Over the last few weeks I have been reading Black Ships Before Troy to my younger girls during our morning time together. Written by well-known historical writer, Rosemary Sutcliff, this retelling of Homer’s Illiad, is beautifully illustrated by Alan Lee (concept artist for The Lord of the Rings).
As you can see, our copy is well-loved, and for good reason. Sutcliff’s retelling of the Illiad is aimed at young adults/older children.
It all begins with a golden apple and an impossible choice. Three great goddesses, Hera, Athene and Aphrodite, ask Paris of Troy to decide who is the loveliest. Aphrodite, goddess of love, bribes him with the promise of a wife as breathtaking as herself…”Black Ships Before Troy
What follows is a master-class in story-telling, spanning the whole ten years of the Trojan War. Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon embark on their famous quest to retrieve Menelaus’ wife, Helen, from Paris of Troy. Sutcliff remains faithful to the original in both content and style. She includes smatterings of familiar Homeric epitaphs and vivid imagery, supported by enchanting illustrations.
As a home-schooler, this book has a lot to offer educationally, in terms of the writing and the illustrations:
- The multiplicity of the Greek myths
- Interwoven with well-known characters from the past
- Scenes illustrating the battles and boats, Greek clothing and armour, the landscapes and daily life
There are so many talking points along the way. This book is chock full of learning opportunities and could easily be used to study Ancient Greece.
It also lends itself well to teaching literary devices. It is chock full of metaphors and extended metaphors; vivid descriptive passages; similes, personification as well foreshadowing and epitaphs. Black Ships Before Troy is a perfect study text to learn more about using these literary devices in creative and interesting ways.
There are a lot of fairly graphically described battle scenes alongside some equally violent images. I wouldn’t recommend reading this book to any child with a sensitive disposition, or indeed a younger child.
Achilles drove the remaining spear straight through his neck, bringing him stumbling and choking to the ground. “Dogs and Ravens shall tear your flesh unburied!” said Achilles, looking down at him in the dust.Black Ships Before Troy
That said, there are many positive themes running through the book, as well as its obvious historical significance: themes such as jealousy, pride, honour among brothers and friends. And then there are the origins of the Trojan horse and Achilles heel. Oh, and the Amazon women warriors…it honestly has something for everyone!
This condensed version of The Illiad is not a watered down cardboard copy. It is a long, substantial piece of work which more than does its job of making the original epic accessible for younger readers.
Do I recommend it?
Homer’s style is reflected throughout, it is fast paced, the characters are relatable enough that we all found ourselves yelling at them when we thought they should have done something differently and best of all it has so much learning goodness it is perfect for home-schoolers!