Enduring appeal of Greek myths

The War on Troy
by Lindsay Clarke. HarperCollins. Pages 450.

Greek myths have their continuing power because they are constantly fresh and evocative. Here they are again, then, primed for a new generation. Peter Preston on the never-fading fascination of Greek heroes.

A scene from the film Troy
A scene from the film Troy

HERE, bouncing back and forth across the millennia, comes the book of the film of the book. Lindsay Clarke, fascinated as always by the making of myths, now ventures into the richest territory of them all: the Ancient Greece of immortals and all too fallible mortals. He walks openly in the wake of Homer, but is never afraid to stray a little from the narrow path of mere refurbishment. This is effectively Troy, the novel, and Clarke seems bent on creating a cast of heroes which Brad Pitt would flex an eager peg to play.

The approach has several straightforward virtues. It is wonderfully clear and dramatic. It knots together dozens of incidents and tales that often sit separately, and makes a coherent narrative of them. Newcomers can master a complex cast list and remember how, from city state to city state, they relate.

The narrative has a consistent thread. And the fall of Troy, on the page or on celluloid, needs no glossing. It is the end of the ultimate affair.

But is there more than that, a reason to stack Clarke alongside Robert Graves and Mary Renault as another myth manufacturer? Clarity and approachability, again, make the case.

This is an age of cults and sects and unconventional quests for understanding, and no nation has a more sumptuous heritage of myths than Greece. Why come back again to this same wellspring of inspiration? Surely it’s drained a trifle dry? But Clarke, like others before him, is doing no more than Homer himself, plucking tales from the mists, shaping and retelling them in a way that fits the time.

Was there ever a Troy? It is still a matter of debate. Was there ever a single poet called Homer? That, too, is argument unresolved. But is there something here so strong that it mutates and transforms over generations? Of course.

Clarke cannot always break free from the undergrowth of lineage. His storyteller - the `Bard of Ithaca’, a spectator when Odysseus, sated with slaughter, returned home from Troy - has some necessary plodding to do before drama gathers pace, as the generation of Peleus and Thetis leads to another. But once there’s chance to sketch character, he takes a grip. His Paris, drawn with accurate sympathy, is a moral coward: handsome, physically brave, but self-centred and doomed. His Helen contrives to be more than just ethereal beauty.

Everything had vanished from his mind except the living presence of the woman he had seen in his vision on Mount Ida. And it was as if that moment and this were continuous in time, and the long space between of no more significance than so much sleep.

Surely she, too, must feel the power of that confluence? She does, she does. She is gripped by something more than lust, by a force she cannot resist. So much for the years with Menelaus and the child. "Black stains are smudged around her eyes" at the awful moment of denouement. Those "eyes, the colour of the sea at noon... are vivid with terror now" as Menelaus draws his sword. She has come to inhabit and be drained by an insidious celebrity culture. Achilles, fornicating with a beautiful young captive, could be a football star heading for the front of OK! The minor kings and queens ceaselessly parading here are the very stuff of Hello!

A stretch too far? Not at all, because so much else resonates. Why are we fighting this endless bloody war? Nobody can quite remember. What is victory? A retribution for Helen’s loss that Menelaus cannot bring himself to deliver. Agamemnon wants war, lusts after it. He could be Rumsfeld in his Pentagon. Odysseus (part Colin Powell, part Chirac) bobs and weaves and manipulates. Achilles grows older and greyer as he bears the burden. Heroes are wiped away in carnage and appalling pointlessness.

Clarke does not retune or update Homer in any grating way. This is no blue-jeaned, right-on Iliad. He is faithful and reasonably meticulous as he spins his web. But, in the spinning, he also lets the legends speak for themselves, and it is they, without artifice, which strike the contemporary chords. — The Guardian