Rosemary Sutcliff

Black Ships Before Troy

  • 41-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 19 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree from Columbia
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Black Ships Before Troy Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 41-page guide for “Black Ships Before Troy” by Rosemary Sutcliff includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 19 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Roles of Mortal Women and Female Goddesses and The Importance of Honor.

Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad is a children’s novel written by Rosemary Sutcliff and illustrated by Alan Lee. The novel was published posthumously in 1993 and retells Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, for elementary school readers. Sutcliff has received great acclaim for her ability to make dense material accessible to younger audiences; Black Ships Before Troy follows her widely praised retellings of Arthurian legends. Sutcliff received an OBE in 1975 for her service to children’s literature while Lee received a 1993 Kate Greenaway Medal for the novel in question.

Plot Summary 

A fight between the gods serves as a catalyst for the Trojan War. Eris, the goddess of discord, isn’t invited to a wedding between King Peleus and Thetis, a sea nymph. In an act of revenge, Eris leaves behind a golden apple, saying that it should belong to the fairest goddess. Three goddesses try to claim the apple because they all believe that they’re the fairest: Hera, the queen of the gods; Athene, the goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. The goddesses decide that the handsome and selfish Trojan prince Paris will determine which of them is the fairest.

Each goddess promises him special favors for choosing her. Aphrodite promises Paris a wife as beautiful as herself if he grants her the apple. Soon, Paris learns about Princess Helen, the most beautiful woman in Greece, and perhaps the whole world. Helen is married to King Menelaus of Sparta, but Paris is determined to have her for himself.

When Paris arrives in Sparta, King Menelaus welcomes him graciously. While Menelaus is hunting, Paris pledges his love to Helen, promising her a better life. Helen leaves with Paris, abandoning her husband and infant child. When Menelaus discovers this, he calls upon his brother Agamemnon, the High King of Greece, for aid. All of Greece declares war on Troy, sailing to sack the city.

Achilles, the son of the nymph Thetis, has been in hiding much of his life. At birth, his mother bathed him in the Styx, a river of the Underworld, to protect him from death in battle. Since then, Thetis has kept him safe and concealed so that he might live a long life instead of dying a glorious warrior. Now, she hides Achilles and his companion Patroclus on an island. However, cunning Odysseus soon tricks Achilles into revealing his identity. Achilles and Patroclus thus join the war.

The Trojan War rages for ten long years. The Trojans stay behind their high walls, which the Greeks are unable to scale or push past. The Greeks lay waste to smaller cities that are easier targets. When Agamemnon takes as a slave Chryseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, her father asks for her back. When the High King refuses, Apollo rains down misfortune on their camp until the king returns Chryseis. However, to save face, Agamemnon takes for himself Briseis, a young woman taken as a slave by Achilles. Upset to lose his prize of war and furious at Agamemnon’s disrespect, Achilles refuses to fight for Agamemnon any longer. He asks his mother to pray to Zeus to let the Trojans start winning battles so that Agamemnon grovels for Achilles to rejoin the war.

When Achilles leaves the battlefield, the Trojans attack the Greeks. Paris and Menelaus agree to fight to the death for Helen. Paris is a coward, but Aphrodite magically returns him to Troy for safety. Helen, however, is utterly ashamed of her own actions and of Paris’s cowardice. She wants to return to Menelaus, but Aphrodite threatens her until Helen agrees to stay.

Many battles follow, and the gods intervene on both sides. Achilles continues to refuse to return to fight for Agamemnon despite the older king’s promises of riches, Briseis, and his daughter’s hand in marriage. Eager to help the Greeks, Patroclus dons Achilles’s armor and leads the Myrmidons into battle, hoping that the Trojans will mistake him for Achilles and retreat in fear. Thinking that Patroclus is Achilles, the Trojan prince Hector kills him.

Mad with grief over Patroclus’s death, Achilles rejoins the war. He kills many Trojans and then Hector himself. Achilles desecrates Hector’s body and is unwilling to return it for a proper burial. Only when Thetis speaks to him does Achilles realize the extent of what he has done. Achilles returns Hector’s body and there is a temporary truce between the two armies.

With the help of Helen, Odysseus tries to weaken the morale of the Trojans by stealing the Palladium, or the Luck of Troy. Meanwhile, strong women warriors known as the Amazons help Troy. The Amazons fight fiercely and bravely led by Queen Penthesilea, but Achilles kills them. Achilles cries over their bodies and sends them back to Troy for honorable burial. Achilles slays many more, but eventually, Paris shoots an arrow and hits Achilles’s ankle, the only place where he is vulnerable. Achilles dies. Paris is shot with a poisoned arrow and dies.

Odysseus has an idea for how to get past the walls of Troy. The Greeks construct a huge wooden horse as a war token in exchange for the Palladium, and pretend to sail home. The seer Laocoon warns the Trojans not to pull the horse into the city, but after two sea serpents kill him, the Trojans wheel the horse inside, little realizing that inside the wooden horse Greek soldiers are hiding. That night, under the cover of darkness, the Greeks come out of the horse and open the gates of Troy to let the rest of the army inside the city. The Greeks sack Troy; kill King Priam, his sons, and his grandsons; and enslave the city’s women. The war is finally over, but so much has been lost in the ten years of battle.

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