The Hour Before Dawn

Barry Unsworth
Barry Unsworth; drawing by David Levine


We are in the pause before war, days of deceptive calm. The Greek ships, en route for Troy, are trapped in the harbor at Aulis by an unseasonable, inexplicable wind. Calchas is a diviner, at present in favor with King Agamemnon, the Greek commander in chief. As the futile hours pass, he seeks a chance to exercise his skill. For six days the wind combs the shrubs; pebbles rattle along the shore. The whole army waits for an omen, for some indication of why their enterprise is arrested. The English novelist Barry Unsworth directs his reader’s attention to liminal states, the hour just before sunrise, “a time disputed between Hecate and Helius”; times of fading light, when sticks are gathered for a divinatory fire, and a lamp burns in the mouth of a cave. We hear the distant howling of wolves, the snapping of the canvas of the tents; the army itself is a murmur on the wind, its discontents carrying, like the odors of the ill-sited latrines, to where the King reclines in his cushioned tent.

The army needs distractions, sideshows. Trivial disputes are blowing up into tribal quarrels, fought out by champions. Ajax the Larger and Ajax the Lesser are organizing games; too mean to give money prizes, they decide the victors will be crowned with leaves, a novel idea that attracts some derision. The men are betting on the outcome of the games, gambling on their future as looters. They have no currency but the promised spoils of Troy. They are not a reluctant army but have no solidarity. Each man is driven by individual greed. Agamemnon’s power is fragile. He is chief by temporary agreement, and if he is in charge he has to take the blame for what goes wrong—even if he can’t help it. A contrary wind can’t be simple coincidence; the Greeks don’t think like that. The fleet is trapped because someone has offended the gods. That “someone” must be at the top; if the expedition is blighted, it must be because of what Agamemnon has done, knowingly or otherwise. The gods are not interested in intention; they punish a person’s deeds or derelictions regardless of the motivation behind them.

The ostensible reason for war is Helen’s abduction by the Trojan Paris; but no one except her husband, Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, believes she was taken away by force. Unsworth follows Euripides’ version; this is a story about war, not blighted love. In the Greek camp there is a blind Singer, who must rehearse every day the original offense, keep it fresh in the minds of the soldiers. For Chasimenos, the bureaucrat, there is a crude, plain agenda:

The conquest of Troy will give Mycenae, as the most powerful member of the alliance, rule over the shores of western Asia…. It will secure for us the trade in amber from the Baltic, in copper…

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