Book Review: Black Ships Before Troy

The cover displays Helen looming above the black ships.

Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad (ISBN:  0-553-49483-X)by Rosemary Sutcliff retells Homer’s epic poem in the form of a novel. Several themes emerge in this retelling –  betrayal, loss, revenge, and heroism.

Agamemnon Betrays Achilles

Achilles feels betrayed by Agamemnon, the king of the Greeks, when Agamemnon threatens to take Briseis – a captured maiden and spoil of war – away from Achilles, and, although he is the pride of the Greek army, Achilles refuses to fight any longer for Agamemnon.

The war wages on, however, and the Greeks become more and more disheartened. Agamemnon wants to give up on the war entirely, but Nestor, an old wise man, advises him to beg forgiveness from Achilles by offering him Briseis as well as many riches if Achilles will agree to rejoin the Greeks in battle. Two accomplished members of the Greek army, Odysseus and Ajax, are sent to make this offer to Achilles.

Achilles, still brimming with anger, refuses the offer, declaring his distrust for Agamemnon. However, upon witnessing a severely wounded friend returning from battle, Achilles sends his best friend Patroclus out to gather news from the front lines. Patroclus returns extremely distressed by the scenes of war, and he requests to borrow Achilles’ armor, as Patroclus intends to fight in disguise as Achilles.

The Death of Patroclus

Achilles allows Patroclus to borrow the armor, but he carefully instructs Patroclus to fight only until the Trojans are beaten back from the Greeks’ black ships. However, Patroclus does not heed Achilles’ instructions, and he continues to fight in battle even after the Trojans have cleared away from the ships. Patroclus perishes at the hands of Hector, the Trojan leader, who strips the famed armor of Achilles from Patroclus’s body.

The Revenge Upon Hector

Upon learning of the loss of Patroclus, Achilles becomes mad with grief, and he wishes to avenge the death of his friend. After obtaining new armor procured by his mother, Thetis, Achilles kills Hector, and then Achilles gruesomely straps his body to a chariot and drags it through the filth of the battlefield. For many days, Achilles continues to anguish in guilt at the death of his friend, and he reacts to these emotions by further abusing the body of Hector. However, upon advice of Thetis, Achilles finally returns the body of Hector to Hector’s father, Priam, the King of Troy, and Achilles and Priam weep together in their grief for those that they have lost in the war.

The Heroism of Odysseus

While Homer’s Iliad concludes with the funeral of Hector, Sutcliff continues the narrative with several more tales of the Trojan War, including two stories that illustrate the heroism of Odysseus, the central character in The Iliad‘s sequel: The Odyssey. The first story, “The Luck of Troy”, displays how Odysseus’s chicanery enables him to steal The Palladium, a black stone that symbolizes protection of Troy and the Trojans. The second, the famed story of “The Wooden Horse” and “The Fall of Troy”, shows Odysseus’s cunning and patience as the Greeks emerge as the victors of the Trojan War and as Odysseus saves the life of his long-time friend, the famed beauty Helen.


Suttcliff’s short and easy-to-read version of The Iliad serves as a supplement to or preview for translated versions of the original text. Although it omits much of the detailed descriptions, historical backdrops, and deep emotions of a translation such as that of Robert Fitzgerald (ISBN: 0-385-05941-8), Suttcliff’s retelling keeps the narrative flowing with action and purposefulness that makes the epic tale accessible to young adult readers.

Note: I found this article useful in the preparation of this book review.

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