Monday, 19 February 2018

The Fall of Troy: Part 6

The Anger of Achilles by Jacques Louis David
THE FALL OF TROY
by Philip Womack

Part 6: Iphigenia at Aulis

If any link in the whole great chain of the Trojan War could have been broken, it should have been this one. This, in truth, was the weakest one, and there were many moments when it might have gone the other way.

The Greek fleet should have stayed on the beach. The men should have been left to grow bloodthirsty and restless.  And then what might have happened? Agamemnon would have been killed at night in his tent by a rebel soldier. His brother, Menelaus, would have had to step in to take control. Being weaker, he would have been unable to control the unruly mass of Greek princelings, and they would have formed factions. 

Menelaus indeed would have been challenged, and then would have met his death, in a duel with Ajax or Achilles, a spear through his flank. Released from their oaths, the chiefs would have fought for the high kingship, or would have dispersed back to their plains and mountains.

And Helen would have grown old in Troy, and would not remember Sparta. She would have, like her mother in law, many children, who would grow up speaking the Trojan tongue, which she would master. Her weaving would become like that of her sisters in law, only, because of its slight strangeness, would be more highly valued. She would weave of her own gods at first; and then what she saw around her; and then her children breaking horses.

Thirty years later, a boat would land, and, wading into the surf, would come a proud man, black curls wet with salt water, seeking alliance and marriage: Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who had fought for his kingdom from Aegisthus. Helen would hear the Greek sounds in his mouth, and would remember the rude halls and the beard of her husband, and would stutter a greeting to him, forgetting the words for "drink" and "rest". 

The Trojans would be more powerful than ever, and perhaps it would be their ships that sailed to Greece, and their poem that lasted for ever.

HELP SUPPORT THE ARROW OF APOLLO by PHILIP WOMACK on UNBOUND

But that is not what happened. Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, was playing ball with her attendants when the news came. Achilles was to marry her. Achilles, most handsome, most brave, of all the Greek fighters.

Her mother, Clytemnestra, who had become perhaps a little too friendly with her cousin Aegisthus, did not sense  that anything was wrong. If anything, she was pleased - with Iphigenia out of the way, she would more easily install Aegisthus in Agamemnon’s place. She would not go, of course; she would stay in Mycenae, and see to the affairs that she had already started to view as her own.

When Iphigenia arrived at Aulis, she saw the marriage tent set out, its cloths hanging heavy. She was given a drink of water by a ragged woman - the only woman she would see.

Inside the tent would be Achilles, nervously polishing his sword hilt. She wondered where the rest of the women were, why nobody was throwing flowers or nuts, why there was no singing. She wondered where her father was. The ragged woman lifted the tent flap, and shoved her in. Inside was airless and dark, and Iphigenia moistened her lips.

Some say that the Greeks almost went through with the mock ceremony. Some say that the king's daughter was led to Achilles at the altar, and that he took her hand, and that she saw in his eyes what was about to happen; and she was butchered where she stood, with Agamemnon looking on in horror. But that is not what happened.

It was done quietly, foully. She did not know what happened to her. She entered the tent, and stood alone in the dark, and a man, who did not know her, and who had been found from the barbarian north, and who would go back home and drink himself to death, knocked her on the head with a club. 

And that was enough. Her bridal wreath came loose, and lay in the dust by her long golden hair.

Agamemnon could not look at her body. The priests placed her on a pyre. It burned long, and when the smoke died away at dawn, Agamemnon felt something brush his cheek. 

Across the sea, the billows grew higher, and the white sails of the Greek fleet swelled outwards. 

NEXT WEEK: Troy.

Friday, 16 February 2018

The Necessary Angel by C K Stead: review in The Spectator

I've written a review of C K Stead's THE NECESSARY ANGEL for The Spectator in which I muse on what literary fiction might be. Read it here.

Tatler weddings piece

Here's a link to an article I wrote for Tatler on asking the father of the bride before marrying.

Monday, 12 February 2018

The Fall of Troy: Part 5

Paris and Helen escaping the Court of Menelaus (Kauffmann)
THE FALL OF TROY
by Philip Womack

PART 5: THE SUITORS OF HELEN

Part 5: The Trojan War

Menelaus woke from the feasting of the night before with a dry throat and a creeping sense of unease. He rolled over, reaching for the pitcher that lay by his bed. Once he had quenched his thirst, he sat up, scratched his belly, and listened. 

There was shouting in the corridors. Something had gone wrong. His first thought was that those Trojans had attacked his men in the night. He groped for a sword.

Somewhat blearily, he made his way along the corridors to the women’s quarters, maids and serving boys ducking out of his way as he went. None would give him a straight answer.

In Helen’s room he found some of her women; one or two were holding their hands up in despair; some were tearing at their hair; others were fruitlessly combing through chests and looking behind couches. Helen's combs were there; her fine dresses were there; the bronze bowl in which she kept her scented water was there, newly filled for her morning refreshment.
But of Helen herself there was no sign.

The rooms that the Trojans had been using were now empty. They had left nothing behind them, except a couple of maids with swelling bellies.

Menelaus snapped a spear in half, and flung the sharp part into the ground, where it stuck.

Another of the threads in this great and complex tale was woven before Helen got married to Menelaus. All the kings and princes of Greece had wanted her hand. Her father, Tyndareus, was presented with a rather tricky problem. How could he stop those who didn’t win her from tearing off each other’s heads? Ajax the Greater, in particular, was not somebody whom you would want to come up against if he bore a grudge against you. The way that he cracked open his nuts was particularly menacing.


It was Odysseus, of course, who came up with a solution. Helen would choose her husband: and all the other suitors would swear an oath. They would protect the winner from all harm.

Into the fog of Menelaus’s mind came the memory of Odysseus, dark haired, with his pointed chin and his clever eyes. Menelaus had never  liked him, but he had to admit that he was sharp. The oath had been a good idea.  And now that the worst had happened, it was time to call in the favour. Helen, his wife, had been stolen away by a miminy-piminy Trojan, a prancing, preening ex-shepherd: he could not stand for it. The heroes would have to come to his aid. And he would mount an expedition to retrieve her. He ordered the smiths to get to work.

The best horses were chosen, and messengers galloped out across all Greece. Menelaus and the rest of his court began to make their way to the palace of his brother, Agamemnon, the High King of all the Greeks.

They found Agamemnon playing dice with a smooth young chap called Aegisthus, whilst his wife, Clytemnestra, sat by the side, pouring them cool drinks. A little girl called Iphigenia clung to her mother’s skirts, watching the warriors with their flashing armour stamp into the courtyard. They paused in their drinks, and looked up, and gathered by the look on Menelaus's face that he was not here to pay a social call.
The links in the chain were forged. Agamemnon set up camp at the Port of Aulis, and went out hunting with his men, and found many fine deer, including a beautiful hind which they chased all day and caught as the sun set. Menelaus was surprised to find that those suitors who had sworn the oath were not all that keen to fulfill it. Odysseus himself pretended to be mad, until they placed his baby son in front of a plough he was pulling.  Achilles was hidden on an island filled with girls; they found him when they threw a ball at him, and he caught it by bringing his knees together. The others came, reluctantly or not, leaving their farmlands and their own wives and children, all at the behest of their High King, and an oath they'd sworn years before.

Eventually they all gathered, at the port of Aulis. There were other reasons why they wanted to attack Troy: she was rich, and had many acres of fertile plains; she had access to trades and to cattle, and there were many townspeople who could be enslaved, and whose gold could enrich the halls of the Greeks. Ajax the Greater was tickled by the idea of adding to his flocks, and went about boasting about the time he'd bested someone who'd fought someone who'd once had a drink with Hercules.

By the time the last king arrived, and they were encamped with their armies around the ships at Aulis, the men as well as the chiefs were beginning to think that this was actually a noble war, with a noble aim. 

They were all ready. The ships were drawn up, their black hulls bare on the sand. The provisions were being loaded. The men were being told tales of honour and glory, of the heroic generations before them, and the deeds that they would achieve when they got to Troy. The blare of the trumpet filled the skies. 

 There was only one problem. There was no wind. And so the great fleet of the Greeks sat in the still harbour at Aulis, and the men grew bored and began fighting among themselves, and the kings and chiefs began to think of their halls and their hunts. 

Menelaus came to Agamemnon. "What can we do? We can't march over land." 

Agamemnon was more decisive than his brother, though he was not always right. He called his chief seers together, and ordered them to inquire into the causes of the calm. If only, Agamemnon thought privately, to stop the men's petty fights, which were beginning to become troublesome. 

Soon enough, after much peering into entrails, the chief of the seers, Calchas, came to Agamemnon. "My king..."

"Get on with it," said Agamemnon.

"You killed a hind." 

"I have killed many."

"This hind, my king, was sacred to the goddess Artemis."

Agamemnon sat up straighter. He could feel a pressure on his temples.

"For the fleet to sail to Troy, you will need to propitiate her. And Artemis is not a kindly goddess. In place of the deer, she demands..." The old priest's voice faltered. "Your daughter. Iphigenia."

The wine from Agamemnon's goblet spilled over his robe, and nobody could ever get out the stain.

NEXT WEEK: Iphigenia at Aulis. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

Tatler Weddings Special

I have a piece in this month's Tatler Weddings Supplement, about whether or not a prospective groom should ask his fiancées father's permission first. Have a look at the sumptuous print edition.

The Fall of Troy: Part 4

THE FALL OF TROY: Part 4
By Philip Womack

Paris could get used to his new surroundings in the palace on the citadel of Troy. There were maids who giggled at him and fetched him whatever he liked. There was a fine set of armour, and a new bow. His brothers - so many of them - seemed like a good lot, at least, the ones who liked dancing and feasting; Hector, on the other hand, was rather a brooder, and was always glowering at him for spending too much time polishing his armour, and not enough time practising with it.

As he sat one night mulling over his wine, it occurred to Paris that Aphrodite, having offered the most beautiful woman in the world to him in the form of Helen of Sparta, had not been particularly remiss in arranging a meeting.

“You’ve been boasting about it long enough,” said one of his brothers, throwing a date at him, which Paris caught with a lazy, panther-like movement. “Why don’t you do something about it?”

So it was that Paris set out from Troy, a few days later, on one of their great ships. Ahead of him was a faster boat, which would bring news to those savage, pale-skinned Greeks, that a great Prince of Troy was coming to visit them on diplomatic relations, to discuss trade routes, and some minor skirmishes between warring factions of cattle raiders in the islands. He had supervised the loading of the ship himself: beautiful, highly-bred horses broken by his brothers; silks from the furthest  East; golden tripods; carved cups; jewelled swords; ox-hide shields; and a glittering diadem. That he kept in a box in his cabin.

Having never before been on a boat, Paris spent most of the journey below decks, clutching his stomach and behaving in a rather un-princely fashion. So it was much to his relief that eventually they reached the shores of Greece. They had to make a long journey overland, and as they processed the villagers and farmers lined the roads and watched them. These found the Trojans  amusing - particularly as Paris travelled on horseback, with two men on either side of him carrying a tent to protect him from the sun.

Eventually, Paris’s chief scout came galloping back, breathless with news. “We are here, my prince. The palace of the Spartans is around the next bend of the road.” Paris took a last swig of his favourite wine, and then, as they rounded the curve, almost spluttered with laughter.

There were some small, shabby buildings, and a big stone house. “That is the palace of the King of the Spartans?” he scoffed.

“It is, prince,” said the scout.

And Paris, felt that he would easily be able to persuade Helen to come with him, away from this shabby, grotty place, where pigs troughed outside the palace gates, and chickens scuttled in and out of doors.

A man came out. He was squat, and ugly, and wearing a kind of tunic, and no adornments whatsoever. Paris assumed he was a slave, and stared down at him loftily.

The man glared back at Paris in an impudent way. “I, King Menelaus of Sparta, welcome, you Prince Paris to my palace. Please, come in and eat.” The ways of guest friendship were important, and so the Trojans were led in, settled, and fed, before any questions were asked.

Paris could hardly contain his disdain. This was King Menelaus - a poor chieftain, scrabbling around with some ill-kempt soldiers? Why, the man even poured his own drinks! As one of Paris’s slaves filled up his horn, a group of women, veiled and quiet, entered the room, and one of them took her place by the side of Menelaus. The boor did not even turn to look at her.

We have been thinking about causes, and about consequences. And there is another cause of the Trojan War, which took the form of an egg. Zeus, the father of all, had fallen in love with the mortal Leda, and had come to her in the shape of a swan. Leda later, in what we can only imagine must have been quite a surprising fashion, gave birth to two eggs. Out of one came the demi-gods, Castor and Pollux; and out of the other hatched two mortal sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra.

Helen had not wanted to marry Menelaus; she was won, in a contest, and he treated her as if she were another of his many prizes. It was true that she did not like this palace, and she did not like the Spartan men; and as she wove, endlessly, in the shady halls, she found that she sought for new things to show in her weaving, and her eyes were beginning to grow dull. 


But when she took her veil off, and Paris caught her eye, she did not see a means of escape. She saw a foppish, luxurious youth with oiled hair, whose scent thickened the air, and who also seemed to have coloured his eyes like a woman. To Helen, Paris was a sign: that there was another world, another way. He seemed to bring new life into that dull hall, and when the Trojan women that he’d brought began their dances, she clapped her hands, and her eyes lit up as they had not done for many months.

Paris stayed a week; and then another. He told her the names of the stars in his language. He showed her how to make the oils that made his hair shine. He wore his finest armour for her. He shot birds out of the sky with his arrows. Menelaus, who was generally busy, did not notice that his wife was beginning to change, and that sometimes she smiled.

Many historians and mythographers blame Helen for the Trojan War. Some say she was seduced; some say she was taken by force. We cannot, of course, ever know. We do know that one night Paris went to his chest, brought out the diadem, which had been made for a queen of Troy, knelt to Helen, and gave it to her. We know that he trained a monkey to bring her nuts. We know that on the night that they left she had sipped from the craters of wine, and so had he. We know that they slipped away in the shadows, with only a couple of Helen's maids, and if Helen, once they had got onto the ship, and were sailing away from Troy into a future filled with bronze and iron, noticed that Paris was a little bit spoilt, and complained when things were not to his liking, and did not seem all that keen on being brave, we do not know if her mind began to change, and if she started to long once more for her boorish but solid husband.

We do know, of course, that she saw a story, and the shape of it; and that when she sat down to weave again, it was her own figure that began. And from Olympus, Aphrodite, who had been enjoying a new kind of lotion, remembered Helen, looked down to earth, and sent a dove to sit on her shoulder.

NEXT WEEK: WAR BEGINS

Monday, 29 January 2018

THE ARROW OF APOLLO hits 50 %

Jubilations today, as the funding for my latest project, THE ARROW OF APOLLO, reaches 50 %.

You can read more about it here, on the Unbound website. It's a classically based children's novel, set when the heroes of the Trojan war have settled, and their children must face new dangers.