Black Ships Before Troy


Black Ships Before Troy

Rosemary Sutcliff, text

Alan Lee, illustrations

Frances Lincoln Limited: 1993

125 pages, 19 chapters

Age: 8+ (read to) ; 10+ (independent reading)

Interests: Greek history and mythology, war, romance, ethical dilemmas

Next: Sutcliffe’s The Wanderings of Odysseus, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

Also by this author: many historical fiction novels for young people, including The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles (3 books about the Romans in Britain, including Carnegie winner The Lantern Bearers), Warrior Scarlet (about life in the Bronze Age), Tristan and Iseult, The Shining Company (medieval Britain)

A long but vividly gripping retelling of the story of the Trojan Wars – from the golden apple to the wooden horse, with all the bloodshed and drama in between. A long book, this is best told over several readings, and is not for the faint of heart, as the battles are recounted in blow-by-blow detail. There is a lot of blood and gore, and dead bodies dragged after chariots. Scenes of bravery and glory are tempered by descriptions of the destruction and senseless waste of war. Sutcliff is also fair to both sides, relating deeds of honour and dishonour by both Trojans and Greeks. (Homer’s Iliad is definitely preferential to the latter.)

This is a tale of evil deeds, foolish decisions, cowardly actions, stubborn pride, betrayal, hatred and ill-fated romance. In short, tailor-made for pre-teen and teenage readers! I particularly liked that the characters were complex – acting honourably in one moment but shamefully the next. For example Achilles spends much of the war sulking on a beach out of harm’s way, until his best friend is killed, at which point he plays the heroic role… until he goes too far and desecrates the body of an enemy. And yet, he still finds the wisdom and empathy to make up for his actions, treating the opposing king with dignity and honour.

Throughout the story issues of honour and morality arise again and again. Should Helen leave her older husband for young, handsome Paris? Should Achilles swallow his pride and join the battle? Should Odysseus pass on the enemy’s battle plans or keep his promise to Helen? Should the nymph Oenone save the life of the man who cruelly abandoned her? Should Priam return Helen to her husband and end the conflict? Should the Greeks have spent so many years and lives fighting for the sake of one woman?

And throughout this sprawling epic about the pride and foolishness of men, the gods are no wiser – it was the vanity of the goddesses that began all the trouble. The gods choose sides like playground bullies, constantly interfering and lashing out petulantly at anyone who displeases them.

Alan Lee’s gorgeous illustrations give a human face to all the characters in the drama, and Sutcliff’s writing makes their passions come alive. This is a fantastic book to introduce young readers to the story of The Iliad and to the ancient world in general.

And if this book leaves your child wanting more, Sutcliff’s final book The Wanderings of Odysseus (both it and Black Ships were published posthumously) continues the story with that hero’s attempts to get back home after the war.

(This title available at


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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