The Iliad (The Classics) by Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Lee (illustrator)

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The Iliad (The Classics) by Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Lee (illustrator)

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A great book retold, but in a way that rather disguises its greatness.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 134 Date: August 2014
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children's Books
ISBN: 9781847805287

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How do you retell the Iliad for the modern young reader? Do you, for example, have Helen of Troy but only imply, not state, that hers was the face that launched a thousand ships? Should you, as Rosemary Sutcliff does here, ignore all the important background detail and just let the story tell itself? How do you convey to the masses the mythical talent of a story that has lasted millennia, yet when it all comes down to it is just a lot of detail of people fighting, and fighting, and fighting?

It's easy to be reading this book and realise you've never actually read the Iliad before now. Such was the case with me – I knew why the fighting more or less started and I knew how it ended, but with my evident lack of a classical education (what do you mean, I certainly look old enough to have had one?!) I clearly had remained ignorant of all the detail. And the detail is certainly in this book, even if it is still heavy on the artwork and not tremendously long in the reading. I knew nothing of the two women whose fate keeps Achilles away from the battle; I knew the word Palladium but had no insight to its relevance here. In short, I guess I had been taught about the story rather than been allowed to read it. Sutcliff certainly does the latter with no sense of the former – nowhere is she teaching her readers, or talking down to them.

Which might be a problem. Starting the story as she does with bickering gods suggests a great mythological masterpiece is about to unfold, but the reality is, as I said, just fighting and fighting. I think the text really does need an introduction to discuss how the script was brought to us over the centuries, and how it is held – either as a historical document or as a piece of fable or plain entertaining fiction. As it is, here, it drives along with some sense of purpose and covers the fates of many people in including many diverse ways of being killed in battle, but it isn't entertaining as such. I don't think it would have taken too much to have annotated the text; the astute young reader will be wondering the significance of everyone being honoured with purple and violet cloth and not any other colour, for one.

The text as it is was once published as Black Ships Before Troy, suggesting Sutcliff wasn't at the time (1993) thinking this a straight retelling. So I don't know exactly what she's done to Homer's original, but I do know I didn't really find too much favour with it. And the fault, as I say, I am laying mostly at Homer's feet; the reportage is just too detailed, the story a plain despatch from the front, and I think more could be done with it. One thing it is is honest and bloody – the creators do go some way to disguise the fact but many chapters are just bloodshed upon bloodshed. Even the illustrator with his superb artwork – watercolour friezes and many, many painted gems – just caves at one point and puts a river crimson with blood on the page. Again – the ignominy of those dying with their eyes open in his images might have warranted a footnote.

So to my box to the side – is this a great book without greatness? Well, yes. It's a text with the dust and blood of ages on it, therefore great, but like the worthy classics isn't that great a pleasure. I'm certainly grateful that I've read this version, and I do think the way this book has been presented for the young reader (with a stomach for the violence and a head for all the names) is sterling. But in my humble opinion, many much greater stories have lived a much shorter time yet will stay with me far longer.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

You might also enjoy Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff. For a rather different approach to the bloodshed and gore, turn to Deadly Days in History (Horrible Histories) by Terry Deary and Martin Brown.

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