Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

The Trojan War by Barry Strauss

It’s a bold move to write a sober history of a mostly legendary war like the Trojan War, but Barry Strauss succeeds in doing just that. The Trojan War is made up of two strands of narrative interwoven throughout the book. One strand is a history of the practices of warfare in the Late Bronze Age in both Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece. Strauss pulls from recent archaeological discoveries, ancient records and letters, and ancient poetry and literature in order to reconstruct the politics and paraphernalia of war. I especially appreciated this aspect of the book. The other strand of narrative that runs through the book is a retelling of the Trojan War story, primarily that presented by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey, in light of the real methods of war at the time period. This was also interesting in a “What could it have really been like?” sort of way.

The book is well written, fun, and easily accessible for any reader. It has timelines, maps, a glossary and some great resources in the back. I only have two quibbles with the book as a whole. First of all, he’s interpreting the Iliad primarily from a military history perspective rather than from a literary perspective. Because of this I think he misinterprets many character points in the Iliad; I especially thing he doesn’t “get” the character of Achilles as Homer presents him. The other problem is that because he is intertwining the two threads (the historical information and the imaginative “historical” reconstruction of the Iliad), it would be easy for readers to make the mistake of considering Agamemnon, Menelaus, Helen, Priam, et al as actual historical persons. There was a war at Troy and the city was burnt sometime between 1250 and 1180ish BC, but Strauss is not intending to say that the story of the Iliad is absolutely historically true. The way he writes can give this impression at times, though.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to any person interested in classical literature or history. From teachers, to students, to the merely curious, The Trojan War is an engaging and lively read.


Edi MInguzzi said…
I agree on the positive aspects that you have highlighted, but it’s hard for me to understand why we cannot interpret the Iliad from a military history perspective (the fall of Troy, however, was an historical event!), and above all, I don’t know how anybody could even imagine that Helen and Paris are historical figures.