Minor warning here, it’s a novel set during the Iliad. I have a lot of opinions about it. This post is going to run long. I’m very sorry.
I’d had one of McCullough’s books – First Man in Rome – on my shelf for years before I got round to reading it about six months ago. I’d known nothing about it or her, save the title and the fact that it had a man in a toga on the front. I’d had a vague thought it might have been about Cicero, though it wasn’t. Having enjoyed it and the sequel – The Grass Crown – so immensely for their intensive focus on the intricate details of late Republican Roman politics, when I found out she had a book about Troy too, I thought that of course I had to read it. Alas, clearly the late republic is her pet era, because she’s nothing like so enjoyable here. What had really captivated me with her Roman books (and I definitely intend to keep reading that series) was how she managed to spend so long getting into the nitty-gritty and hyperactively fact-conscious details of the lives of various politicians, while at the same time bringing these people – many of whom I had only ever really thought about as historical facts, not human beings – to real life, gifting them with definite and captivating personalities. Sure, I disagree sometimes with her choice of favourites, especially her adoration of Sulla, but it was still really gripping reading. Unfortunately with The Song of Troy, she’s taken something with less historical accuracy to bind her, and somehow managed, within this broader freedom, to write less convincing people. It’s counter-intuitive and peculiar, but there you go.
That said, and for all that is my main realistic criticism of the book (on which I’ll go into more detail shortly), the thing that stood out to me, and made me start grumbling aloud to my flatmates, was her shocking disregard for fact-checking, especially in contrast to her other series. As well as the much-known characters of the Iliad, McCullough also drops in a few historical names, and specifically drops them in as being currently living contemporaries of Priam in Troy. Only… the three specific ones I noticed were none of them contemporaries with one another (whether or not contemporaries of Troy, depending on when you think the Trojan War was, or even if it really happened). The names she lists which twigged my annoyance here are Nebuchadnezzar, Hattusili and Tiglath-Pileser. I’m going to assume here that each of these is the most famous of that name (so Nebuchadnezzar II, Hattusili III and Tiglath-Pileser III) as she didn’t mention any specifics about any of them. Their regnal dates are:
Those are… not close gaps. Now, if we’re really generous and assume she meant the three kings of those names who were the closest together in reign (Nebuchadnezzar I, Hattusili III and Tiglath-Pileser I), then firstly she probably should have mentioned that it was Hattusili the third, and secondly, they still weren’t contemporary. Nebuchadnezzar ruled 1125-1104, and Tiglath-Pileser ruled around 1114-1076 and Hattusili… 1267-1237… So yeah, this still isn’t working. Especially since the Hittites sort of stopped being around after Suppiluliuma II, who ruled until around 1178BCE… so before the reigns of either of the generous assumptions of Nebuchadnezzar or Tiglath-Pileser.
What I’m taking rather too many words to say here is that she’s failed the very simple fact-check of JUST GOOGLING IT. And all three of the name drops of these were completely unnecessary for the story. They added nothing much, other than some historicity (and she is trying in this to build a feeling of reality and dispel the more mythic elements of the Trojan War narrative), and at the cost of undermining said historicity if the reader knows anything about the history of the region*. For all that I know I get funny about accuracy sometimes, occasionally, there’s a time and place where it’s relevant and legitimate. This is it.
What I won’t do is pick her up on her departures from the text of the Iliad – which are many – because at least there I’m happy to accept that she’s making legitimate choices and pushing it in a particular direction in order to achieve something. She wants to pull her story of Troy away from the myths, from the acts of the gods coming down and interacting with the world, and bring it into the realms of real men and women acting on realistic impulses and plans.
That said, I don’t particularly like that decision.
The key point she makes is to have Agamemnon using Helen’s decision to go to Troy with Paris (and yes, she has Helen as a willing agent in this, whatever your feelings are on that) simply as a pretext for a war he’d wanted to fight on economic grounds for years, but couldn’t guarantee the force of men and arms to wage it successfully. The Oath of Tyndareus was a way out of Helen’s father’s dilemma that Odysseus cooked up for him, clearly seeing it as a way in the future to draw the kings of Greece together to fight against the Trojans, who are blocking their access to trading in the Euxine, and preventing them thus being able to trade for tin to make bronze and thus expand militarily. There’s some more scene-setting and explanation of a history of bad blood between Greece and Troy, but essentially she’s made the war one of economics, and had it not been for those factors, no one but Menelaus would have gone after a woman who left of her own free will. I quite like this bit of realism, myself, but what I don’t like is a lot of what it relies on to see it through. You need an Odysseus who sees so far into the likely events of the future that he knows Helen is going to run off to Troy one day, a Menelaus so chronically stupid and cowed that he can’t see the political situation around him and the real cause of the war right up until they’ve been in Troy for years already and a lot of other leaders who just have to be… kind of daft in specific ways that don’t really make sense. If she’d set it up differently to how she did, it would have worked beautifully, and I love it as an idea, but I don’t think it’s carried through very well.
Add to this the fact that she doesn’t fully divorce herself from myth. She still has the prophecies which run through the Iliad, and a few more besides she’s thrown in (some from non-Iliad epic tradition and a couple I’m pretty sure she just made up for plot expedience), and because they come true, because they are treated in the book’s world, not just by the characters, as real things that really work, she can never hope to realise her realistic-Iliad. She’s gone for an awkward middle ground, which is never a good idea. If she’d committed either way, I think it could have worked, but she really hasn’t.
Further, and this one was… weird… she has some very odd ideas about religion in the Ancient World. She draws a sharp line between “The Old Religion” and “The New Religion” and the shape of society under both of them, the former being harshly matriarchal, with all-powerful priest-queens to whom the lives of men meant little, and who would happily sacrifice their kings to the Mother-Goddess Kubaba at every little mishap and disaster that befell their kingdoms, while also worshipping the Titans (Thetis being a follower of the Old Religion and priestess of Nereus) in an unspecified manner and being a bit nasty and human-sacrificey and unspecifiedly not good. The New Religion is the religion of Classical Greece, more or less, which is off-handedly mentioned to have allowed the men into power and got rid of this nasty human sacrifice business, but with no explanation of the how, though clearly it was recent history. Klytemnestra and Helen are said to come from somewhere it’s still going strong, and Klytemnestra at least is supposedly likely to bring it all back at the drop of a hat if she can get away with it, and kill off Agamemnon quite cheerfully (and this is before the business with Iphigenia), showing herself to be a bit on the evil side. Leaving aside the sexist undertones, which are quite uncomfortable to say the least, this is just a bit weird. It casts the men of the Iliad as a recently enfranchised oppressed group (what), which very much is how they talk about themselves when they discuss religion, while in nearly the same breath talking about the great kings and heroes of the previous ages and how they ruled their lands and did great deeds (Herakles specifically coming up a lot, but not him exclusively). Again, it feels like she’s had an idea but not committed, because she’s not been willing to step that little bit further away from the canon to back up her own setting, but still wanting to do an imaginative retelling that deviates from the canon. It creates inconsistencies in the text that are jarring, and which at times did forcibly drag me out of immersion to start wondering what the hell she was on about. Not great.
Even if you abandon picking apart the context and historicity, there are problems.
As I said before, she’s managed, in the freer bounds of an already mythical canon to somehow create less personable and plausible characters than in a very constricted setting. None of her people really feel real. They are all tied up to one or two traits they are traditionally known for, then blown out of proportion… or she’s abandoned their tradition altogether and struck out alone… while not abandoning the plot points where their character is what decides how the story goes. So we have an Odysseus who is somehow even more schemey and plotty than Odyssey Odysseus (which I scarcely believed possible), a Menelaus so in the shadow of his brother that he’s reduced to being a bumbling idiot who can’t see things right in front of his face, a Big Ajax who is just… a bear of little brain… you see where I’m going here. And then you have an Achilles who claims not to be an angry person. I’m sorry, but… μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος… HIS WRATH IS LITERALLY THE FIRST LINE. IT IS HIS THING. IT IS PRETTY MUCH HIS USP. And while I support moving away from the original text to do interesting and exciting things… at the point when you’re explicitly denying something that is the basis of the entire story… I think we’ve gone a bit past the point then. Her Achilles is empty and lifeless and not the captivating – if easy to dislike – Achilles of myth. I do wonder if, because late republic Rome is such her pet era, she just doesn’t love the Iliad as much and doesn’t have feelings about what they were like as people… and so doesn’t have that emotional attachment that she so clearly does in her other books. It would certainly explain a lot.
What she clearly does have an attachment to, however, is battle scenes. Slightly weirdly eroticised battle scenes. I get bored of the damn things anyway, Iliad or otherwise, but when it’s all suddenly a bit… he is me and I am him and he is my better self and I love him in a way I can never love another man or woman but also *stab* *hack* *kill*… I’m not really sure what’s going on anymore. I just don’t understand, if I’m honest.
Basically, she’s taken something I love and tinkered with it. She’s not tinkered successfully, or committed fully to her tinkering, and she clearly doesn’t love it as much as she loves her other era, and so what you get is some strange, half-formed thing that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be and isn’t succeeding very well at it. I am glad I read it, because knowing it existed I was always going to have to, but it’s not a good book, and I much look forward to going back to something I know McCullough excels at. She has a real knack with Roman history of making the people seem really real, and it’s a shame it hasn’t worked out here. That said, I’ve really enjoyed writing this long rant, so some good has come of it.
*Of course I accept that not every reader has either got a degree in Classics or spent a year studying the Hittites. And of course you write for the general reader, not the obsessive fact-checker. But there’s a difference between not getting too caught up in historicity and basic date-checking. Five minutes Googling would have shown her this was wrong (I checked). And it would have cost her nothing to fix it, nor lost her anything in the eyes of any reader not likely to fuss. When you think this is a woman who wrote books discussing the details of, for instance, Roman legionary equipment reform… it just seems sloppy.