves worked from a large body of classical literature, assembling pieces of the legend and myth to suit the purposes of his story. Graves's stated purpose was "to make the whole story, from the foundation of Troy to the return of the victorious Greeks, into a single short book for boys and girls." The result is a fast-paced, comprehensive account, n in a succinct, direct style, with many characterizations that deviate from Homer's portrayals.
Graves had a sober story to tell, the story of "the long, calamitous Trojan War, which benefited nobody." This circumstance makes the isolated examples of selfless courage or affection that sometimes brighten the story all the more ennobling.
For Further Reference
Beacham, Walton, ed. Research Guide to Biography and Criticism. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing, 1985. Entry on Graves by Hallman B. Bryant surveys the published criticism of Graves's work.
Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 44. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986. Contains a bibliography of Graves's writings, chronological quotations illustrating important events in his life, and interesting family pictures and illustrations from his books.
Fitzgerald, Robert, trans. The Odyssey. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1962. Homer's poem in perhaps the most popular modern translation.
Graves, Robert, trans. The Anger of Achilles: Homer's "Iliad." Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959. A translation of Homer's complete poem, favorably received but not widely used.
Lattimore, Richmond, trans. The "Iliad" of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. First published in 1951 and perhaps the most popular modern translation.
Seymour-Smith, Martin. Robert Graves: His Life and Work. London: Hutchinson, 1982. This biography is the fruit of a number of years Seymour-Smith spent working with Graves. It is lengthy and very readable.
Snipes, Katherine. Robert Graves. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979. Snipes's book contains chapters on The White Goddess and on individual novels and includes a very useful, succinct biography; a chronology of important events in Graves's life; and a bibliography of his writings.