Black Ships Before Troy: Summary & Characters

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  • 0:04 Black Ships Before…
  • 1:10 Greeks, Trojans & Gods
  • 2:17 The Story of the Trojan War
  • 4:01 Ten Years Pass
  • 4:41 The Trojan Horse
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores Rosemary Sutcliff's 'Black Ships Before Troy,' which retells Homer's 'Iliad' for a modern audience. After learning about the story, we will discover the cast of characters, including mortal heroes, princesses, and gods.

Black Ships Before Troy Overview

You should know the name of Homer. Not The Simpsons dad, but a famous poet from Ancient Greece. He wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, epic stories about war heroes, gods, and the beautiful women for whom they fought. Even if you haven't read his poetry, you might already be familiar with the stories - the Trojan horse, Achilles' tendon, and the beauty of Helen.

English translations of Homer's epic are dense. In Black Ships Before Troy, young adult author and historian Rosemary Sutcliff translates Homer's Iliad for a modern audience. Sutcliff's illustrated book is written for middle school readers.

Like the Iliad, Black Ships recounts the story of the Trojan War, the fight over Helen, the Spartan invasion of Troy, and the eventual fall of Troy. Homer's story is considered a myth and work of epic poetry because it includes the intervention and the lives of gods. However, the Trojan War is a historical event that took place in the 12th century B.C. Let's now take a look at the cast of characters, which includes both gods and men vying for control and power.

Greeks, Trojans, and the Pantheon

Homer's Iliad includes a huge cast of Greeks, Trojans, and a pantheon of gods. In Black Ships, Sutcliff represents the many family relations and loyal allegiances among these characters. Black Ships features characters from three groups, including:

Greeks, such as:

  • Helen, the most beautiful woman in all of Greece
  • King Menelaus of Sparta, Helen's husband
  • Calchas, the royal soothsayer (a fortune teller who divines the will of the gods)

Warriors from across Greece include:

  • Agamemnon, the high king
  • Odysseus, called 'the Protector'
  • Achilles, a demigod equipped with a magical shield of armor
  • Patroclus, good friend to Achilles and a powerful warrior

The Trojans live across the Aegean Sea:

  • King Priam and Queen Hecuba
  • Prince Paris, who falls in love with Helen
  • Prince Hector, who leads the Trojan army

The pantheon, or family of gods, live on Mount Olympus:

  • Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the gods
  • Athene, goddess of war
  • Poseidon, god of the oceans
  • Aphrodite, goddess of love

The Story of the Trojan War

The war begins when Prince Paris of Troy falls in love with Helen, who is married to King Menelaus of Sparta. Under the cloak of night, Paris flees with Helen across the Aegean Sea back to Troy. Needless to say, King Menelaus is furious. He calls on his brother, Agamemnon, and other warriors from across Greece for aid.

On their way to Troy, Agamemnon and Achilles steal wives from a coastal village as 'spoils of war.' The warriors quarrel over the women, and Agamemnon takes Achilles' chosen bride as his own. This makes Achilles mad.

The Greek and Trojan armies meet on a great plain outside the city of Troy. Menelaus and Paris make a bargain: they will fight to the death. Helen will remain with the victor. But Aphrodite intervenes, protecting Paris under her invisibility cloak. The Trojans celebrate a momentary victory.

The next day's battle is so bloody that the rain turns red: an evil omen. The Trojan army reaches another victory when they force the Greeks into the sea and set fire to their ships. Poseidon intervenes and sends the Trojans back to their city on a mighty wave.

This whole time, Achilles has been sitting on the side lines. He's still upset with Agamemnon for stealing his bride. Achilles' good friend, Patroclus, pleads with the great warrior to join the battle. Achilles refuses, but does agree to lend Patroclus his magic armor. In the next face off, Hector kills Patroclus and steals the armor off his back.

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