There is a possibly apocryphal story about the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. It goes like this. Someone congratulated Rowan Atkinson about his portrayal of Mr Bean bumbling about amidst the antics of the parachuting Queen and the visitation of James Bond. But Rowan Atkinson was apparently not flattered. He had not been portraying Mr Bean at all, he is supposed to have said; he was simply being Rowan Atkinson doing silly things. What has this to do with Stephen Fry and his new book, Troy, I hear you ask?
This: It provides a potent warning against assuming that an artist’s characterisation is what it seems to be. Allow me to elucidate. Stephen Fry has a persona that he often appears to adopt. A persona familiar to those who listen to his podcasts, read his earlier retellings of Greek legends or watch him on television programmes as various as the quiz show QI and the American murder-mystery series Bones. This persona might best be described as a cheerfully avuncular Oxbridge don whose general knowledge is vast and whose grasp of detail is minute. A professor in the true sense of the word who delights in imparting knowledge with the lightest possible touch – elucidating and enthusing but never patronising.
It is this persona who narrates the story of Troy.
And make no mistake – the narrator is a master story-teller. This is fortunate because he certainly needs to be; he has before him a task of literally epic proportions. This is because he has decided to start the tale long before the point at which Homer begins The Iliad, at the point where Achilles withdraws from the battle after 10 years of fighting because Agamemnon has misappropriated his prize, Lyrnessan Princess Briseis. And he completes it long after Homer has ended his narrative with the formal funeral of Prince Hector. Homer closes long before, therefore, such incidents as the death of Achilles, the arrival of his son Neoptolemus, the creation of the Wooden Horse, the sacking of the city and some elements of the aftermath, which Stephen Fry includes.
In his own metaphor, the narrator wishes to take the individual strands of earlier (and later) legends and weave them into one central tapestry, introducing us to the great ‘human’ combatants – Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Ajax, Achilles and the rest; Priam, Paris, Hector, their friends and allies. Due weight is given to the ‘women’ involved, Queen Hecuba, Queen Clytemnestra, Princess Cassandra, Princess Iphigeneia, the Amazon leader Penthesilea, Helen of Sparta and of Troy. And he gives full rein to the gods and goddesses whose partisanship, bickering, tantrums and revenges cause such havoc amongst the ‘men’ and ‘women’ they use as something between puppets and chess-pieces.
And yet it is the humanity of these colossal characters, be they mortals or immortals, that shines through in this gripping retelling. How Zeus’s philandering led (indirectly) to the founding of a city by Prince Ilus, which would be named both for him (Ilium) and for his brother Tros (Troy), how the city was first sacked by Hercules and its king Laomedon slain for breaking his oath. How the one remaining survivor of Laomedon’s male line, Prince Podares, was found still alive amongst the carnage and was bought from Hercules for the price of a golden veil. And who took as his name in future to be Purchased, which in Trojan is Priam. How, because of various predictions and divine interventions, Priam’s son was left on a hillside to die only to be raised as a shepherd and used by the gods to judge a beauty contest long before anyone ever called him Prince Paris; and the fatal bribe he was offered to choose Aphrodite as the winner – the hand of the most beautiful woman alive. How the great warrior Peleus was forced to marry the sea-nymph Thetis whose beauty has tempted almost all the gods but whose son had been predicted to outshine his father, which of course put the self-regarding deities right off; how she gives birth to six sons and kills them all trying to ensure their immortality – until she gives birth to a seventh, who survives and is impossible to wound in any place except his heel – Achilles…
Although the broad outlines of the story must be familiar to almost everyone who takes up the book, the way Stephen Fry has knit his tapestry of interwoven stories together is utterly enthralling. His narrative technique is well suited to his mammoth task, as he skims high above such elements as a ten-year stalemate beneath Troy’s walls, then dives into absolutely gripping detail as he describes (for instance) what it must have been like to be closeted in the belly of the Wooden Horse, waiting with the ruthless Odysseus, the youthful Neoptolemus and the rest to sack the city. Everything is underpinned with notes that are always apposite as well as informative and, together with the appendices (not to mention the introduction which he cheerfully nudges us for skipping over), give a breath-taking breadth of detail. Detail which not only covers other legends and other retellings by authorities stretching from Sophocles to Shakespeare and beyond, but also looks at whether there might be any historical basis for these locations, characters and events.
And, if so, how the legends were passed down with such apparent accuracy and detail through the centuries before writing was widely used. And here he becomes interested in the nature of story as opposed to history. He is unapologetic (rightly so) for having added in the full-blooded involvement of the immortals, the demigods and their increasingly human offspring, for he seems to be at least partly fascinated by the way that super-human element can make human entities rise to superhuman prowess and (indeed) sink to sub-human excesses. The latter especially in the carefully signalled rape and slaughter that characterises the final fall of the city. Though it has to be said that he wisely leaves out the manner in which Achilles is divinely inspired to ravish Penthesilea’s cooling corpse after he has defeated her in battle and stripped her of her armour. Stephen Fry’s chosen audience is a family one after all – unlike Homer’s. If, of course, Homer ever existed.
And this in turn finally causes him to glance at versions of the story (such as Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy with Brad Pitt as Achilles, Brian Cox as Agamemnon and Peter O’Toole as Priam) which try to tell the story without any divine interference. Is the ‘swords and sandals’ approach by definition lesser than the version with the full divine panoply? Prose, as it were, as opposed to poetry? Possibly so. Except that, in the opinion of this reviewer, such brilliant novelists as Pat Barker and Madeline Miller have used the ‘realistic’ elements available within the epic story for their own outstanding narrative ends. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (2018) and The Women of Troy (2021) treat this all as a war story in its most brutal sense, showing how the ‘heroic’ events and characters impact on the women who are the victims of the callous slaughter of their menfolk, brutal rape and enslavement. While in The Song of Achilles (2017) Madeline Miller examines with heart-wrenching sensitivity the relationship between the doomed lovers Patroclus and Achilles.
But hopefully, Stephen Fry’s all-knowing narrator is not quite finished yet. By the end of his story of Troy, there are at least two characters about to set sail on voyages almost as lengthy, epic and god-bedevilled as the siege of Troy itself – Odysseus heading back to Ithaca and Aeneas heading, ultimately, for Rome. If he feels like rising to either challenge, I, for one, would cheer him to the rafters.
In a 45-year writing career, Peter Tonkin has written 50 novels including maritime adventure-thrillers, spy stories and vampire/horror, as well as short stories, articles and reviews. He has more recently concentrated on historical thrillers including six murder mysteries set in the Elizabethan era, five spy stories set in Ancient Rome and three mysteries set during the build-up to the Trojan War: Beware of Greeks, Vengeance at Aulis and The Anger of Achilles.