The tale of the Trojan War—its causes, its heroes, the wooden horse, the gods and goddesses who dramatically change the course of events—has fascinated us down the ages and is embedded in our collective imagination. But where do the stories come from? British author and actor Stephen Fry lists some of the books that were most useful for Troy, his retelling of the Trojan War.
Given how much we enjoyed the first two books in Stephen Fry’s Greek myth trilogy—Mythos and Heroes—we’ve been eagerly anticipating the third book, Troy, a retelling of the Trojan War, which is due out in October 2020. In preparation, we asked him to tell us which sources and books he found most useful as he embarked on his retelling of the epic tale of the fall of Troy.
He writes, “I know the first three are obvious enough to provoke a nosebleed, but between them so much is covered.” His choices are:
1. The Iliad by Homer, which dates from around 700 BC
Stephen Fry writes, “It is worth remembering of course that Homer’s Iliad doesn’t cover the causes of the War … the Apple of Discord, the Judgement of Paris, birth of Achilles, abduction of Helen and so on – nor the end of the war. The action of the Iliad begins in the final year of the ten year siege of Troy and dramatises the weeks that begin with the feud between Agamemnon and Achilles and end with the death of Hector.”
The Iliad is one of our most frequently recommended books on Five Books. If you’re interested in learning more about it, your first port of call is probably our interview with Chris Pelling, Regius Professor of Greek Emeritus at Oxford University, who explains what we know about it, when and how it was written, and what we know about its author(s), Homer.
2. The Odyssey by Homer (circa 700 BC)
The experience of reading Homer—unless you decide to learn ancient Greek—will always be deeply affected by the skill of the translator. Fortunately Stephen Fry has some recommendations. He writes, “There are so many books of the historical facts behind Troy and its fall, and many magnificent translations of Homer. I particularly recommend Emily Wilson’s Odyssey and either Stephen Mitchell or Robert Fagles’s Iliad.”
According to Stephen Fry, “Virgil’s Aeneid gives an account of the Trojan Horse and the sacking of Troy.”
Some us will have been slightly taken aback, when reading the Iliad, not to hear anything about a wooden horse, probably the first image many of us remember about Troy from childhood stories. The story is first recounted in the Odyssey, but it’s the Roman poet Virgil who really brings it to life. The Aeneid also has a heart-breaking account of the end of the war and Aeneas, his father on his back and holding his son’s hand, all fleeing from the doomed city as refugees.
The Aeneid was written by Virgil in the age of Augustus as a founding myth for the emerging Roman empire and has been recommended a number of times on Five Books.
4. The Posthomerica by Quintus Smyrnaeus (4th century)
Now comes the book some of us won’t have heard of, important for filling in the many gaps left by Homer and Virgil. According to Stephen Fry, “The most useful source for everything about Troy is probably Quintus Smyrnaeus, a 4th century AD Greek writer whose Posthomerica is a fabulous source for everything that took place after Homer leaves the story.
I relied on a hilariously over-poetical translation by the prolific Arthur Sanders Way, who in a long life (1847-1930) translated just about every classical work he could lay his hands on.”
5. The Tale of Troy (1958) by Roger Lancelyn Green
There have been so many retellings of the Trojan War, and it’s no surprise that Stephen Fry’s own interest stretches back to his childhood and the wonderful The Tale of Troy by Roger Lancelyn Green, first published in 1958.
He writes, “Finally, Roger Lancelyn Green was one of the writers who woke me to the pleasures of Greek myths when I was young. His coverage of every aspect of the Trojan war is brisk and a little sanitised for children, but well researched and highly readable.”
A big thank you to Jo Crocker for organising this list of Trojan War books.
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