The War at Troy/The Return from Troy by Lindsay Clarke (archives)

Originally written in 2016. Also on Goodreads.

I will never get tired of the Trojan War. It's one of the world's oldest stories and it offers everything - love, war, sacrifice, pain, loss, triumph. There is a reason why it's survived nearly 3000 years and why so many authors choose to retell it. I'm on a quest to read as many versions of the epic as I can. This quest began years ago when I took a University course about Homer's Odyssey and only grew stronger when I devoted the Major Research Paper (MRP) of my Master's Degree to studying the Odyssey. Unfortunately, my journey has been full of disappointment and frustration. A lot of the retellings are either completely inaccurate, spend too much time on self-insert characters, or turn everyone into terrible, unlikeable people. Then I found Lindsay Clarke's Troy.

The War at Troy and its sequel, The Return from Troy, (which I read out of order), managed to satisfy the balance between accuracy and good story telling that I've been craving in a modern version of the epic. The changes are subtle and stay true to Homer's version; some scenes are close mirrors of their Iliadic counterparts, and this may seem to some to be a lack of originality, but Clarke brings a depth of description and characterization that displays true talent. My only real complaint is that the first book could have been longer. His style worked wonderfully with in the Return, but a lot of this first book is more of a summary of the story than actually living it. However, even with a large cast of characters - many of whom do get short shrift - Clarke manages to give the sense that all of them are the heroes of their own tales.

Clarke approaches the tale from the side of the Greeks. With the exception of Paris, and to a lesser extent, Priam, Deiphobus and Hector, the Trojans are underdeveloped and the focus is on the heroes, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Menelaus, and of course, Helen. Not one of his main characters is presented as wholly evil or wholly good. Even Agamemnon and Paris, two heroes that I have always struggled to sympathize with, have complex motivations and loyalties. Clarke does not shy away from the darker elements of the story and includes the tale of Iphigenia and even the tragic story of Ajax the Greater. I appreciate it when the stories aren't dumbed down because the material is too dark.

The most fascinating aspect of this book for me, though, was the love triangle of Helen, Menelaus, and Paris. Modern audiences are captivated by the love between Helen and Paris and I have yet to read a version where he abducts her against her will. Clarke's is no exception in this regard. However, he chooses not to demonize Menelaus or cast the Paris/Helen romance as unending, true love. Before Paris comes, Helen loves Menelaus and is content in her marriage to him; what they lack in passion, they make up for in friendship and kindness. Paris comes and the two of them fall into a deep infatuation that drives them both to betray Menelaus' trust and spark the ten year combat that kills so many. This part isn't so unusual, but what Clarke did was show how their "love" could not survive such hardship and by the end of the story, they have grown to despise each other. It's far more realistic and devastating this way, and harkens back to the epic tradition. In the Iliad, Helen has grown weary of Paris and longs to return to her old home and way of life.

If you have the patience to read epic poetry, then by all means, of course read the originals (I recommend the Stanley Lombardo version), but if you just want to experience the overall story and find the Homeric version confusing, then read Lindsay Clarke's Troy.


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