The enduring lessons of Homer, and especially the events surrounding the siege of Troy, have ever provided inspiration for later writers. In fact, I have heard it said that poets, reaching back into the past for models and examples to build fresh thoughts upon, are inclined to seek them either from the Bible, or these Greek tales, which are mostly of woe. There is no one that comes out of the years of battle for the city of Troy with much to be proud of; rather the very opposite. We experience all the most awful of human traits as death and destruction surround the whole scene from beginning to end, stirred up by jealousy and anger; strength admired and feared, and weakness pitied and despised. Women are treated as chattels and the spoils of war, the aged and the children are nothing.
As soon as I think about this and write something along these lines, I find my thoughts are not at the walls of Troy, but in a contemporary situation of civil war in parts of the world that are familiar from news broadcasts, where rape and torture are used to submit the opposition to fear, degradation and consequently being ground down.
I had a feeling that reading the highly acclaimed new novel by Pat Barker entitled The Silence of the Girls would not be an easy read, and, indeed much of the early part of it releases just the kind of emotions of horror and hatred of what men are capable of to the mind of one who contemplates this feminine reflection on what the siege of Troy meant for the Trojan women who were captives of the Greek army. Had Greek women been in danger of being captured by the Trojan men, the story would have been no different.
What I was unprepared for was the later part of the book in which Pat Barker skilfully spins out, and perceptively too in terms of the mindset of the abusers, the hours between the moment when Achilles kills Hector and the night-time visit of the aged Priam to the Greek camp, seeking in deep sorrow from Achilles the battered body of his dead son. Priam kneels and kisses the hands of the killer of his son. The story is well-known, but the psychology behind the reaction of Achilles is superbly managed by Pat Barker, as is the response of the women to the brutality of the men; and the whole on-going story to the point of the fall of the city, the death of Achilles himself and its aftermath. It is sombre and horrific.
Seamus Heaney retells another of the events of this whole larger story in The Cure at Troy, his version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. It is a dramatic account based around the temptation to be devious, justified by what it can achieve for what may be perceived to be the greater good. So many of these Greek stories have a resonance with timeless traits in human nature. But, having studied these revealing and often heart-rending stories, and reflected on how they have a significant bearing on our day, it is good also to see the light of hope in the darkness. The Chorus at the end of Heaney’s work has these amazing and wonderful words:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here….